‘Guate’ fantastic trip! Mercanta’s Megan Rindt visits Guatemala and El Salvador
From the high peaks of El Salvador’s Apaneca – Ilamatepec mountain range to the vibrant colours of the Colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala, Megan’s first trip to Central America was enlightening!
Monday January 16
El Guachoca and Pacas Mill, Maria and Alfredo Pacas
Where: Canton Lomas de San Marcelina, Cerro Verde, Apaneca – Ilamatepec, El Salvador
We arrived in Guatemala City late Sunday night January 15 and left for El Salvador bright and early Monday morning. Our first visit was with Maria and Alfredo Pacas. The Pacas family is no stranger to Mercanta: we’ve worked closely with them for years, and we are proud to have such a wonderful relationship with them. We met Maria at Finca El Guachoca. The farm is situated on the slopes of the Apaneca Ilamatepec mountain range in El Salvador, 1,410 to 1,600 metres above sea level. The view from the farm is gorgeous and overlooks Lake Coatepeque. Maria led the tour along with Danilo Arroiaza, a supervisor of El Guachoca, and Juan Contante, the farm’s manager. As we walked through Gallinoizo Tablon, Maria proudly explained how her great grandfather discovered the Pacas varietal and how is highly resistant to wind and pests.
After the visit to El Guachoca Maria invited us to have lunch, and of course coffee, and enjoy a presentation about the Pacas farms. They are an extremely people-oriented business and it shows. Their model for sustainability is to focus on the two most important things: the people and the land. Maria explained that they love coffee as if it were a family member: they watch it grow, care for it, and when it’s grown they let it go but it always one of their own!
I was very impressed with the non-profits that the Pacas family supports. Maria’s sister, Monica Pacas, started a nonprofit called Forjan. It is about one year old and has already helped around 500 people. It is a character building program that focuses on values. The non-profit conducted a study comparing the students who were engaged with Forjan and those were not. The results showed that the students who participated in Forjan had better grades in school and also volunteered more often in their community.
The Pacas family also works with a nonprofit called Funpres. This program provides emotional aid to workers, which includes workshops in conflict resolution, team work and mindfulness. Participants claim that after one year of these workshops, they really have seen a huge difference in their life and feel happier. Needless to say, it’s an absolute pleasure to be working with such an upstanding family who really puts their workers first.
El Borbollon Mill, Eduardo Alvarez Sr. and Jr., Luis – Lab/cupper
Where: Apaneca-Ataco Ahuachapan, El Salvador
We were welcomed at El Borbollon Mill by Eduardo Alvarez Sr. and Eduardo Alvarez Jr. who gave us a tour of the lovely El Borbollon Mill, where Mercanta North America’s Portezuelo is milled and home to the world famous El Borbollon blend. The mill has been in the family since 1995 and processes coffee from 150 different farms, 40 of which are considered specialty coffee producing farms. Eduardo Jr. described the painstaking quality control practices they maintain to ensure that beans are picked at their prime to reach their best cupping potential.
We were mesmerized as we watched the ladies sorting beans quickly and efficiently from the conveyor belt, reminiscent of Lucille Ball attempting to package chocolates (they did a much better job)!
Tuesday January 17
El Carmen Farm + Mill, Fernando Alfaro
Where: Ataco, Apaneca-Ilamatepec, Ahuachapan, El Salvador
Next stop was a visit with Fernando Alfaro at El Carmen. We walked through El Carmen’s Tablon Goviado which is full of beautiful orange bourbon. El Carmen has 19 total tablones, 10 of which are Orange Bourbon and 9 of which are Red Bourbon. As soon as you meet Fernando you can tell he is a wise man who cares for his crops meticulously. He explained how he battles coffee leaf rust (roya) by applying fungicides four times a year. Some of these only prevent rust for 30-60 days, and it is very important to be preventative and proactive with this disease, because once it hits it’s extremely hard to treat. Wind is also a problem for Fernando (as it is for many farmers across El Salvador), but using Pacas varietals helps, as they are robust and wind resistant. Building living lattice-like wind breaks also helps many farmers.
Afterwards, we visited nearby Finca Patagonia, owned by Mercanta’s very own Christian Schaps and his brother, Oscar. Christian walked us through the farm and showed us how to encourage healthy plant growth by removing the young, new parts of the plant. This pushes the nutrients to the mature growth rather than also having to support the young new growth. He also explained the importance of maintaining ventilation between plants so that they do not become overcrowded. Bending (agobia) is also a way to promote new growth: after a plant is 3 years old you can tie one end down so that more sprouts grow up from the bent branch.
Tuesday afternoon we were surprised with some free time, and we enjoyed some zip-lining at El Carmen. Unfortunately we didn’t know that this course also consisted of the “X-treme training’ course where we had to climb rope ladders and hanging steps while suspended what felt like hundreds of feet in the air! The view was beautiful overlooking the drying patios, even if terrifying at the same time.
Wednesday January 18
Finca Buenos Aires Organic (akin to San Antonio organic), Antonio Pullin Pivaral
Where: Central, Municipio Villa Canales, Guatemala
Wednesday we were off to visit Antonio Pullin, the owner of our San Antonio Organic. He is no stranger to organic farming and has been doing it for 29 years. To combat rust he is experimenting with grafting many different species of both Robusta and Arabica coffees together. Since Robusta has a much stronger root system than Arabica, he splices sprouts of Robusta and attaches them to Arabica plants. This new plant will grow utilizing Robusta’s strong root system while maintaining the preferable cupping profile of Arabica. Antonio has sent his seeds to the Centre of Coffee Leaf Rust Research/Centro de Investigacao das Ferrugens do Cafeeiro (CIFC) in Oeiras, Portugal to study and decipher which varietals are best grafted together to combat rust.
Puerta Verde and Santa Clara Ricardo Zelaya
Where: Cuidad Vieja, Sacatepequez, Antigua Valley, Guatemala
Ricardo Zelaya’s farms are extremely curated. We first visited Puerta Verde and then Santa Clara, a gorgeous mountainside farm. Ricardo explained how many pickers do not speak Spanish but rather their native language. They bring their children with them because they do not attend school. They used to have a program with Starbucks that provided a health clinic for the pickers children, but Starbucks pulled out so they had to quit (they paid 50/50). They are currently scheduling meetings with the employees to ask if they would be willing to leave their children with a day
care that provides a teacher while they pick. He said this will be hard because many of them do not want to leave their children with strangers: this is just something they do not do in their culture. Challenges such as these are often missed by international non-profits seeking to address the issue of access to education for children of day labourers. Ricardo’s two daughters are both obtaining degrees in Education to try and address the issue.
Touring Ricardo’s mill at Santa Clara was like touring the Disney World of coffee mills. It was immaculate, spacious and very well thought out. Ricardo invited us to enjoy his coffee, Champurradas (Guatemalan cookies), tortillas and the best Guacamole I’ve ever had. We were told it was made with onion powder, salt, lime, oregano and “a lot of love.” That will do it! It was the perfect end of the day.
Friday January 20
Finca El Tambor, Victor Calderon (and daughter Nicole)
Where: El Durazno, Palencia, Guatemala
Friday we headed to El Tambor to meet Victor Calderon and his daughter Nicole. Victor purchased El Tambor in 2001 and switched from Robusta to Arabica. El Tambor lies across 150 hectares, 75 of which are planted under coffee. It was refreshing meeting Victor. He really marches to the beat of his own drum. He is always looking for new and unconventional ways to do things. He is very resourceful and reuses everything. He pointed out fences that were made from scrap that was going to the dump. He wastes nothing.
Victor fertilizes twice a year before the plant flowers and that’s it: after that it’s only Chapin clay (or bentonite clay) that is found in the old mines on the farm to combat rust. He finds the clay works wonders in preventing rust. He explained this while he had the clay on his face, no wonder he looks so young! He also gave us some to bring home and do our own experiments with.
Saturday January 12
Santa Isabel, Luis ‘Wicho’ Valdes III
Where: San Cristobal Verapaz, Coban, Guatemala
Saturday we visited Wicho (Luis Valdes) of Santa Isabel. This farm is pretty special to me as it is the coffee I served at my wedding! It was great to walk through the farm while Wicho explained his practices. He’s been here since 1965. This area is very humid and hot, which are ideal conditions for coffee leaf rust. Wicho is very proactive in preventing this, using ventilation, fungicides, shade and tissue pruning to combat rust. He sprays 2-3 times a year. He does twelve passes per year for mature berries.
Over the years it has been getting warmer, he used to finish harvest in July but recently had harvest end of May.
Wicho employs 500 part-time workers (4-5 months) and 40 full time workers. As of January he had about 20% of the harvest complete. Wicho implemented brand new beautiful mill machines (this will be first harvest using them), and he has reduced water usage by 75%. Quite impressive!
Wicho’s coffee will be highlighted in Starbucks reserve this year. Before he had ever sold to Starbucks, he found out that he had already met many of the requirements for CAFÉ practices, but it also showed him that there was more he could do. He appreciated that it opened his eyes, and as a result he really promotes sending children to school. He’s worked closely on a project with Engineers without Borders, in fact, to help re-build a local school building in a village from where many of his workers come.
All in all, this trip was an excellent way of reinforcing our strong relationships that Mercanta has in Guatemala and El Salvador. The producers were extremely warm and welcoming, and it is a pleasure for us to work with such passionate people. We look forward to working with them for many years to come!
About the Author: Megan Rindt supports our expanding Mercanta North America operations through sales, logistics, taking out the trash, changing dirty water rinsing glasses on the cupping table, and doing whatever else needs to done.