The road to producing specialty coffee is not an easy one. I think many of us assume if we go to our local coffee roaster, they’ll just happen to have amazing coffees. But amazing coffee isn’t just dependent on roasters or branding or hip baristas—it’s the farmers who build sustainable and quality-centric farms. They’re the ones who commit year after year to improving product quality and infrastructure.
Finca El Platanar - Acatenango, Guatemala (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
I’m not sure how many of you realize this, but coffee farming is effing hard. There’s no magic formula that drops a bazillion pounds of coffee on grocery store shelves each year. The work is arduous—it’s labor-intensive and a huge investment on all fronts. And, if you make less money than you invest, it’s nearly impossible to create a sustainable business model.
Speaking of hard work and relentless dedication, let’s check out our new relationship coffee from Finca El Platanar in Acatenango, Guatemala.
This farm, like most other farms in the world, grew coffee that was delivered and sold on the open coffee market. At times, selling on the open market can seem beneficial to producers. For example, if the market is high, they can receive a premium for simply delivering average qualities of coffee. If the market is low, however, they’ll receive a much lower price for that same product. That’s what happened back in 2011/2012. In 2011, the market swung dramatically in the producers’ favor, topping out at $3.00/lb. for commodity-quality coffee—a price for most producers that’s well above cost of production. But, by the end of 2013, that same coffee fell to just above $1.00/lb. On top of that, in 2012, a major coffee epidemic swept through Central America called “rust.” This is a fungus that spreads quickly in moist environments and attaches onto the leaves of coffee plants. As it matures, it eventually eats up the plant’s resources, causing the leaves to fall off the tree. Without leaves, plants do not have the power to ripen their coffee cherry. To make matters worse, this rust had mutated from earlier forms, and was resistant to fungicides.
I took this picture while traveling in Nicaragua back in 2014. You can clearly see these tress have been affected by rust due to lack of leaves on the plants.
Think about that. Put yourself in the farmer’s shoes. You were getting $2.00 less for the same product. And to keep the farm in healthy operational status, you also needed to spend more money for pesticides, more fertilizer, and added labor to help clean up the farm.
You can imagine how this caused one of the major breaking points for small holder coffee farmers in Central America in the past ten years. La Roya (Coffee Rust) and low coffee prices forced many producing families to downscale or abandon their coffee growing operations. Many were better off investing in different crops and forgoing the coffee they had grown for generations.
Don Daniel, Farm Manager at El Platanar. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
Enter: Don Daniel, farm manager at Finca El Platanar. When that rust hit in 2012—in tandem with a poor market—they chose to abandon 50 percent of their coffee farm. With the plummeting prices, they just couldn’t afford to reinvest the time, energy, and money into that part of the farm
That’s the downside to selling coffee in an open market. When times are good, they’re really good. But when they’re not (which is more often the case), market pricing makes it very difficult-to-impossible for a farm to be sustainable. El Platanar knows this reality all too well. Without direct access to coffee roasters (who typically reward quality with higher prices), there was really no incentive for the team to push toward quality premiums.
Newly renovated land with young coffee trees. This is immaculate. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
But there’s a happy ending to this story, thanks to our friends at Yepocapa and La Cooperativa San Pedrana. They connected with Don Daniel and have been able to directly export his farm’s coffee as a single farm lot. They gave him a platform to highlight his quality, which only a few years removed from such a massive issue, is dang good. They’ve also been able to support with processing and agronomy help to support his reinvestment into the land.
This lot from El Platanar is a fully washed single variety (Caturra) lot. Coffee was picked and sorted at Finca El Platanar, then processed (fully washed, dry fermentation, and patio dried) at San Pedrana Co-op. This coffee tastes like a typical Central America Caturra: notes of sweet apricot, honey, and roasted nuts can be easily picked out of the body, with a lingering black tea note and sweet apricot/apple-like acidity.
You should really pick up a bag of this coffee. And, when you do, let Don Daniel know that both Mission and you, our customers, care about quality and buying a sustainable coffee product that will give us opportunities to grow in the future.