Producer Visit: Cooperative Coffees’ Roya Summit – Honduras 2014
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.