Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farmer Profile: Don Polo

Left to Right: Don Polo, Fredy Huben (Son), Nuvia (Granddaughter), Lester Francisco (Son), Alvaro (Son), Edwin (Grandson), Dona Graciela Aguilar
Arriving at Don Polo's in Hector's Truck

When we approach the house of Leopolo Euceda we know we are at the center of the village. There is a school and a new church right before we get to the house and a little soccer field right behind the house. Don Polo lives in the community of El Tamarindo on the southwest side of the Comayagua mountain in central Honduras. Everyone calls Leopolo by a nickname, "Polo," and inevitably they use the respectful elder term "Don" in front of his name. We are here to visit him and his family as part of our tour of the coffee farms that sent coffee to Farmer to Farmer for the 2013 Honduran crop. His family has panoramic views of the valley, but as we pull up the place is shrouded in an afternoon mist.

Polo's backyard, looking toward the mountain.
When he comes out to meet us, I recognize him instantly. He has a thin, sun-weathered face and broad smile. Last year as we traveled down the mountain, we were behind schedule and we did not have time to come up to his farm and meet him. So he and his son brewed some coffee and walked down to meet us at the turn-off for his house in El Tamarindo. That little pit stop was exactly what we needed and the coffee was good and strong. But this year we had decided to do an extended visit and stay the night.

Pine resin extraction in El Tamarindo

As we came in under the eaves of his house, I noticed instantly the huge bags full of beautiful white, yellow and blue corn. I picked up some cobs of the blue corn and felt an instant kinship because we have been growing a nearly identical looking variety on our farm for the last two years. Seeing the corn reminded me that El Tamarindo is an old community, with relatively recent conversion to coffee growing. Unlike some of the other communities, the coffee farmers here also grow their own basic foods of corn, beans and squash.  

Corn, patrimony of El Tmarindo
We had planned to camp, but with the wet weather, we were glad that Don Polo offered that we could stay in his son's house, which was right next door. His son Orlin is a testament to how coffee can help rural Hondurans gain an education. Orlin was able to attend high school in Comayagua, due mostly to the income from coffee. Orlin has served as a sort of assistant manager for the co-op, learning to fill out all of the necessary forms for organic certification and exporting. Orlin has built a new adobe house in El Tamarindo, but he is down in the valley working, so we are able to set up inside his house.

Orlin's brand new house.

The next morning I am up early and I enter Don Polo's kitchen. His wife, Graciela is working on the morning's tortillas. I have the obligatory coffee and then run to get my fellow Wisconsinites to see the whole tortilla process. There is a hand-crank grinder where the soaked corn kernels get ground into a wet paste. Then the paste is piled on a slightly depressed flat stone. Then in short quick motions the corn paste is further ground by hand using another rolling-pin shaped stone. The resulting dough is very fine and is quickly worked into little hockey-puck shapes and then these are pressed into a flattened tortilla which is quickly toasted on the wood-fired griddle. The dough inflates briefly on the hot griddle and then gets flipped over by hand. The finished hot tortillas are piled in a cloth-lined basket. When we ask, she says she makes 80 to 100 tortillas every morning, to feed the extended family for all three meals.

Graciela's stone with tortilla dough
After we make our own clumsy attempts at hand-grinding corn on the stone, Dona Graciela brings out a dusty old grinding stone and hand stone. At first I think I am looking at their old stone, but then she explains that they found the grinding stone buried in a field. These are archeological artifacts! They speculate that the people who lived in this area must have buried their grinding stone to protect it from being stolen and then something must have happened so they couldn't come back for it. There is no way of telling how old it is. I am reminded that the daily tortilla-making ritual which we have witnessed this morning has been happening in this place more-or-less identically for over a thousand years.

The buried stones and pot.

Don Polo has both organic and conventional coffee plots. He has been with the co-op for 6 years. His 2 acre organic plot is right next to the house and it is loaded with deep red coffee cherries. I am surprised that he has not yet harvested. He explains that they adhere to the old methods of harvesting based on the moon signs. When there is a new moon, you must wait 7 days before harvesting, in order to not have adverse effects on the coffee tree. He explains that they know how to use the moon signs for other things, like when to cut a pine tree for which uses. This is the first I have heard of using a moon sign to decide when to harvest coffee, but it fits right in with our archeological tour from this morning.

Polo, showing me how to pick coffee.

Don Polo has planted the Roya-resistent varieties of Catimor and Lempira, and the plants look great. But there is also about a 20% loss from the Roya in the other varieties he has planted: Typico, Burbon, and Catuay. There is an astonishing variety of shade trees nearby too. Since this is the home plot, they must enjoy having many types of fruit right at hand. There are bananas, avocados, mangoes, citrus, as well as some rangy vine-crops. El Tamarindo is relatively high elevation, and Don Polo's house sits at 1500 meters above sea level. They have a manual de-pulper, ferment in a concrete water tank, and dry the coffee on a concrete patio. They pay freight for a pick-up truck driver to move their coffee to Comayagua when it is time to export. Don Polo has benefited from Orlin's interest in organic agriculture, and he has brought prepared composting with micro-nutrients to Don Polo's farm. His coffee cupped very well, with a "medium acidity, medium body, and a clean and sweet taste." The rating for his coffee was 77 on the 100-point cupping scale.

The best tortillas I had during the trip were those that Dona Graciela prepared that morning. Hot off the griddle, with a little salt, or with a small bowl of creamy new, red beans, these tortillas were the sort that you can't get anymore in a big city like Comayagua. Don Polo and Dona Graciela are like their tortillas: authentic, warm and inviting. We were all glad we stayed with Don Polo and look forward to more visits in the future.

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