Monday, January 13, 2014

Farmer Profile: Roman Hernandez

Left to right: Roman Hernandez, Seidi Esperanza Pineda (Neice in yellow), Juan Bulnes Pineda (nephew), Fatima Concepcion Pineda (Neice in pink), Maira Isabel Pineda (Sister-in-law), Ada Cristina (Daughter in stripes), Fransica Pineda (Spouse in purple)  

We keep driving up and up the mountain up through the coffee growing region of El Matazano, just east of the major Honduran city of Comayagua. Hector's Toyota 4x4 jeep climbs the red clay roads like the beast that it is. The vegetation on either side of the road soon becomes a mix of coffee plants with various shade plants. We drive higher until we gain sweeping views of the valley behind us. Finally Hector parks his truck and we get out next to a little one room schoolhouse. The air is cooler than in the valley and there is a breeze. We have climbed over 2000 feet from the valley below. We walk from the road along a footpath for about 5 minutes until we come to a little adobe house, with an antique hand-crank coffee depulping machine in the yard. A man comes out to greet us and announces that Roman is down the hill at his father-in-law's (it is, after all, New Year's day). We invite Roman's relative to ask the children to come out, but they are too shy, so we content ourselves with a simple look around.

The old school

The new school

Turkey at Roman's

Roman's farm would be thought of as a modern "Permaculture" example if he even knew what permaculture is. Within a 100 foot radius around the house there is an incredible variety of life. There are beautiful flowers, citrus, apricots, mangos, coffee (of course), sugar cane, bananas, plantains, pines, sweetgum, guama, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and evidence of grazing animals. Corn hangs drying from the rafters. Hector points out that Roman's coffee has dense shade that is composed of a diversity of multi-storied trees. It is clear that Roman and his family are providing for most of their needs from the farm. This is real wealth. It is also clear that in terms of monetary wealth his family seems to rely entirely on the small amount of coffee that is grown and sold. I have a moment where I imagine his children growing up and farming in the same way in the same place, both because it is a sustainable lifestyle and because economic limitations reduce options.

Adalid inspecting the de-pulper
Made in Ohio. Interesting.

Adalid (the co-op president who is along with us) mentions that Roman has consistently had very high quality, despite his very humble coffee processing facility. He has a hand-crank antique depulper. Without a concrete fermentation tank, he ferments in plastic sacks and rinses in plastic tubs. Without a concrete patio or drying greenhouse, Roman dries the coffee on hardware cloth tables laid out in the sun. There is no road to his house, and we can imagine Roman loading heavy coffee bags on his shoulders or on the back of a mule in order to bring the coffee to the collection point. But his family's careful attention to details overcomes the lack of infrastructure, and produces high quality coffee. I am pleased with our first visit to his farm, but I wish I could talk with him.

De-pulper shoots the coffee into the sack for fermentation

As we are driving back down the mountain, we find Roman and his family walking up the road, and we get to do our interview. He is a soft-spoken man and he volunteers answers with eyes slightly averted, while his family listens. He has been in the co-op for 7 years and has about 15 acres of coffee certified organic, divided between two plots of land at 1240 and 1310 meters above seas level. Most of his coffee is a variety called "Indio," which is what we might call an "heirloom" variety. This variety grows tall and rangy and tolerates shade well and lives for a long time. The yield potential is relatively low, but Indio requires very little in the way of inputs. Roman grows his coffee using "natural" techniques: essentially organic by default. Some of his Indio plants are 40 years old. He also has some small parcels of of other varieties: Catimor, Paca, Lempira, and IHCAFE90. This is the first time during the trip that we ask about coffee varieties, but it will become a major subject of conversation throughout the trip. The reason is the dreaded "Roya," known in english as "Coffee Rust."

La Roya - Coffee rust

Mature coffee tree that have been affected by the Roya

Roman describes how the Roya has devastated the non-resistant varieties which comprise the majority of his farm: Indio and Paca. We ask what, if anything, he does to combat the Roya, and he responds that he places his faith in God. It seems similar to his philosophy on fertilizer. He doesn't import any chicken manure or other organic inputs, just the leaves that fall from the shade trees and any manure produced on the farm. I am struck that this humble man seems to be producing exactly the kind of coffee we should all be drinking. Naturally grown on a small family farm with old varieties and few external inputs. In the harvest, processing and storage, he cares for the Farmer to Farmer coffee like gold, because he know that he will get nearly double selling to us that he will get selling to a middleman. The quality shows in the cupping results, where Roman scored very highly. His coffee earned a 76.5 on the 100 point cupping scale. The taster's comments were: "chocolate, thin, balaned and sweet."

We take a family photo and leave the interview pleased with our idea to interview every farmer who sent coffee for the 2013 harvest. Roman has been sending coffee every year Farmer to Farmer has received Honduran coffee, but we had never met him or seen his farm, until today. We promise to return and invite him to persuade his father-in-law to join the organic co-op. Now when we try the coffee with the label R.H on the bag, we will have a face to the name.

Women of El Matazano with their Artisan goods displayed.
Checking out the photo.

Roman has the plaid shirt in the middle, his wife the red purse, and his father in law the white shirt in the middle.


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