By Bonnie Hulkower
Guatemala is a country of colonial architecture, exotic jungle ruins, cloud forests, beaches, active volcanoes and a rich indigenous Mayan culture. It is also known for producing some of the world’s best coffee. In an effort to learn about where and how this coffee is grown, I visited several coffee farms in Guatemala last month.
One of these farms lies in a convenient area near the tourist-friendly city of Antigua, where coffee plantations litter the landscape. The other site is in the remote mountainous highlands of Huehuetenango, which produce coveted shade-grown coffee that has a distinct acidity.
My visit to the farms granted me insight into the operations and agricultural practices employed in coffee production. It also gave me great empathy for the struggles of the farmers.
The first farm I visited, La Azotea, was a short trip from Antigua. A free shuttle bus runs there, and the farm’s motto, “coffee with culture,” reverberates from the moment you step on the grounds. The farm, established as a plantation in 1883, is situated in a region with strong pride in its history– on the grounds are the Casa K’ojom Mayan Music Museum, which showcases musical instruments from pre-Columbian times, and the Rincon Sacatepéquez Museum, which celebrates traditional Guatemalan dress and buildings.
Tourism is a big part of the La Azotea’s business and mission. The farm, which is staffed by 65 workers during the high season, hosts over 2,100 visitors a month, most of them from outside of the country. It has a dual aim of both education and commerce, with two appealing gift shops on the premises, and their products are also sold at the International airport.
My guide at La Azotea’s coffee museum, Manuel, was incredibly knowledgeable about the coffee production process. As we toured the plantation and roaster, he addressed all the steps, from planting seeds to harvesting, roasting and shipping the coffee beans.
Our tour concluded with a coffee tasting. There I learned that Guatemalans seem to prefer their coffee black. As I typically take mine with cream and sugar, I was prepared to find the black coffee bitter, but was pleasantly surprised by its mild flavor. The tasting ended on a sweet note with a sample of their new coffee liqueur, which tasted like caramel-infused cognac.
The second coffee farm I visited required a long and winding journey: Huehuetenango, Guatemala’s northern highland region, is a six-hour drive from Guatemala City. And to reach Vista Hermosa —the heart of the small coffee farms— requires an additional 2½ hour rough drive along a narrow dirt road, in which it becomes clear why a Land Rover is indispensable. The ascent was steep and involved hairpin turns. I gazed in amazement at the locals who lived along these hillsides, who walked miles or hitched a ride on the back of a truck to run basic errands.
The economics here are as unique as the landscape. The Los Chujes Sustainable, Social and Economic Development Association (known simply as ADESC, by its acronym in Spanish) is an association of 68 small farmers who are seeking to expand their production.
While La Azotea has been in existence for 125 years, the farmers at ADESC only formally banded together five years ago. Both farms earned their Rainforest Alliance seal within the last few years, and are trying to improve their coffee quality and output as they strive to reduce the damage to the surrounding landscape.
Community- Support Local Artisans
Their Rainforest Alliance certification requires that farms go the extra mile, and give back to their local communities. At La Azotea, the handiwork of local artisans was proudly displayed in handmade musical instruments at the gift shop, as well as in each handwoven coffee bag in which the coffee is sealed while it is still warm.
Unique to La Azotea is a strong emphasis on farm workers’ education: workers’ children study in the local schools, where parents must donate one hour of time each week. La Azotea also provides scholarships for their workers to study English at night. The success of the program was evident in our guide Manuel’s facile command of the language.
Up in the highlands, the focus was more on agricultural practices. ADESC regularly holds meetings at Vista Hermosa to educate the workers about chemicals in the fields and other hazards, in addition to practices to reduce climate change.
Waste management is a priority for both farms. At La Azotea, separate buckets are used for organic and inorganic waste. The coffee pulp is reused. The workers combine it with horse manure and let it ferment for 40 days, before an extra week of worm composting happens. Most of this rich fertilizer ends up being used on the coffee plants, though some of it is being tested for a methane pilot project. The hope is to eventually use the methane biogas to heat worker homes and power the coffee roaster.
Up in the highlands, the farmers also produce fertilizer from composted coffee pulp, kitchen waste and horse manure. They are also working on a biodigester to harness the methane gas from composting for household use.
Improving Water Quality and Reducing Erosion
At ADESC, farmers test their soils to determine precisely how much fertilizer is needed, so that there is no excess. Farmer Leticia Monzon demonstrated how clear the stream water was on her farm, since she stopped putting the rinsed coffee water directly back into the stream. The water is now treated and filtered four times and moved into a sedimentation pool, where it filters into the ground before it goes back into the river.
Both farms also showed a deep commitment to encouraging biodiversity and planting shade trees for habitat. La Azotea plants 42 species of shade trees per 0.7 hectacres of coffee plants. This is impressive, as it’s quite common for coffee farms to plant only one type of shade tree.
At ADESC, Mario Dionisio Valle, showed us his 3-acre farm, named at El Rivetío, where he has four trees for every 64 square meters. The trees, in addition to providing shade for the coffee, offer shade as habitat for wildlife. Valle highlighted the signs on his farm which state that hunting is strictly prohibited, to encourage natural predators and biodiversity to return.
Importance of Climate Change
At ADESC, I surveyed the records farmers had collected on temperature, rainfall and water patterns over the past decade. Historically, the farmers told us, there used to be a very regular rainy season. Now it is more typical to have a few stormy years followed by years of droughts. This new cycle affects their coffee production. Climate change hits home for these farmers, because it could significantly lower coffee yields or at least change their prized shade-grown coffee.
These Guatemalan farms are changing the way farmers and consumers think about both coffee and its connection to climate change. Accordingly, the origins of my murky cup of Joe no longer feel anonymous. My experience of coffee has become a more personal, direct choice. It has become clear to me that this conscious cultivation happening in the hills of Guatemala is an embodiment of a sustainable culture that is slowly spreading throughout the world.