Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farmer Profile: Salvador Sanchez

Don Salvador, Dona Maria Angela and their family (there's the yellow motor)

When we walk up to the house of Salvador Sanchez, his family is concentrated around a yellow gas motor that is mounted on a post next to his concrete coffee fermentation tank. As we come closer, we notice that the pull-cord has snapped and his son is trying to thread a new rope in so they can get back to work. There are bags and bags of fresh-picked coffee cherries lined up and ready to be de-pulped. If they can get the little motor going, then they can run a belt to the de-pulping machine and make short work of a project that would take a manual de-pulper all day. The project draws our friend Hector in and soon he is adding his opinion and asking for specific tools. Don Salvador shows up and asks us to have a seat in the kitchen for coffee and sweet bread and so we can do the interview. I am grateful, because I was not able to add anything to the motor fix-it project.

Fresh picked coffee cherries

We first met Don Salvador 3 years ago when we visited the coffee farmers of El Sute for the first time. He showed us his organic plot and the towering sweetgum and guama trees that provide the shade. The plants were mostly the old variety known as "Indio," and they looked overgrown and not very productive. It was like being in a forest. There was another section of the the organic plot where he had renewed the plot through replanting and pruning, and that looked promising, with lush healthy young plants. This year though, when Hector visited Don Salvador's organic plot he declared that it had almost all been destroyed by the Roya (coffee rust). Although Salvador sent 1200 pounds in 2013, his organic production will drop significantly for 2014. He probably won't see a loss in income though, because Don Salvador has hedged his bets and grown some conventional coffee too. After our interview, he takes me to see the new plantation of conventional coffee.

Don Salvador's 3-year-old conventional coffee plants 

My heart sinks to see how good his conventional coffee looks. He took a corn and beans field right next to his house and has converted it into a coffee plot over the last three years. He is growing these Roya resistant varieties completely without shade trees on the steep slopes, but they look quite healthy and they are loaded with harvest after only three years. I tell Salvador how nice they look, and he smiles and asks us to take his photo amid the dark green coffee plants with the bright red cherries. I ask him about shade trees and he points to a mature plantation across the hill from us and says that the plants look healthy over there without shade. I have to agree. I know that organic agriculture is better for the soil, better for the shade trees and the diversity they support, and can result in a better tasting coffee. But it is hard to argue that Don Salvador wasn't smart to hedge his bets and keep some of his land in conventional coffee. This year his family will eat off of the profits from the conventional coffee.

A proud farmer

The Roya presents a special challenge for our friends in Honduras who want to grow organic coffee. In the past, many farmers were able to enter the coffee co-op because they have a plot of coffee that they have grown using "natural" methods. By this they mean that they have applied no fertilizer at all, chemical or organic. The old varieties are especially suited to this sort of "ignore-ganic" way of growing: have old coffee trees and old shade trees and give the coffee plot very little maintenance. This actually has worked quite well. The yields are lower, but the inputs are nil, and the old varieties of coffee taste great. But the Roya is devastating to the old, low-maintenance varieties. New varieties must be planted, and those new varieties are rumored to do better without as much shade. This could be a disaster for the mountain. If everyone cuts down their shade trees, then erosion and flooding could become much worse. And the dry season will become much drier as the micro-climates change. It is essential for our co-op members to find a middle path, one that uses the new varieties and maintains the shade trees. They will need to improve soil fertility practices in order to meet the demands of the new varieties. The price premium that we offer is enough to keep Don Salvador interested. He will keep his organic plot and keep improving his organic practices, even as he continues to improve his conventional plot. Without the price premium though, he might not join the co-op.

The neighbors harvesting mature shade-free coffee on very steep slopes

Don Salvador is a savvy farmer. It is clear that he has made improvements throughout his farm. There is a new greenhouse-style coffee drying shed and the aforementioned motorized de-pulper. He knows his coffee and he cares for the quality of the coffee throughout the process. His cupping results turned out quite well. He has a little solar panel which collects enough energy to power a small florescent light for use in the kitchen each night. He is a leader in the community, and to have him in the co-op gives the co-op a position of respect. Don Salvador is the sort of skeptical thinker that keeps any group honest. I am pleased when we are able to come through for him and continue to earn his trust. We have seen him move from stand-offish a few years ago, to warm and welcoming this year. It is the sort of relationship that can grow over time.

The fermentation tank

Don Salvador has about 2 acres of organic coffee and an additional 10 acres in conventional coffee. He is one of the founding members of the organic co-op COFEACOMA and has been with the co-op for 9 years. His farm is at 1500 meters above sea level. In addition to coffee, he grows corn, beans and bananas. He is 59 years old and has 7 children and 9 grandchildren, all living nearby. His wife, Maria Angela, greeted us in the kitchen. Later, we learned that she is suffering from asthma and needs care and medicine. This is all the more reason to maintain our relationship with this family - the extra money they get from Farmer to Farmer can translate directly into needed care. The quality of Don Salvador's coffee is exceptional, one of our best micro-lots. His coffee earned 78.25 on the 100-point cupping scale. The tasters comments were: "Sweet, chocolate, fruity, with medium body." We hope his organic plot recovers from the Roya and he sticks with the co-op.


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