Monday, December 17, 2012

COFFEE in Camalote

Because my car is finally fixed I set out for the village of Camalote on Sunday, to bring the Eucharist for their Celebration of the Word.

This is something I am always glad to do. But this time there was an added bonus.

Over lunch the two pastoral workers began talking about coffee. It is the coffee harvest season, after all. We talked a little about the effects of roya, a disease that is affecting some varieties of coffee, the varieties which most of the small poor farmers plant.  Two varieties (noventa and lempira) seem to be resistant, but they give a smaller yield than the other varieties.

That probably means that these farmers and the hundreds of coffee pickers will not get as much money as previous years and we can expect some serious social consequences – probably down the line in May and June.

But we talked more about the coffee process and the prices they get.

A medium sized coffee de-pulping machine

Ripe coffee is a berry – with the seed inside a pulpy mass. After it is picked the pulp has to be removed. Many people have a small machine to do this. The coffee bean then has to be washed and dried. This is called coffee in “pergamino.”

Coffee (yellow) with the pulp (red) removed - in pergamino

After this it needs to be dried thoroughly so that the husk (the parchment-like covering) can be removed. Then you have the coffee bean in “oro” – gold.

Those who pick the coffee generally get 30 lempiras ($1.50) for a five-gallon container of the coffee berries. This container is called either una lata or un galón (even though it’s actually five gallons).

But what are the prices for the small farmers who sell their crop to intermediaries, sometimes called coyotes in Spanish.

I was told that a cargo – 200 pounds of coffee beans– will get 3,500 lempiras (about $175) – that’s about 88 cents per pound of coffee. Not too bad. But that’s not what most small farmers get.

If the beans are still wet, the intermediary will calculate the 100 pounds brought in by the farmer as 48 pounds. If the beans are dry, 100 pounds are counted as 55 pounds. If the beans are dried and have the husk removed, 100 pounds are counted as 88 pounds.

So it would be profitable to have dried beans and even better to have dried coffee beans with the husk removed.
The men figured that selling wet coffee to the intermediaries (taking the full price as17.5 lempiras a pound) would give them 8.4 lempiras a pound, whereas selling the coffee dried and with the husk removed would bring 15.4 lempiras. That would mean, for a 200 pound bag of beans, a difference of 1400 lempiras ($70).

But to be able to sell dried and husked beans means having a place to dry them. In the sun, it can take more than five days. And each afternoon you have to take them in, and if it’s raining you have to get them in as soon as possible.

In addition a 10 meter by 3 meter concrete drying area could cost 50,000 lempiras - $2,500.

A traditional cement area for drying coffee

And so people are dependent on the intermediaries who buy the beans and then dry and husk them and finally sell them.

A commercial drier – my friends suggested – was about 1.5 million lempiras. (Salvador knew about this since a coffee cooperative in Dolores is trying to find a way to buy a drier.) The coop was not functioning for a few years because their de-pulping machine was broken, but they restarted their work about two or three years ago.

Then they told me about solar driers.

A man in the community has one and we stopped to see José Antonio Pérez. His solar drier is 10 meters by three meters, though the inner meter is a passageway.

Inside there are trays with mesh so that the beans can dry all the way through.

Inside Antonio's solar coffee drier

There is also a second layer of trays – which on sunny days can be pulled out to take advantage of the sun.

Maynor (Antonio's son) demonstrates the pull-out tray to use when it's sunny.

Antonio made his drier with the help of a US AID field staffer – to the tune of 10,000 lempiras (about $500).

With this drier, it takes about 4 days to dry the beans. Last year he dried about 75 quintales – 7,500 pounds.

This year Antonio will only prepare the best coffee for selling directly to Bon Café, a Honduran coffee exporter. To do this well he will pay his pickers 35 lempiras a lata, but they have to pick only the mature berries.

Antonio and his sons and sons-in law have about 7 manzanas of coffee, though 1.5 this year were seriously affected by roya. He suggested that a manzana might yield 20 quintales (2000 pounds) of well-dried coffee, though with better production methods one might be able to get yields of 30 or 40 quintales.

I asked about the altitude of the fields, a serious question for coffee production. His are between 1,050 and 1,100 kilometers above sea level. He also told me that they prune the coffee plants so that they are not much higher than 2 meters, which will make it easier to harvest.

Antonio also showed me a biodigestor that he made, with the help of a Honduran agency to provide gas for his family. It cost between 800 to 1200 lempiras ($400 -$600).

The biodigester (under the plastic)

Some friends of mine, Iowa State grads, have a great project in Nicaragua, with biodigesters and other technologies for the poor. Check out their website here. I think they can make it available at a cheaper rate.

The biodigester (with a vine on top)
Antonio's  is the only solar drier in this part of the parish, though he knows of one not too far away (as the crow flies). I have heard that there is at least one other person I know who has a biodigester.

José Antonio with his sons, Maynor and Denys, by their solar coffee drier

I find this very interesting and it’s stirring me to think more about how we can find a way to get small coffee farmers a better price for their crops.

Fair trade is a long and hard process, but there are some examples of direct trade coffee, where groups in the US help farmers by buying their coffee to be sold in the US. I know of three examples of this and it seems to work.

This may be one project I’ll have to do some more research on, with the hope of helping people here start something so that they get just prices and their families can have a better life.

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