Sunday, January 29, 2006

Alright alright, I’m at the tail end of a pretty sweet week. On Tuesday morning I went out to Elias’s finca de café to do a little pickin. As mentioned previously, we’re in a pretty busy time right now with coffee production. So I showed up to Elias’s house around seven (this is a really late start by Honduran standards) for some beans and tortillas. After that we picked coffee for about 5 or so hours. I almost filled my second basket by lunch time and Elias was probably on his fifteenth. From start to finish coffee production is a really sensitive process. When picking the “cherries” need to be ripe and picked the correct way otherwise the plants are damaged and it will reduce production for next season. Also the depulping machines have problems with unripe beans. So after the beans are picked they are brought to a machine that removes the pulp from around the bean. This has to happen within six hours of picking otherwise the beans start to ferment and pick up defects, like I said an extremely sensitive process. After the depulping the beans are left with a sticky coating of “miel” (honey). To get rid of the miel the beans are left out over night and then soaked and rinsed with clean water. The aguas mieles that leave the rinsing tank are a huge concern for water contamination, we were told in training that it is actually worse than raw sewage; I’m not sure in what way, probably bacteria production or something. Anyway while the coffee is being rinsed the coffee with defects (pest problems, dried out, rotten or just plain bad seeds) floats to the top of the tank and is removed, also the pulp that was not removed by the machine is picked out. After being rinsed the coffee is removed from the tank and dried. At this point it is crucial that the drying surface be clean and free of critters, as the drying coffee beans act as little sponges picking up whatever flavors they’re presented with. Elias stressed the important parts of ensuring the quality of the product throughout the entire process. The problem comes when it is time to sell. The coffee from all the local producers is basically lumped together by the buyer. So if Elias takes steps to ensure that quality is maintained his neighbor may not and his efforts are essentially lost. If there are enough interested producers a cooperative can be formed and they can consider exportation, but this is a huge step requiring a great deal of sacrifice and patience and it may or may not pay off in the end, depending on the quality of the coffee and if it meets exportation standards. And Honduras already has a poor reputation with exporters. Next time you’re in Starbucks try and find the Honduran roast, good luck. We were told that one of the reasons Hondurans don’t stress quality is because they do not come from a coffee culture. Coffee is ingrained in everyday life in places like Columbia, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, for most people here it is simply a way of scratching together a little pisto (there are exceptions of course). Recently a Peace Corps volunteer began a coffee festival, I haven’t been but I’ve heard it is a pretty big deal. And economically it is a huge deal, in my area the average campesino earns 50 Lempira (about two dollars and fifty cents) a day for manual labor. During the coffee season he earns 15 lempira per gallon (a Honduran gallon is one of our five gallon buckets filled past the brim) of coffee picked. On average a coffee picker can sack around ten or eleven gallons a day, under ideal conditions up to fifteen. That is three or four times what he normally makes, not to mention the work is steady and his wife and children are working along side him. I’ve been seeing 5 year old boys picking coffee with their little brothers and sisters playing underneath the plants. There are child labor laws here but they don’t really apply during coffee season. For the producer huge gains are made too. During those two days I worked with Elias we processed about 11 gallons of dried coffee at 220 Lempiras a gallon (coffee is measured by volume here, not by weight), that comes out to around 1420 Lempiras, minus expenses. Ok ok this is getting a little long winded, I can’t wait to talk about illegal immigration and the Catholic/ Protestant fight, stay tuned. Hope some of you folks up there are makin some turns and thinking ‘bout me. Peace love and all that other hippie BS.

Ps. Gabe, if you’re reading this please make any editorial comments you’d like about my description of my two days of observations. Your coffee Kung Fu is much stronger than mine.


Blogger pineconeboy said...

Hey Joe,

Based on what I´ve been told, the badness of aguas mieles has to do with the types of bacteria it spawns, but also because it sucks something like 10 times the amount of oxygen out of the water as sewage to decompose. That, I think, has to do with all the sugar. This is bad in creeks and stuff because it turns a healthy, oxygenated aerobic environment into a filthy, nitrogenated, stagnant anaerobic environment. Maybe that in turn is what produces the really nasty bacteria, I´m not really sure.

In the pictures it looks like they are drying the coffee on plastic. Based on what Elias told me about his production, he should be able to afford some zarandas (screens built onto a platform, you might remember seeing these at the IHCAFE training center) which are not only one of cheapest ways to dry coffee, but also the most quality, since they are so odor-free and keep the coffee above the level of the ground. Plus when it rains you can just cover them up with plastic and the coffee stays dry.

It of course is extremely difficult to enforce quality standards with 40 different small producers and no centralized beneficio, but if they want to start putting some quality coffee together to export (and based on Elias´s description, I bet you guys produce some very good coffee) they can start by talking to a smaller group of people who consistently have the best coffee and an interest in going the route of quality, and see if they can get together enough for a Lot (approx. 500 quintales). If so I would then suggest they try to contact one of the bigger cooperatives in the area that exports quality coffee for help with advice and market contacts.

It´s a long, hard process and involves a lot of change for the traditional honduran coffee grower, but there are a lot of ways a peace corps volunteer can help with the process. I definitely wouldn´t push this though if they don´t already have a semi-organized group that is ready and interested in it, otherwise it will most likely just fall apart after you leave.

Those are some really beautiful looking coffee plants though. Tell Elias I said whatup.


7:26 AM  

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