Better Relationships, Better Coffee: A Bigger Vision
I once listened to a podcast that talked about how it can be hard to advocate for the poor without being bitter towards the rich. Likewise, you can sometimes find yourself rooting for small businesses while unintentionally declaring that larger businesses are somehow “evil" in some way. I find myself unintentionally coming across as anti-this while being pro-that sometimes.
When we started Yepocapa Coffee, we realized there were just so much to advocate for on behalf of smallholder farmers. They’re often given the least amount of opportunities for sustainable growth, education dispersion is a bit more challenging, and lets face it, without access to a market that could incentivize quality to change the way coffee is farmed, the situation was a spiraling plane about to crash. Since coffees are often joined together, farmers as a whole lost their sense of having value or meaning behind doing a great job.
Thankfully we’ve been able to build relationships where we understand that farmers can’t invest into their plant health without some form of a promise, commitment, or relationship. Thankfully, with this type of relationship, the farmers have been so willing to change. We’ve seen 79’s turn into 85’s, fermentation tanks tiled and controlled with more intentionality, and there’s a motivation now to continuously improve to see fruition result from real relationships between real people. Farmers begin to see the value of their work which inspires hope and forward growth towards better coffee production.
We love this story! We love seeing smallholder farmers’s work be honored and recognized in a way that propels it forward into better tasting coffees for roasters and consumers. We love the transparent nature in which roasters can then buy tasty coffees that reinvests back into the financial profitability of smallholder farmers that benefit their families and surrounding communities which encourages the way in which coffee is farmed to continue this relationship. We absolutely love this and our inner "smallholder farmer cheerleader" comes out in us!
But then what about farms? Does Yepocapa Coffee’s desire to advocate and represent for smallholder farmers in some way mean we’re anti-farms? (I hope not…) But what do we think when we hear of single-ownership plantation style farms? Obviously when I use those words it can seem as if I’m staging it for a smack down. (I promise, I’m not!)
-This year we’ve had the opportunity to meet with farmers who either own or manage farms in a way that aligns with our spirit of doing business and honoring people. We're excited to share with you coffees that come from both angles and share with you a little bit behind how we got there.
How we got there…?
Due to the naturally occurring bi-annual lower harvest year and the volcano eruption that occurred in early June of 2018, the production for La Cooperativa San Pedrana was a little bit lower this year and we found ourselves with 2.4 containers worth of Specialty Grade coffee when we were hoping to fill 3 containers.
Don Mainor, an Anacafe agronomist in Zone 3 of Guatemala, offered up a suggestion. Don Mainor had been working with 3 farmers in the Quisache and Acatenango area over the last 3 years. The objective of his work was to help these farmers renovate their lands in a way that would increase production, be more resistant to leaf rust, and consider cup quality at the same time. His suggestions that he gave covered topics like plant maintenance, dispersion of plants, and adding inputs at the right times of the year considering rainfall. After working with Don Mainor for these last 3 years, the one thing these farmers didn’t have was market access. It’d be like investing a lot of money into a home to later find out it’s still worth the same value. This often encourages farmers not to invest in their plots of land or renovate them in this way.
Don Mainor asked if we’d be interested in buying into these coffees because it would encourage these good farming practices, offer a stellar coffee, and honor/validate the work of these farmers. He realized that helping these farmers obtain market access through Yepocapa Coffee could start something really beautiful. So we were like, “Sure! Let’s go meet with these farmers and see what we can do!"
Don Mingo Manager Lote Quisaché
Quisaché has always been a community I’ve wanted to know more about. It’s literally about 5 minutes north of Yepocapa and most people there consider themselves Yepocapan even though technically they’re in the jurisdiction of Chimaltenango. Quisaché is a smaller village that shows it’s native Katchiquel roots a bit more. It’s calm, quiet, peaceful, and yet joyful. They have traditionally higher elevation single varietal Caturra or Catuai crop and most of what is picked is sold to coyotes since there’s not many wet mills nearby. We’ve always been interested in starting conversations with the farmers here about maybe entering in their coffees with La Cooperativa San Pedrana but we hadn’t gotten to that point yet till this year.
Don Mingo has been the farm manager for this area for over 30 years. It was really neat to talk with him about maturation. He knew that how he picked his coffees would potentially make or break his chances at having his lot enter our container and he was really excited to have us come and show him what level of maturation we were looking for. So he asked us to come visit him pre-harvest to show us his plans for ensuring peak maturation selection. Andrew Gough and Beau Harris from Reverie Coffee Roasters was with us on this visit and we even brought a refractometer to show the correlation between maturation and sugar content. It was a fun time.
The conversations that took place there and during our other visits with him throughout the harvest really got me thinking. There seems to be this massive correlation between leaf rust and price. Most of the plants that get plagued with leaf rust is due to poor plant health, age of the plants, and/or maintenance. It’d seem like an easy fix right? Just put in more fertilizers, composts, and inputs and call it good… right? All of this requires more work and physical products which means more expenses. So when farmers know they won’t be recompensed for the extra work it would take to fight off the leaf rust and renovate their plots, they make a logical decision by deciding it’s not worth it. Sadly, this situation leads to low production, low quality, and the eventual death and abandonment of coffee lands which sadly is all too prevalent.
Thankfully there’s a turn around point hidden away in better relationships. When prices and quality are connected, it encourages farmers to give their plants the attention it needs providing a denser and more developed bean. These plants will have the vigor to fight off diseases, provide a better production, and produce a quality tasting crop. When Don Mingo see’s the prices after investing into his land in this way, it encourages this relationship that’s good for him, his plants, the earth, and tasty goodness for you.
We’re excited to continue this relationship and announce Don Mingo’s first ever exported coffee from Quisaché. We have 58 Bags of this washed coffee which was processed at La Cooperativa San Pedrana! (FYI, someone tried to buy it off of us in Guatemala because of how uniform and healthy the green coffee looked!)
Daniel Corti Hordones- Finca El Platanar- Acatenango
One of the first things that struck me about Don Daniel was his humility. It was neat to see how he interacted with the workers before we met with him and then while talking, he understood how building a relationship could revitalize and bring back more hope to the workers they employ. He had a genuine desire and thought for the workers. Finca El Platanar employs 18 full-time workers and over 200 workers during the harvesting season from the nearby community.
One of the main conversations that took place was really about how much land they’ve had to abandon and how that concerns them about being able to give more employment opportunities. So over 50% of Finca El Platanar’s land has been abandoned since 2012 when the leaf rust epidemic first started. Each year they made a decision to strategically invest their money into areas in which they could manage best. This meant abandoning small areas each year due to the low prices they’ve receiving hoping for a turn in the market to later renovate these areas. With less land to manage, that also meant less need for workers. You could tell Don Daniel has wanted to do something to bring a change to this situation of theirs.
Thankfully, they've already started doing something different. Last year they cut their abandoned plants, prepped the land and are in the process of renovating back a portion of these abandoned lands. We talked about plant health maintenance and how important it is to give the plants the food it needs to have the vigor that often helps them to fight diseases like leaf rust.
Don Daniel was really excited about working with us this year and we hope to continue a relationship with Finca El Platanar even if it means we only buy a small portion every year. We told Don Daniel that we’d love to see farms like theirs grow so that they can offer more employment to their nearby community. Creating relationships between farmers and roasters in this instance could provide a great exchange between quality coffee and job employment opportunities.
Cesar Otto Higueros (Otto) & Myrna Higueros Finca La Union- Acatenango
Otto is by far the funniest guy out there! He’s got a wonderful family, a wonderful farm, and a wonderful community around him. I think he really loves his life and feels blessed by the opportunity to work with coffee in a way that makes a difference in the world. He loves agriculture and it’s easy to see that by the variety of flowers and trees he has spread around his home and farm. He spent the first 30 minutes of our time talking about the environment and specifically about ground water systems and how controlling ground water pollution is really important not just for him but for the next generations to come.
Otto’s niece Mayra is the wet mill manager and we were really impressed with her. She was extremely knowledgable and yet hungry for knowledge at the same time. I really admire people always looking to learn. I think this is something that attracts me about the Specialty Coffee Industry.
I want to point out two things in particular about Otto and Mayra that connect to their farm and their quality of coffee. First, they believe in forming good relationships by “always be planting.” Otto shared how planting doesn’t always have to be physical plants or seeds; that it can be metaphorical for planting love and respect into those around him. They specifically believe this for their employees. When they respect and invest into their employees, they find that they’re less likely to work out of indebtedness and more likely to work from a place of autonomy and honor. This is at the core of Finca La Union.
Secondly, they’re incredibly innovative! Recognizing that Acatenango goes through several dry spells throughout the year, they hung shading nets over their nurseries and over several plots of land (including their Geishas.) In areas where it’s difficult to climb up and down, they used old tires to create a stair system that not only puts old tires to good use but helps fight against soil erriosion. Lastly, they even found a way to run irrigation lines both below ground and hung above ground to give plants more moisture with a flip of a switch. They’ve realized that education and innovation can be used to further develop the way in which they produce coffee but also in the way they farm from an environmental standpoint.
I had a great time meeting with Otto and Mayra. Their story is less of a story of need and more of a story of supporting something that represents excellence. Excellence not just in quality of coffee but in farm management and how that relates to their workers and to the environment.
So this year we have the opportunity to promote coffees from both smallholder farmers and now coffees from farms that provide hundreds of jobs for their local communities. Together, both smallholder farmers and farms, they have the capacity to make a bigger difference for our region than apart. What’s important are the conversations that are taking place in the background. Are there opportunities for growth for both smallholder farmers and large style farms? Are the prices that are being offered incentivizing growth and honoring the work placed into each cup? Is it providing a motivation that if reached can give farmers a shot at profitability or the ability to hire more workers? Are we offering our best work to the roasters that validate these efforts and offer these coffees to the consumer level?
I started in coffee drinking Foldgers in a French press (#truestory) and came to fall in love with it due to the relationships I began to build with coffee farmers. Now, I love coffee for so many different reasons. It’s big and wide and there’s always something new to learn. It bridges gaps and brings people together. It’s highly caffeinated… Lately, I’ve been seeing how it can be used to bring about a better future for everyone no matter what part of the industry you find yourself. That’s probably the real reason behind why we’re excited to offer 2-3 new coffees that come from our neighboring farms alongside the 8 lots that come from the farmers we’ve all come to fall in love with; both as people and their coffees!