Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Coffee - beginnings

I didn’t begin to drink coffee until high school. But now it is a part of my daily life – usually two big cups in the morning.

But I never realized what coffee production entails until I got here to Honduras. Nor did I realize all the work that goes into a cup of coffee.

I won’t bore you with all the details but here are a few reflections, related to what I’m seeing and doing at this point.

The parish's coffee field in Plan Grande
Coffee is a bush that will produce the coffee berries two or three years after it is planted. Some plants, if well cared for, can yield decent coffee for 10 to 15 years.

Coffee flowers in several phases, usually in May here in Honduras. The fields are white with the flower and I love the smell which reminds me of honeysuckle.

Flowering coffee bushes
The coffee matures from November to March, depending on the weather and the altitude. The coffee is harvested by hand, several times during the season, since not all the berries mature at the same time.

It’s hard work and for many it’s one of the few sources of cash income. Currently the rate for a gallon of berries is 35 lempiras (about $1.70), though it was 40 lempiras last week. Many people can harvest 3 gallons a day.

After the coffee is harvested, the coffee needs to be de-pulped: the berry is taken off the coffee bean. Then it needs to be washed and later dried. After it is dried well, the thin parchment-like covering needs to be removed. Then it is green coffee – or, as they say here, café en oro – gold coffee. This is the coffee bean that is sold and toasted.

Many of the small producers don’t have the capacity to prepare the coffee and so sell the coffee to intermediaries. They don’t get a good price.

Recently a fungus, roya, affected one variety of coffee, the variety that had the best yield and some say the best flavor. It was also the variety that most of the poor planted.

Some farmers have tried to control the roya but that’s expensive. Many just cut down the bushes and planted a new variety. That means they won’t have a good crop for about two or three years.

A small coffee coop is forming in El Zapote de Santa Rosa. Of its 15 members, many were affected by the roya and five won’t have a coffee crop this year. But they still belong to the coop and will be participating in its projects.

The project germinated in a number of minds, including an ISU graduate who visited last January with Father Jon Seda, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ames, the sister parish of Dulce Nombre de María parish here.

Tyler’s idea was to buy quality coffee from small farmers and sell it at a good price in the US. We talked one evening , partly because the parish’s orientation is toward promoting community and solidarity. Just seeking export quality coffee from individuals plays into an individualistic mindset.

I also emphasized the need to invest in the small producers so that they can learn and use best practices to improve their coffee.

One young producer, José, took this to heart and soon had 14 others in El Zapote, anxious to begin a coop. Three samples were sent to Tyler who had contacted a coffee toaster and distributor in Kansas City, EleosCoffee. The toaster liked the three samples.

So the coop continued to meet and took the name Café Hacia El Futuro – Coffee toward the future.

They even arranged a fund-raising event - una carrera de cintas. It's a competition in which horse riders try to get one of the locks with a small stick.

La carrera de cintas
They got the Honduran Coffee Institute – INHCAFE – to get them a solar dryer. They had to get the wood and set up the dryer which they did in time for this year's harvest.

A training session sponsored by INHCAFE was planned, then cancelled and rescheduled twice. The coop still awaits the promised training.

But some of them did get a short course. I took a group of four members to see the work of  La Unión Microfinanza, now called Aldea Coffee. There they witnessed the practices of this very successful project for the exportation of high quality coffee.  Though the organization is different, the members learned a few tips about what needs to be done to prepare high quality export coffee.

Within a week or two I hope to get samples from ten of the members to be processed and sent to Eleos Coffee to be evaluated. If the quality is good, I hope that the coop can send a good shipment of coffee – not just for Eleos Coffee, but also for St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

This is a small effort – which I hope works out.

What is amazing is that I thought that the project would begin this year only in terms of coop formation and training. The chance to export was not foreseen. The members know that any exportation this year depends on the quality. But, if the coffee is not up to quality, the idea is to work with them to improve the quality – doing soil analysis, learning best practices, learning about organic fertilizers and sprays, and more.

I hope and pray that they will be able to export something this year. It will be a real boost to their efforts to organize and produce good coffee.

Also, there is at least one other group of small coffee producers in the parish that is interested in something like this. We will invite them to any training sessions but we won't be trying to export their coffee until we see how the situation of the El Zapote coop goes.

Inside the solar dryer - the beans are raked once every 20 minutes!
Coffee sample drying

1 comment:

Paul said...

Thank you for taking the trouble to post this. I thought it was interesting. Indeed, I am enjoying all your posts, which I have started reading about six months ago. Good luck with the coffee coop. We could used some of that coffee here in Seattle.