Imagine if your livelihood depended on you playing the lottery. Let's say it was a good lottery, and it paid out consistently low payouts that kept you in the game, while you waited to hit it big. Sometimes there would be big losses too, but generally it was just barely worth your investment. If you had more money you could make it work on volume, with the hopes for a really big payout and fears of a really big loss. At any scale, a person who plays the lottery must have a predominating sense of hope. At any moment everything might come together to result in a big payout. This is something like the life of a coffee farmer. As I work with the farmers of COFEACOMA (our friends' coffee cooperative), I am daily motivated to do my part to help things line up for our farmers as much as possible so it seems like they have won the lottery. During this year's trip I have been feeling hopeful for our farmers, despite some of the worst growing conditions we have ever seen.
One thing that is like the lottery, is that certain plant diseases seem like they come by pure chance. Of course, the lottery analogy can only go so far with farming. With the lottery, very little is in your own control except which numbers to choose. With farming, there is an infinity of choices that can be made to improve conditions. Our conversations with the farmers have centered mostly on coffee rust, a fungal disease known here as La Roya that first appeared last year. This is a disease that affects some varieties more than others. Farmers who have susceptible varieties have lost everything. But in most of the conversations we have had, those who have lost most of their plants are still hopeful and have already started replanting with strong varieties. There are also practices that can discourage La Roya. In high altitude areas, cutting down or trimming some of the shade trees can increase air flow and slow the growth of the fungus. In lower, warmer areas, adding shade trees seems to protect the plants by reducing the stress of too much sun.
The big variable that is like the lottery is price. The global coffee price seems to fluctuate a lot, and that global price trickles down to mid-level coffee buyers in Honduras. Farmer to Farmer offers the coffee co-op farmers a price they could never hope for from the coffee buyers (known as middlemen or coyotes) who show up in their villages at harvest time. Our price is nearly double what the typical coffee middleman is paying, and they feel safer that we are less likely to cheat them on weights or other things. Our price is higher partly because we are dealing directly with the farmers, and partly because we are paying for an organic certified product. I am only sorry we can't buy more of their crop. The co-op has been stuck at a very small scale for a long time and the co-op members keep having to sell most of their coffee on the open market. Because of their low volume, they also seem to pay more for their organic certification than they get in additional price (Farmer to Farmer has helped cover some of those costs too). I get the sense that our farmers continue in the co-op as much for current good prices as because they also see it as a possibility for future gains.
The coffee farms of Comayagua are mostly small family-run operations. When the prices are good and the yields are good, these farmers can pay off debts and improve their houses and modes of tranportation. When prices are bad and yields are bad, then farmers descend into debt and are faced with tough choices. Usually if prices are low, they might make up for itwith a good yield, or if yields are low, a high price might help them weather the storm. This year is difficult because coffee rust seems to have taken out over 50% of the crop, and global prices are very low, half as much as they were 2 years ago. This year our good price may be what keeps some of the co-op farmers in business.
I am hopeful that we are turning a corner along with COFEACOMA. The last 6 years we have learned a LOT about coffee. And our farmers have learned right along side us. We have learned about quality issues, post-harvest handling issues, drying issues, storage issues, pricing issues, importing issues, transportation issues and marketing issues. Every lesson has been learned the slow and hard way. But we are closer and closer to having everything come together. This year our trip has focused on gathering photos and information about every family who sent coffee in 2013. We visited El Matazano in the first days and interviewed two farmers there. Then we visited Rio Negro and got one more interview. Today we go to El Tamarindo and El Sute to gather 5 more interviews. These interviews will build on the work our farmers did last year in keeping each family's coffee separate throughout the process. Now instead of having one Honduran coffee, we actually have eight separate microlots. This might be key to selling more of their coffee. More details later.