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Sourcing Trips | 31 May 23

Meandering Through Mexico

  • Severo Escalante Roblero farm La Loma 3
  • Mexico maintains a rich coffee history, with the beans first arriving in the late 1700s thanks to Spanish colonists. The seed was first planted in Veracruz, a region situated along the coast of eastern Mexico. The coffee market did not take off, however, until the late 1800s, when the first exports were made. Smallholders were the heart of coffee production, not only in Veracruz, but also in Chiapas and Oaxaca. These smallholders maintained their prominence within the Mexican coffee market, but throughout the 1900s, various threats and obstacles harmed their income and production.

    Climate change is one such challenge these producers face. Mexico itself is comprised of a collection of mountain ranges known as the Sierra Madres. These ranges carve through the west, center, and east of the country – creating areas characterized by high altitudes. This is where coffee grows, with the ideal climate and precipitation, coffee is able to thrive here. Yet, research reveals that the northern, central, and coastal regions of Mexico will be impacted by climate change the most.

    With the International Coffee Crisis in the late 80s, and the dissolving of the INMECAFE (Mexican Coffee Institute) in the early 90s, producers faced numerous struggles to maintain production whilst also earning a livable income.

    With low coffee prices, no government support, and difficulty accessing resources and markets – producers were faced with the option to abandon their farms or find a way to adapt. Many left the coffee industry to venture to urban centers or to the United States where they could earn a better living. Severe droughts, floods, and heat waves swept through the region, decimating yields. This impacts the flowering stage of coffee production, which can lead to decreased yields, and also harms quality. How has the country worked to recover?

  • Javier with Marsellesa seedling
  • I had the opportunity to travel with Agroindustrias Unidas de México (AMSA)’s SMS team throughout Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas to understand these struggles and the actions being done to assist the producers and improve coffee production in Mexico.

    First, my voyage started in Veracruz, where I was met by René Avila Nieto, the leader of the SMS team in Mexico. Our activities for the week included visiting a nursery in Dos Ríos where they are growing Marsellesa varietals and H1 hybrids to assist with the spread of roya. These varietals are tolerant to drought, high temperatures, and roya. With the development of these seedlings, the producers throughout Mexico have access to a coffee tree that can maintain production despite the changes in climate.

  • Jeneth, Dolores, Jezebel 2
  • I also had the opportunity to attend the SMS seminar, whereby technicians from each state presented their successes and projections for the following year. I learned about the complexity of Mexican coffee, and all of the hard work being done by these technicians and the SMS team to improve coffee production, thus creating a future for these producers and their families.

    We traveled throughout Huatusco and Ixhautlan del Café, visiting farms, mills, and warehouses. So many people are involved in this complex network of coffee. The finale of my time in the east of Mexico included a visit to Puebla to meet with members of the Totonacapan Cooperative in Zongozotla. This region was rich, mountainous, and filled with coffee. I met three women producers Jeneth Simon Lopez (42), Dolores Cano (37), and Jezebel Perez Lopez (37), who are a part of a women’s group within the cooperative. They are helping to give women more knowledge about coffee. They had traditional dress on, which included beautiful, embroidered dresses, intricate belts, and a small basket for gathering coffee. Production of coffee has increased here thanks to the work of SMS, and the educational trainings guided by these women.

    Veracruz and Puebla taught me about the struggles within Mexico, but also introduced me to SMS, and the amazing team working to combat these challenges.

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  • My plane then traveled to Oaxaca, where I was met by the Cari Coffee team. SMS also has a small team here, and Oaxaca struggles the most amongst all of the producing states.

    It took almost a century for coffee to reach Oaxaca after the crop arrived in Veracruz. It was 1874, and prices for the widely grown commodity, the cochineal bug used to dye clothes, were low. Therefore, communities learned more about coffee and the land required to grow the beloved crop. Pluma Hidalgo was founded a decade later and is still known as one of the coffee capitals of Oaxaca.

    Oaxaca only produces about 10% of the country’s coffee, and production has been teetering.  Farms are old fashioned in Oaxaca, using no chemicals or fertilizers, and growing older varietals such as Typica and Bourbon. Yields are extremely low, even for Mexico. Roya ravages the land, the region is dry, and producers lack the knowledge to improve yields and quality.

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  • We journeyed to Mixteca, my entourage included Hironori Kondo with Cari Coffee and Neftali Perez Paez, an SMS technician for the region. The journey was long, but we soon arrived in the dry mountains of El Porvenir, and were met by a group of 24 producers, a mix of men and women, mostly older. Neftali talks to them and begins to ask how many Marsellesa trees they would like. I learned that through a Starbuck’s project, these producers are able to receive Marsellesa trees based on their yields. The SMS team is responsible for dispersing and assisting with this project, which is free for the producers.

    Next, Hiro hosts a cupping for the producers, to show them how other coffees throughout Mexico taste and to teach them about coffee quality. It was interesting to see them react to different coffees and ask questions about how to improve their quality. We then visit the farms of Ruben Jose Hernandez and Romelia Sάnchez Jiminez, learning about their struggles and hopes with the Marsellesa trees.

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  • The following day, we ventured to Paz y Progreso to have a similar meeting and coffee tasting. We are met by 28 producers who sell their coffee to AMSA. Here, a leader of the group, Reynaldo Noel Garcia Lopez, supports Neftali to decide how many Marsellesa trees everyone will receive. Another cupping ensued, this group slightly more eager to talk about quality and understanding how to improve. We then hiked to visit one of the member’s farms, Eliseo Felix Bautista.

    Oaxaca was an interesting and educational experience – revealing the hard work and struggles incurred by not only the producers, but the technicians seeking to assist these farms. Producers were older, and the youths were not interested in coffee production. The air was dry, sun warm, but there was hope for the future with the eagerness and excitement from Hiro and Neftali.

  • Chanjul 3
  • My next adventure ensued in Chiapas, the heart of coffee production in Mexico. I first visited Guadalupe Zajú, an estate owned by Teddy Esteve. It is massive, with so much history and extensive plots of Marsellesa and Hybrids. This Estate is the model for other farms throughout the region, and it was interesting to learn about a different type of farm in Mexico.

  • Idolina Diaz Roblero with Catimor 2 Los Agucates farm
  • The following day, in Tapachula, I was joined by representatives from the GRAPOS cooperative. As we sip coffee, they tell me more about the amazing cooperative that was founded in 2007 and supported by AMSA. Today, the cooperative has 4,601 members, 1,203 of which are women.

    With regards to staff members, there are 37 in total, with 16 women. This includes administration, mill workers, and 20 agronomists. They work with 369 communities in 9 municipalities, encompassing 14,834 hectares. The average farm size s 2.5 hectares with a mix of Marsellesa and some other varieties such as Catimor, Costa Rica, and Bourbon. SMS is working with the cooperative by assisting with the replanting of trees with Marsellesa and cataloguing each of the producers into the online database, SMS Integrity. This system records all of the information for each producer and organizes them based on region.

    I am then trucked around to visit a collection of wonderful producers belonging to the cooperative. Severo Escalante Roblero, Idolina Diaz Roblero, and Encarnacion Perez Miranda welcome me to their farms. It was great to meet them, and to see their coffee. Each producer is working to combat roya and to improve yields. GRAPOS is assisting each of them with tools to improve, and to earn better prices for their coffee.

    The cooperative is important, because it brought these producers together, providing them with different tools to make their farms better, more efficient, all the while creating a future for coffee in this region of Chiapas.

  • Women in farm 2
  • The conclusion of my time in Mexico was spent in Jaltenango, in the center of Chiapas. The mountains were dry and rugged, the terrain difficult to traverse with a truck. I met a collection of women producers, who are working with SMS to improve the production of their farms. And another producer named Alexis Velazquez at his farm Finca Peña Blanca. His 10.2-hectare farm has significantly improved in both quality and yield thanks to the support from the SMS team. The farm is larger compared to others in this region but shows the potential even the smaller farms can attain.

  • Field practice 3
  • The month I spent in Mexico opened my eyes to this massive producing country and the many challenges that are faced by coffee producers. Without government support, the producers have no assistance nor access to knowledge about how to improve or increase their income. Thanks to the work being done by SMS, nearly 10,500 producers are supported by these technicians, representing well over 19,000 hectares. The future of coffee in Mexico is bright thanks to the hard work of this team.

    Mercanta are happy to support these various projects and have a selection of Mexican coffee available in our warehouses.

  • Worker with H3 2