Early this month I was fortunate once again to visit the farms of our producer partners in El Salvador, and I want to share some thoughts from the trip.
Just like last year (my first trip to El Salvador), I was humbled by the kindness and generosity of our hosts, and of the Salvadoran people in general. Gloria, Maria-Jose, and Luis Rodriguez are some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met, and as a bonus they are also amazingly dedicated coffee producers. This year we went a bit earlier to see their farms so we were able to witness the actual first picking which was quite a sight: Dozens upon dozens of people moving over the trees, diligently picking only the ripest cherry with a speed and fluidity that is truly impressive. Determining which is ripe is more challenging than it appears – you don’t merely grab the red ones: it is a combination of sight (looking at just the right spot on a cherry) and touch (the way the cherry detaches from the stem) that takes great skill and intuition to master, especially if you are wishing to work quickly.
In addition to visiting the Rodriguez’ many farms and their mill of choice we were also able to visit Ricardo Ariz of Finca El Aguila, a former venture capitalist who took over the farm when his grandmother passed away two years ago. El Aguila (‘The Eagle’) is the largest farm I have seen yet in El Salvador, and it is only 45 hectares of coffee (about 65 in total), going from about 1500m up to 1720m. Ricardo has a large personality to match El Aguila’s impressive size, and is very enthusiastic to be working with us (as are we with him). He even gave a couple of us (we were also travelling with Adam Pesce of Reunion Island) some sweet machetes! We currently have his Pacamara varietal on offer here, and we are hopeful that his Bourbon (and Kenia) varietals will be just as impressive.
I want to speak a little bit here about varietals, Bourbon in particular. Bourbon is one of the oldest known varietals of Arabica, with many offshoots and hybrids and mutants. It is revered for its excellent cup quality and decent yield. However, it has some drawbacks that are only going to become more troublesome with the effects of climate change that seem to continue unabated. You see, Bourbon is not very resistant to many pests and diseases and any drastic changes in climate. One of these pests, coffee leaf rust, or ‘Roya’, is becoming more and more of a threat to coffee producers who grow Bourbon and other such susceptible varietals.
I sadly saw this with my own eyes when travelling through El Salvador: farms with literally just bare sticks instead of trees – no leaves, no cherry. It was absolutely heartbreaking. These producers will have nothing, their livelihood basically destroyed. The roya attacks the leaves of the coffee tree, draining them of any way to nourish the cherries. If there are already cherries on the tree, they will drop off prematurely; otherwise there will just be no cherry growth at all. What is left is a skeleton, a graveyard of spindly sticks. Current reports estimate that up to forty percent of coffee in Central America is affected by roya (in Guatemala the figure is even higher, at 80%).
This is truly shocking news and should definitely be sobering to all coffee lovers. The outbreak has not affected everybody equally, of course. Did I see signs of roya when I was visiting the Rodriguez’ and Mr. Ariz’ farms? I sure did. In fact, one of the farms owned by Gloria Rodriguez, Nueva Grenada (which we did not visit), has been very heavily affected. But what I saw at the others was not yet alarming, owing to the amount of care and quick reaction to any outbreaks. In fact, the yield this year from our partners is expected to be larger than last year: I saw very healthy trees heavy with ripe cherry, ready to be picked (it was awesome to see our tablon, Los Vientos the day before first picking – the amount of ripe cherry was simply mouthwatering). We will for sure have some exciting coffees from El Salvador in the coming months.
Despite that, I can’t help but be concerned for people growing coffee in the global south: the challenges they will have to face (are facing already) are daunting, but there are a few things that can be done (that we can also do) to help weather the coming storm. One thing is to establish strong relationships with producers, to share some of the burden, to be there for each other through times good and bad. When we have these kinds of relationships, when we pay a premium for their very best, that helps them be able to invest in the future, to develop better methods. Finca La Gloria, acquired by the Rodriguez family in 2009, has this amazing varietal garden featuring 90 different types of Arabica. I helped pick some Geisha, Harrar, Mokka, Kenia, Filipino and many others, and I watched them being milled by hand for replanting. Some of these varieties could have pest resistance and a high yield and amazing cup quality – the trifecta of awesome (my name) for the future.
Furthermore, cementing a strong relationship and paying above C market price allows for certain stopgap measures (like light spraying) to deal with roya as it pops up. These chemicals are unfortunately necessary in some circumstances and they can be expensive as well.
What can coffee drinkers do? Well for starters let’s keep drinking excellent coffee. This is a very general statement, but it tends that the higher a farm’s altitude, the less affected it is by disease and pests. If we pay more for quality coffee then producers will have more capital to invest in better practices and into research on prevention and varietals. Let’s become more invested in where the coffee comes from, in the struggles and stories from the ground level; personally I am humbled by the dedication that is behind each cup, and now I even struggle with just a little bit of waste: every cherry counts.
I feel that if we can become more connected with the coffee we drink, we will in turn have that much more to lose and be more willing to make the sacrifices that I am sure we must.