Blog Archives: Mike Mays
In January 2014, I traveled to Marcala, Honduras to attend a meeting hosted by Cooperative Coffees, our green coffee buying cooperative (Heine Brothers’ Coffee is a founding member of Cooperative Coffees). We invited (and covered the expenses for) representatives from our coffee farmer partners from all over Central and South America to join us for several days of meetings focused on the problem of leaf rust, or Roya as it’s called in Spanish. Roya is devastating coffee plants all over this part of the world. Roya is a naturally occurring fungus in coffee fields that found the perfect climatic conditions during the 2012-2013 growing season to reproduce in epidemic proportions. Roya attacks the leaves of the coffee plant, it’s primary source of photosynthesis. This not only affects the ripening of the current-season cherries, but can also cause the flowers of the following season to drop. Depending on the intensity of the infestation, Roya can kill a branch or the entire tree.
As Cooperative Coffees, we deal directly with the coffee farmers from whom we buy. We have been hearing for some time now that Roya was devastating coffee plants and causing a severe drop in the annual yield for many of these farmers. We decided that one way Cooperative Coffees could help would be to convene a meeting where where we would invite farmers from many different regions to share their experiences and, hopefully, successes in dealing with Roya.
We held our “Roya Summit” meeting at the headquarters of Cafe Organico Marcala (COMSA), a small-scale, farmer-owned cooperative in Honduras, who is having great success combating Roya using organic farming practices. COMSA is proving that, despite the claims of many coffee industry influencers, research institutes and government agencies who advocate aggressive use of chemical fertilizer solutions, organic farming practices can be used to combat Roya and produce bumper crops of prime quality organic coffee.
While in Honduras, our group of 65 people – coffee-farmer representatives and coffee roasters from Cooperative Coffees – toured the coffee farms of several COMSA members, visited COMSA’s impressive biodynamic farm, toured COMSA’s coffee processing facility and shared many outstanding meals prepared by our friends at COMSA.
I was highly impressed by COMSA’s commitment to their organic practices. COMSA’s organic promoter, Victor Contreras, spoke to our group about how important they believe it is to “create a model of agriculture that is in harmony with the laws of nature to feed and nurture the life energy in the soil.” And COMSA’s organic practices are proving highly successful in resisting and/or recovering from the current Roya crisis. The coffee plants I saw at COMSA were as healthy as any I have seen anywhere in the world. While there was some evidence of Roya, it was very minimal.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend 3 days in Honduras with such a committed group of coffee farmers and coffee roasters. We were able to unite and share information around the Roya crisis and recovery while also sharing ideas on coffee production, coffee quality and coffee price. The spirit of generosity and cooperation was strong. While we did not solve the Roya problem for any of these farmers, I know that many left encouraged by what they had heard and learned.
I came home from Honduras with a deeper understanding of the impact Roya is having on many coffee farmers and was reminded how hard these farmers work to make a living. And I came away with hope that the success the farmers at COMSA are having with their intense commitment to organics will have an impact on farmers in other parts of Central and South America. I also came away as proud as ever that Heine Brothers’ Coffee is a member of Cooperative Coffees. At the end of our meeting in Honduras, several farmers made a point of noting how unique it was that Cooperative Coffees had stepped up and done something to help them by hosting and financing this “Roya Summit” (when what they feel like they typically get is little or no help and/or empty promises).
This trip to Honduras also affirmed a few things that I have learned in 20 years in the coffee business. The difficulties that coffee farmers face are significant. Our commitment to buying their coffee directly from them at Fair Trade prices is not solving all of their problems or making all of their dreams come true. However, I can say with confidence that the relationships we’ve formed with many of these coffee farmers (some of whom we’ve been buying from for 13+ years) and the fact that we continue to be there year after year to deal directly with them on a Fair Trade basis is having a meaningful impact on their lives.
In August, Andrea Trimmer, Operations Manager at Heine Brothers’ Coffee, and I traveled to the city of San Martin de Pangoa in the Satipo Region of Central Peru to visit our friends at Pangoa Cooperative.
After an 8 hour flight to Lima and a 16 hour van trip over and through the Andes, we arrived at Pangoa late in the evening to a warm welcome from Esperanza Dionisio Castillo, General Manager of Pangoa Cooperative. Esperanza immediately rolled out the red carpet of welcome and made sure we had a good meal before we finally hit our hotel for some much-needed sleep before beginning our 3-day visit at Pangoa.
While at Pangoa, we met with their leadership and with several of their members; we toured their coffee warehouse and drying patios; we cupped coffees with their cupping team; we visited the village of Mazaronquiari where we threw some frisbee in the village square before sharing lunch and visiting their coffee fields; we learned about cacao production and visited a cacao farm; we tasted some of the wonderful chocolate that Pangoa produces; and we enjoyed some great food. The best part of the trip was spending time with the people we met and learning a little bit about them, their families and their lives in Peru. It was a real pleasure to be treated to lunch at the home of Nelson in his thatched roof, open-walled kitchen, where just before lunch, we were welcomed with a gourd of Masato, a fermented concoction of yuka and purple sweet potato!
Pangoa Cooperative is a group of coffee farmers that began in 1977 with 50 members. Today, Pangoa has 600+ members. Pangoa Cooperative works with it’s members on improving coffee plant health and yield, organic practices and sustainable land management that includes reforestation work. Additonally, Pangoa is committed to programs that encourage women and young people to be part of its organization. Pangoa uses the Fair Trade Premiums we pay for their coffee to fund programs that provide scholarships to members’ children and loans to members for farm improvement and renovation.
Pangoa Cooperative is an excellent example of the Fair Trade System working well and as it should. They are well-organized, cooperatively-governed, transparent, and committed to the well being of their farmer members. And, they produce consistently excellent coffee! We’re proud to have been buying coffee from our friends at Pangoa since 2007.