Tuesday, December 13, 2016

COFFEE - a tale with photos

We’re in the middle of the coffee harvest and so the parish of Dulce Nombre de María has cut back on workshops. The coffee harvest – from November to February – is one of the few times during the year when people in the countryside can earn cash.

Harvesting on the parish coffee field (finca)

The parish has two manzanas of coffee land (about 3.4 acres) and parishioners come and work on the land. This week three groups of parishioners have been harvesting the coffee.

Coffee harvesting is hard work. Bending over or reaching up can be very hard on the back and the knees. But there are people who are really adept at harvesting.

Five of the blue galón (5 gallons) fit into one sack.
Coffee harvesters are paid by galón (which is the size of a five-gallon plastic bucket). Though many just harvest two or three galones, there are some who can harvest up between five and ten. Currently the general price being paid is 35 lempiras per galón – that’s about $1.50. So most people are getting from three to seven dollars for a day of work.

Coffee beans mature in three to five different times during the harvest season and so harvesters go through the fields at least four times. The first time and the last time do not produce the best coffee.

Most coffee plants will produce for about fifteen years if well cared for. But coffee is a bush that does not give its first harvest until three years after it is planted. This has affected many small farmers here, since several years ago a fungus affected one variety of coffee and the bushes had to be uprooted. That meant three years without a harvest.

Here in Honduras there are a good number of small farmers who have plots of between a half a manzana to ten manzanas. (A manzana is 1.72 acres.) There are a small number of owners of large coffee haciendas and these employ large numbers of people to pick their coffee. It is not uncommon to see large cattle trucks packed with more than 60 people!

A burnt field, to be planted later in coffee.
Also, one landowner, from another part of the country, burned large expanses of land and chopped down trees to plant 300,000 or so coffee plants. (That's pure greed in my book.) Other large landowners have also devastated the countryside by their deforestation and burning. 

The best coffee is planted at a fairly high altitude and is carefully harvested and processed. But, because of the desire for a cash crop, many do not have the opportunity to buy good land. In addition, many people do not have the money to be able to process their own coffee harvest. They end up selling their coffee to middle men (commonly called coyotes) who in turn dry the coffee and sell it to a beneficio which processes the coffee and then sells it either locally or on the international market.

Fertilizing coffee plants.
Coffee, though, demands attention the year round and therefore there are times when the fields have to be fertilized and the land clear of underbrush. In addition, the bushes often need to be pruned. This is labor-intensive work, but not as many people are employed in this in contrast to the thousands who work on the coffee harvest. 

But the coffee plant is really beautiful - both when it flowers and when it gives forth its red fruit.

About May each year, the coffee plants begin to flower. The fields are beautiful with the delightful small flowers. But what is really a joy at that time of the year is the smell. The flowers give off a slightly sweet smell. The closest thing I can compare it to the smell of honeysuckle.

Coffee plant in flower on the parish finca.
After this the berries begin to develop.

When the first coffee berries are mature, the harvest begins.

The harvesters go out and harvest the mature berries in the melga (row) where they are working. They sometimes also harvest the yellow berries which might be overripe at the next harvest. There are some who pay no attention to quality and just pull all the berries off the branch - choyando, as they say. This does not result in good coffee.

But good quality coffee demands that only the mature berries are picked. The local association of small coffee farmers in El Zapote Santa Rosa which is exporting coffee to the US through St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames pays people to do this careful harvesting at about 45 lempiras ($2.00) a galón. So buying that coffee not only helps the farmers but also those who do the harvest.
row by row – preferably harvesting only the mature berries in the rows.

After the coffee is harvested, it is taken to be de-pulped. Many persona has small depulping machines near their homes. After the coffee is depulped it has to be washed. (There are some other processes that I’m still trying to learn about.)

Coffee berries in the tank to be de-pulped.
De-pulped coffee beans.
After it is washed, to take off the skin and the fruit, it is dried – often in the sun. Some producers sell the coffee wet – and so get a lower price. But others take the time to dry the coffee.

The coffee association has been able to get solar driers which is important for them sine they live at a high altitude which has much more rain and fog than other areas; this makes drying on the ground much more difficult.

When the coffee is dried – about 12% humidity is best – it need to have a thin skin removed. Most often this is done by large Beneficios which have the equipment to do this. When the skin is removed and defective beans separated out, the coffee is ready to export. AT this point the coffee is what we call here “café de oro” or “green coffee” as people say in the US.

The last two years the association of coffee farmers has worked with Beneficio Santa Rosa which has been very helpful and has been committed to processing and exporting good quality coffee from even small farmers.

Last year we were able to work with Aldea Development which works with farmers in La Unión, Lempira, to export coffee to Michigan. They have been very helpful in the shipment and importation details.

When the coffee gets to the US, those who have the coffee have to decide on how to market and sell. Some coffee is sold green, especially for coffee shops and specialty buyers. But most is roasted.

Roasting is an art and the roaster needs to determine how to roast it. One coffee export here complained about one major coffee seller in the US who, he opined, burns the coffee. The quality of the coffee you drink depends not only on the quality of the coffee, the details of the harvesting processing of the coffee, as well as the care for the coffee plants and lands. It depends on the right roast.

So, the cup of coffee you drink passes through many hands. What is important for me is good coffee and assuring that the small farmers and the harvesters get a good price for all their work. One of the ways we are working on here is what is called “direct trade” coffee where the coffee drinker is linked more directly to the coffee producer. Fair trade is fine, but I believe that small farmer to coffee cup arrangements can be even better, cutting costs for the buyer and giving decent prices.

EL Zapote coffee sold at St. Thomas Aquinas, Ames

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