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 visiting our Chelazos coffee producers 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! We wanted to give you a quick run-down of how we have gone about coordinating a project with our producer Maria Zoila Piñeda (one of our 4 Chelazos producers) and her farm Finca Margarita. Below is an intro to this process and side of our trip. If you want to get a feel for the trip overall and how it went for James and I, please see his diary post, and if you need a little context into ethical coffee work and what that truly means, then Holly’s recent post on truly ethical coffee would be a worthwhile read too!

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:

  • Improve workers’ lives / labour conditions in general
  • Improve a farm’s efficiency with environmental resources / ecology
  • Increase their coffee’s quality scores / uniformity of quality / ease of production

All of these factors have a variability inherent within them. Agriculture is known for being volatile, as it is subject to so many external factors (the most obvious being weather, commodity prices, climate change etc). These factors can quite easily throw off the balance needed to produce high quality coffee at the same (or a higher) quantity, year on year. But, without going into too much detail on the economics of agriculture (although please get in touch if you’d like to know more about this) we can really help our coffee producers out by building their resilience against the largely variable conditions they are faced with daily. Our best efforts in this come from improving farm infrastructure, operations in coffee processing and in coffee drying. Consequently, quality improvements to coffee are likely to occur after good adoption of any changes being introduced. Resultant price increases are huge in aiding producers to safeguard themselves against the volatility faced year on year in farming.

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 during the times that we are not present. 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.

 

Caravela’s man on the ground – Miguel, resident agronomist. Doing his thing assessing these drying beans!

To give more context to this, Caravela’s export lab and team are providing the kind of support that is completely unavailable or unsupported in most area of the coffee producing world. In those areas, 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 comes from a well-organised export lab Caravela’s!

 

Caravela Export Lab

Ana from Caravela getting the export lab into full flow before our first tastings there.

 

So, producers committing to work with a team like Caravela’s is a hugely valuable thing for them. In Chalaté the Caravela team (particularly Miguel, the resident agronomist) are immensely important in assuring that quality is looked after year-on-year, and to being able to provide insight into how quality, consistency, and efficiency of producer operations can improve.

Most of the insights are information that even farmers themselves cannot assess or gather simply by doing the farming. We aimed a lot of our questions at Miguel, Hugo and Ana from the team, and an excerpt of these questions for them are 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 the above with our 4 producers:

 

 

As you can see, a lot of the enquiry was to ascertain how manageable it is for them to produce speciality grade coffee, and if we could make any real improvements to their farm, their working lives and/or coffee quality of course! If producing the level of quality and quantity required by us was too difficult, strenuous, resource-intensive or otherwise stressful, perhaps we could work to add or change something.

Briefly, to give you a little context, our 4 producers are:

  • Alfonso Rodriguez,
  • Alberto Ochoa,
  • Orlando Aguilar,
  • Maria Zoila Piñeda (the producer who became our focus for the upcoming project work)

 

Summaries from Caravela’s teams (and themselves) on the first 4 questions above are tabulated below, after translation into English in the closest language that I could muster. 🙂

 

 

As you can find above, we found the most urgent need for infrastructure in Maria’s farm. 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 farm from their land. This means she and her management team (led by a lovely, humble but talented man called Humberto) unfortunately have to move their coffee cherries by truck down to a cooperative nearby that offer a processing service to nearby farmers. That cooperative are then paid to manage de-pulping, washing and drying for Maria’s production. 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!

 

The de-pulper at Alfonso Rodriguez’s farm Finca Talquelazar!

 

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.

Raised drying beds at Alberto Ochoa’s farm!

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!

All the best for now!