Thursday, January 17, 2013

Day Seventeen - Farmers in Huehue

Huehuetenango is commonly referred to as hue hue, pronounced "way way". Coffee from Huehuetenango has a great reputation on the international coffee scene, so we refer to the coffee we sell as such. To be technical, it does come from the state of Huehuetenango, although there is also a city named Huehuetenango, which might be a more specific reference to some people. It's a city, though, and not in the high mountains where the best coffee grows.

The UPC cooperative, it's office in La Democracia, has around 130 member families, and roughly 15% of them are indigenous Mayan Mam. After a quick breakfast, we meet up again with Rolando and Jacinto from UPC and head up the mountain on the same rough trail as yesterday. One big difference - today it is raining. We don't get very far before the van skids out on some rocks, not even to the steep parts. We slowly back down and get out to walk. Shortly a pickup truck approaches and we all hop in to climb the mountain with genuine 4WD, 1991 Toyota style, with manual lockout hubs.

We pull off the road onto a trail that descends into a field. It doesn't look like a vehicle has ever been on it, and we drop quickly, around some trees, past a few farmsteads, until we can't go further. We all hop out and walk down a trail together, past another homestead with a few kids standing in the doorway watching us with great interest and confusion. As the mist descended from the nearby clouds, we found Fabiana M. in the field picking coffee. I think I mentioned the joke about farmers falling out of their fields before - but it really isn't a joke. If you don't have a good foothold, you can fall down the side of the mountain. A few people in our group slipped and fell just trying to get to her.

La Roya attacks leaves.
She described her farm and plants to us. She was just starting to experience some of the disease I had seen in Honduras - La Roya, and asked if we knew of any treatments for it. There is a copper sulfate product that can be sprayed to resist it, but when the coffee is already fruited, like hers, it's too late. Copper sulfate is approved for use on organic crops by the USDA, but it is not approved in European organic standards. And it isn't recommended to be sprayed on crops with fruit, it's better before fruiting so it doesn't end up in/on the coffee. Thankfully, La Roya has not hit her plants too hard, and she has plenty of coffee to pick. As we walked around her fields, it was really unbelievable how much coffee she had to pick with her family. The closest I can come to describing it is like some nice mature blueberry bushes where you can stand at one plant for 15 minutes and still have more to pick. It was fun to watch her for awhile, carefully picking out the red ripe cherries and leaving the green (not ripe yet) and black (over-ripe) ones on the plant.

Aaron (author), Fabiana, Jody.
She had a wide variety of shade trees interplanted, including some nice banana trees and oranges. Chickens and turkeys wandered through the bushes. Birds chirped and hawks circled overhead. The rain increased, and we made our way back, stopping at their house for shelter, where we met her three young children. We shared some colored pencils and a pad of paper, and it was great to see a smile on her face, she had been quite stoic up to that point. I think it is part cultural, part hard life that leaves most women with straight faces. It's hard to get them to smile, even for pictures.

The rain slowed and we made our way up the trail to where the truck had left us. We hopped back in and the truck headed up the trail. A few feet up an incline, the truck slipped and couldn't progress. The group huddles in back. The truck rolled backwards, then made a running start at it. I would say we were burning rubber to get up the hill, but there wasn't much rubber on the bald tires, so I say it was pure will. And some bouncing up and down in back, that got us up out of the field and back onto the road. At the bottom of the hill, we met our van and driver and returned to the UPC office to negotiate our 2013 coffee contract.

Rolando made a nice percolator of this season's harvest for us. Andy from As Green as it Gets helped us discuss the overall coffee market and it wasn't hard to come up with a price. Jody and I quickly discussed the last year's sales for Farmer to Farmer and made a hopeful prediction for next year. I have my work cut out for me. We ordered 10,000 pounds of coffee and agreed to pay them above market values. We will give them 55% of the total as a down payment, and hope to have our shipment in the states come June. It looks like I have between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds of coffee to sell by next year. Will you help me out?

As part of the negotiations we asked UPC to start working on some Microlots for us. This is the coffee industry term for a very specific lot of coffee. With Microlots, we can identify many of the particularities of the coffee - which field it came from, which varieties of plants, who grew and picked them, and exactly how they were processed. Currently the coffees from various members are mixed together to create an amazing coffee blend, but increasingly roasters and coffee drinkers are interested in more detail. Rolando explains some of the issues with microlots, but agrees to work on it for us.

After the negotiations, we had a choice - stop for lunch or visit another farm. It was an easy choice, and another snack potluck ensued with the nuts, bars, trail mixes and chocolates making another round as we made our way north, then east of La Democracia. We stopped at an intersection where two or three little tiendas were operating. I saw some popcorn and told Rolando that I'm made of popcorn, mostly. He saw I was going to use a 10q bill to pay for the 1q bag of popcorn and stopped me. He didn't want the store owner to have to make change for me - it is kind of a big deal to give out change around here, even just 9q - so he gave me a 1q coin to pay for my popcorn. It was glorious, and briefly sent me back into my dream of owning a popcorn stand.

Shortly a pickup truck arrived - it was the farmer we were going to visit. He had driven down the mountain to come get us so we didn't have to struggle in the HiAce. We made our way up a typical one lane road past many small houses. Almost every house had someone outside working or peeking out the window to see who was passing by. Again, it was great to see their reaction to a load of gringos bouncing up the hill in the back of their neighbor's truck. Rolando confirmed for me that we were likely the first group of white folk that any of the people had seen on this road. Ever. It actually did make me feel pretty special, and I made sure to smile, wave or tip my hat to everyone we saw.

As we climbed, the terrain around us was different than that on the other side of La Democracia that we had visited. Still quite rocky, I noticed more clay and there were far less trees. Corn was king, and we observed quite a few cattle. I'm not sure if the climate was truly different or if this was land management practices at work. It was mostly brown, not green. Eventually we made it to the end of the line, entered into a "green zone" and arrived at the encampment.

This was another unique farming situation. Six families got together a few years ago and purchased somewhere around a thousand acres together. Two of the families live onsite - Florinda and Zaul, Irma and Cobino. Zaul and Cobino are brothers. Zaul had been to the states, as have a few other family members, which was critical to them having the money to buy the ranch. They had chickens, ducks, turkeys, cows, horses, fruit trees, a garden, and of course - coffee. And children. Beautiful, cute, curious children.

An organization called Veterinarians Without Borders had been to the farm and helped to build a manure digester that produces 3 hours worth of biogas every day. They had a stove that burned clean fuel produced right there on the farm. The system was small, and looked like a little plastic hoophouse about 5m by 1m. One of their homes was made from adobe bricks, the other of wood planks. Their garden was surrounded by corrugated metal, probably to keep the animals out. They had beautiful tomatoes.

As others finished up their conversations, I pulled out my juggling balls to entertain the kids. It was great, and I had them giggling and playing along in no time. After a hearty round of goodbyes and thank you's, we piled into the other brother's truck for the ride down the mountain.

We stopped back at the UPC office to see the trilladora, a machine that Farmer to Farmer helped UPC purchased last year. It shakes the green coffee beans and blows the parchment (think peanut skins) off, which is the last process the beans go through before being bagged into the 150 pound burlap bags for export. They use the parchment that gets blown off as compost and mulch for their plants, always using everything and recycling the waste.

Another round of goodbyes and back to the hotel for dinner, a few rounds of euchre and a bottle of wine. Our day in La Democracia is now complete. Thanks for reading.

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