Guatemala, March 2007

Michael Lone

This past March I traveled to Guatemala with a few roasters from around the United States and Canada. My plan was to visit a few sustainable farms and cooperatives that included “Trapichitos.” Working with our exporters at Unitrade we managed to put together an extensive itinerary that allowed us to see sustainable farms that were both small and large in scale.

To begin, we visited Finca Azotea, an organized coffee farm that is located at the edge of Antigua. Due to its proximity to the quite touristy town, this farm is ideal for educating visitors on the basics of the coffee industry, culture, and processing techniques within Guatemala. For some on the tour it was the first time they had ever seen a coffee cherry, let alone smelled the intense winy stench of the fermentation process.

Later in the day we traveled southeast towards the Fraijanes region where we met up with brothers Martin and Alejandro Keller, owners of “Finca Santa Isabel”. Finca Santa Isabel is an impressive large scale (6,000 acre) estate that was one of the first farms to have adopted sustainable practices outlined by Rainforest Alliance. The estate is tucked away in a valley surrounded on all sides by steep hills covered with coffee trees. I tried to identify the coffee trees from afar though had a hard time due to extensive use of shade trees, a major requirement for RA certification. We were also aware of the sound working conditions for the pickers and processors, another requirement emphasized by Rainforest Alliance. At Finca Santa Isabel all workers are housed, fed, and taken care of medically. During the peak harvest period, this farm will provide its workers and family members three meals a day. Corn tortillas are a staple of these meals where roughly 30,000 per day are produced.

At the time of our visit the Kellers were in transition to become certified organic. They have been working on compost that is ideal for their specific areas soil composition and were just about to hang broca traps (bottles containing an alcohol based solution) that are eco friendly and not in contact with the coffee plant or cherry. After a walk through the farm we were invited to cup a wide range of coffees and had a chance to take in the beautiful setting.

The following day we met with Manfredo Topke, owner of Finca Arbelia, another estate located near the Fraijanes region. Manfredo’s farm is in transition to becoming RA certified. This visit helped us see what steps are necessary to achieve certification and also allowed us to learn about the benefits of shade in coffee producing areas. It was noted that the Australian Pine, Eucalyptus, Cuje and Inga trees are all being raised to plant in varies areas around the farm. The Eucalyptus has a strong tap root that helps break up soil and provide drainage, while the Cuje and Inga introduce nutrients to help balance out the chemistry of the soil. Manfredo was pleased to meet with us and asked that we cup his coffee and provide comments that could help him with his processing and preparation in the future.

On Wednesday we traveled to scenic Lake Atitlan. I had visited this lake 12 years before and remembered how amazing it was to be in the center of a volcanic wonderland. The lake is actually the remnants of an ancient caldera surrounded by symmetrical cinder cone volcanoes. We spent some time in Panajachel, the larger town on the lake, for a bite to eat and a chance to see what things (bracelets, blankets, rocks, beads) we could take back home with us before boarding a boat and heading across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan. The 40-minute boat ride got us to Santiago around 5pm where Martin of Unitrade met us. We piled into Martin’s car and headed to their wet mill right at the edge of the lake. We had timed our arrival to the mill later in the day in order to see the delivery of cherry from the days picking. Here the cherry is delivered in bags, weighed, and then dumped into a receiving tank. Water then flushes it down a channel through the pulper, sorter, and then off to the fermentation tanks. After fermentation (20 hours or so) the coffee is then spread across concrete patios for drying.

Our journey the following day took us 6 hours North by van to Nebaj located in the Ixil Triangle. Rafael Orozco project coordinator with the Agros foundation and Torivio Avila Martez, “Chente,” coffee promoter, met up with us there. Rafael and “Chente” asked that we all jump into their 4X4’s in order to reach “Sumalito,” a village 90 minutes out in the mountains. Some of my guests took seats in the bed of the truck in order to take in the fresh air and lush scenery. After a bumpy 90 minutes we arrived at the home of Santos Villatoro, one of a group of families that grow, process, and sort coffee. The Villatoro family was busy sorting coffee when we arrived, making sure only coffee free of defect was added to their bags for export. Their house is situated on the side of a hill with a decent size drying patio for drying the coffee. They told us that they would pick roughly 1 to 2 quintals a day and were coming to the end of the harvest time.

From there we continued up the road a few miles stopping at a trailhead. Rafael led us down the hill, by foot, to another farmer’s house that hugged the hillside where we met Neptali Avila who harvests and sells his coffee to the Sumalito/Trapichitos project. Neptali walked us around his yard and towards the “retria,” a pulper that sits in the middle of his yard. The hand mill pulps the ripe cherry and drops the beans with mucilage into a 6ft by 3ft box where it rests (ferments) for up to 20 hours. A few banana leaves cover the beans to help ensure that the mucilage does not dry up and halt the process. After the 20 hours of fermentation, the beans are rinsed with clean water and spread across 2 large drying table nearby where they sit until moisture content has been reduced to 13%. We visited with Neptali and his family for a while and then returned to the trucks for a nail-biting ride in the dark back to Nebaj.

We woke at the break of dawn the following day at a dairy farm, “Mil Amores,” located in mountains just outside of Nebaj, and returned to the trucks for our visit to Trapichitos. Trapichitos is located a little more than 2 hours beyond Nebaj near Sumilito; the village that had been visited on the previous day. It is a village that had only been connected by a dirt road little more than 4 years ago. Driving in you can see Trapichitos hanging on the side of a mountain across the valley from Sumalito. It then takes another 30 minutes to drive down into the river valley and back up the mountain to reach the village. At the time we arrived in Trapichitos, we were greeted by a number of villagers that were eager to show us around the village and discuss what improvements have been made through a partnership with Agros and Atlas. Domingo Cedillo, representative of Trapichitos informed us that they were in the process of completing the 3rd and final picking for this year’s crop. He also pointed out that each farmer will pick all remaining cherries on the trees during this time in order to stimulate growth the following year, no matter if the cherry is ripe or not, although only ripe cherries will be process and sold.

Walking around the village we had a chance to meet with a number of farmers that are responsible for their own coffee trees. The use of shade, compost, and proper pruning is prevalent in this village and was quite apparent when looking at each individual member’s plots of land. Many of the members now have their own “retria” and drying patio and are responsible for bagging their own coffee. These bags of coffee in parchment are then taken to the central storage house where the bags are weighed and the members name and date of arrival are printed on the bag. Once or twice a week a truck will collect these bags where they will be consolidated in Nebaj for transfer to our exporter’s dry mill just outside of Guatemala City. In all, Trapichitos has roughly 80 families involved in coffee production and is in the process of working with nearby Sumalito and Batzchocola communities. Their hope is to share their sustainable growing methods with the other communities to help produce larger volumes of coffee while maintaining excellent cup quality. The care that has been taken by Trapichitos in all aspects from sustainable practices to cup quality has ensured a good price and allowed Atlas to help invest in the infrastructure of the village from housing, retrias, to education for the children and continued support in coffee production.

This trip was an excellent opportunity for my guests and myself to understand “Sustainable practices”. We all would like to thank our hosts at Unitrade and family members that welcomed us to their homes and farms.

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