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By: Ollie Sears 10 June 2019
So, as most of you will be aware from the photos and videos we posted while we were away, James and I (Ollie) went to El Salvador in February (2019) visiting our producing partners from the Chelazos group in La Palma. It’s a town situated in Chalatenango (Chalaté as it’s known locally) and is a hive of industry for agricultural production of foods, woods, fruits and of course coffee!
With Hols and Krag visiting in 2017 when were first introduced to the producers through import partners Caravela Coffee, this trip was an amazing opportunity to not only generally check in but also start to lay some groundwork in identifying how we could work on a deeper level. This coffee had become incredibly important to North Star being the base of our house blend and a much loved single origin and, in keeping with our desire to lead our relationships with impact to build an industry that works for everyone, we wanted to supplement our purchases with a project that could help improve life for those we are so reliant on for the coffee we enjoy every day.
We therefore wanted to document how we have gone about the planning for what has become one of our proudest achievements so far.
As you may already know, some of the big reasons we are motivated to visit each of our producers personally is to identify areas in which we may be able to:
Despite the many variables in producing communities globally, it is likely that improving farm infrastructure and post-harvest processing and drying can be a really good solution for most of the above but we wanted to ensure any investment we could make would be of maximum use.
Before visiting our Chelazos producers, to gain an insight into current states of affairs and where to target our resources, we asked a certain set of questions before embarking upon our visit, to try and get a feel for things before our arrival. The questions we asked were directed not just to the producers or farm owners themselves (we do that bit in person), but to the quality analysts and agronomists that work closely with each producer to assess their coffee production, effectively auditing and aiding their progress in farm management, coffee quality, environmental management, working conditions and other key indicators. This team is employed by Caravela Coffee, who work with us on our Colombian coffee sourcing too. Their team (in this case it is Miguel, Hugo and Ana) visit each of our producers monthly at least, focusing on aiding each producer that they work with to assure and improve quality year on year, often seeking ways in which the producers can simultaneously increase quality and quantity too. They were therefore the perfect team to get a feel for where our efforts could be directed.
What’s more, Caravela’s export lab and team are providing the kind of support that is completely unavailable or unsupported in most areas of the coffee producing world. In those instances, producers are left largely to find their own way in navigating the complexities of agronomy and agriculture. In all of the coffee supply chain, mastery of one part is not enough. It’s crucial to combine a farm’s commitment to quality-focussed farming with the knowledge of what it takes to actually get there, and that can be really well supported by a well-organised export lab such as Caravela’s!
We therefore aimed a lot of our questions at Miguel, Hugo and Ana and an excerpt of these questions for them is pasted below from our original English document. As you’ll see, without us boring you with the more technical questions, what we asked primarily aided our prioritisation for project work targeting quality, consistency and efficiency:
These questions were asked in relation to the 4 producers we work with who’s coffee makes up our Chelazos lot:
The responses in reference to each producer were as follows (translated directly from Spanish by myself):
In reviewing this information, we viewed the most urgent need for infrastructure was on Finca Margarita, owned by Maria. She currently produces washed coffees primarily, but unfortunately does not have her own de-pulping machine for coffee cherries that she and her team are able to harvest from her land. This means Maria and her management team (led by a lovely, humble but talented man called Humberto Santos) unfortunately have to move their coffee cherries by truck down to a neighbouring farm to be processed. They are then able to charge a fee to manage de-pulping, washing and drying for Maria’s coffee. This is not super expensive, and they have been managing ok, but it is labour intensive for Maria’s team to coordinate, particularly with timings and transport (although they have forged a great relationship with one of our other producers Alfonso Rodriguez, who is helping them out with transportation by truck). Of course, this whole rigmarole is entirely avoided if she can acquire her own gear though!
Specifically, the equipment needed is: a de-pulping machine, some raised drying beds and/or extra patio space, and a set of fermentation tanks! This will not only aid her coffee quality in production, but will be a monumental improvement to her team’s working lives (no unnecessary loading and unloading of coffee into trucks for transport, and more efficiency of labour as a result). There is an environmental positive through removing the need to transport coffee to and from the farm before and after processing, which removes most of the emissions in production too!
So, helping Maria and her team to find the capital to get the tools they need on the farm is something we can help with through part-funding an investment into the de-pulper, fermentation tank and drying beds. Right now it’s in its early stages but we’ll keep the updates rolling. For example, we’re not sure of the de-pulper’s exact cost yet, but because speciality grade coffees sometimes have different cherry and seed sizes, it must be a good one that can be calibrated to the differing sizes of seeds. In Maria’s farm this is a big deal – she produces Pacamara and Pacas. These two are both varieties of Arabica coffee, but Pacamara seeds are enormous by comparison to Pacas coffee seeds. For us to maintain excellent quality in the coffee produced, while investing into Maria and her team, we need to ensure that important points like this are not missed as we roll out the work with Ana and Miguel from Caravela’s team over in El Salvador.
Additionally, we want to create measurable impact with this project, and will be aiming to gather useful data on the scale and scope of the improvements we’ve made over time, to better inform everyone that we work with on the specifics of our projects and their efficacy on a case-by-case basis. We’ll work with Ana and Miguel on this too.
Where we’re at right now logistically is in developing a firm timeline and cost outline for the project to be financed and rolled out. The plans must fall in accordance with our need to source the materials sustainably and at high quality too, for example as with the de-pulper above. That goes for the building materials too, ensuring that they can be well-maintained, long-lasting and hygienic for use in the climate they’ll be used within. We are also aiming to source materials locally for the project where possible, using woods and screens manufactured in La Palma, Chalatenango for whatever we can, while hoping to forge a long-standing relationship for such materials, given the inevitable need to replace, repair or strengthen the tools used in future due to wear and tear.
By next year’s harvest, our aim is for Maria, Humberto and the rest of the farm team at Finca Margarita to be working with the new processing tools, to learn the implementation and proper use during the harvest cycle. By coffee standards, the goal for year 1 is essentially to maintain the current level of quality and scale while adapting the farm to the new processes and equipment. For year 2 onwards, when they’ll have established how to use the kit, we’re expecting to see the workload for the farm to feel significantly lighter or at least less stressful. We should then hope to see a minor quality improvement through the high standards of farming being combined with on-site processing, instead of the outsourced processing they are currently operating with. For now, we’ll keep working in the background as all of you continue to drink the Chelazos coffee, waiting to hear more hopefully!
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