From experiences on Finca El Ranchita, 2km outside the village of La Corona, Matagalpa.
The farm is owned by Bernabe Cano Salgada, he lives with his wife Maximina, one son, one daughter, one daughter-in-law, one neice and seven grandchildren, although he has another son and daughter and more grandchildren living elsewhere as well.
The farm is 5 manzanas (a manzana is 1.73 acres), 2 manzanas are coffee, the rest is maize and chiltoma (a type of chilli) crops and pasture for their 12 cows. There are also quite a few chickens.
The coffee is all organic, no fertilizer or pesticides are used. It is also grown under shade of banana, orange and avocado trees and some remaining natural forest. The farm lies at an altitude of about 800m above sea level, and is irrigated from the Penas Blancas river that runs through the Yasica Sur mountain range.
The coffee is entirely arabica, a mixture of caturra and bourbon varieties.
Harvest season for the coffee is mid november to mid december. All the picking is done by hand, with baskets tied round the waist to hold the cherries. The coffee trees are tall, some over 8ft, and occasionally the trees have to be half pulled over to reach the cherries at the top. (i am not much below 6ft so i was actually very useful in this respect!) Harvesting takes a month, even with such a small crop because not all the cherries become ripe at the same time, and so each tree has to be picked repetitively until all the fruit are mature.
Bernabe and his daughter in law, Antoña, seem to do the majority of the harvesting by themselves, working ten hour days. Maximina works in the house, and their son Leonardo looks after the maize crop. Antoña’s 4 children all try and help pick coffee too, but only the eldest, 12 year old Lucy, can actually work effectively, (when she is not at school) the others (all under ten) can’t reach the trees!
After picking, the coffee has to be depulped (that is, removing the fruit flesh from the beans) the same day. First the cherries are tipped into a tub of clean water. Those that float are bad – either with bugs in (making air holes) or sometimes with only one bean inside the cherry, not two. These bad beans are scooped off the top, and composted.
The depulping machine mixes the cherries with just enough water to soften the fruit, and then simply presses the fruit until the hard beans in the centre squash out. The beans will sink and the fruit floats. The beans are then let out the bottom of the machine, and the cherry pulp removed from the top. Bernabe drains the fruit pulp and then feeds it all in to his worm farm where is is broken down into great compost.
The depulped beans, still in their muscelage, are left to ferment. Early harvested beans ferment for 18-24 hours, those later in the harvest for 36-48 hours. This has to be carefully monitored as over- or under- fermenting can ruin the quality of a whole batch. Generally, the longer it ferments, the sweeter the flavour, but it can easily get too sweet and taste alcoholic!
After fermentation, the beans are washed again, in running water. Any flesh remaining will float and can be removed and composted. The water also carries away the muscelage called Miel, or honey (it does actually taste sweet). The run-off water is cloudy and called ‘agua de miel’. On this farm is was just left to drain into the soil- although it’s acidity cannot be good for the earth. Bernabe did not seem bothered about this.
The beans are then dried on a large mesh sheets supported on wooden frames, so the beans are always kept a few inches off the ground. They are turned over every 20 minutes so they dry evenly. Drying at this stage reduces the water content of the beans to about 40-45%. In good weather (not guaranteed in the mountains) drying only takes 2 hours, but they have to be very careful because it can rain very suddenly and unexpectedly, and rained on beans are ruined beans.
Once dry, they are sorted. This can take several hours. Bernabe (and often as not, anyone else who is around) has to go through and meticulously pick out the bad beans that have survived the other processes. Broken beans, those with chipped parchment, those with small holes as a signs of broca bugs. It is boring, time consuming, slightly hypnotic and requires a lot of concentration and good eyesight. However, this is what makes good quality – one bad beans can spoil 30 good ones. And you need about 50 beans to make one espresso. The beneficio will check and if there are too many, he will not be able to sell that sack.
Technically, the bad beans picked out at this stage end up either as worm or chicken food, although Bernabe said occasionally the family keep them, toast them over the fire and use that coffee for family breakfast. I tried it to see if I could tell the difference knowing I was drinking low quality stuff. However, they all insist on heaping so much sugar into it that it was impossible to tell. It smelt amazing as it was roasting though.
The finished coffee is packed into waterproofed sacks of 100lb each (some farms use 60lb bags instead which seems to be more conventional) and the trip is made to the beneficio (processing plant) which for this co-operative is a two hour journey, the otherside of Matagalpa. We hitched a lift clinging on to the back of a neighbour’s truck who was also going to the city. After that we had to get ourselves and 100lb of coffee on a bus for the remainder of the trip. Bernabe’s family do not own a vehicle, and as the beneficio require the coffee to be as fresh as possible, this trip has to be negotiated once a week during harvest season.
Bernabe can get $180 a sack for his coffee (thus, ‘better than fair trade’ price of $126, although the cooperative is fairtrade certified) as it usually achieves 80-85 points on the SCAA’s cupping scale (making it a “speciality” coffee), but the journey to the mill alone, without a lift, will cost him $2.30 a week on top of the ongoing costs of running the farm. The sheer amount of manual work and skill that go into this process is incomparable with the income it commands, particularly with a family of thirteen to feed. Bernabe and Antoña effectively work for $1.80 an hour, for 200 hours a year during the harvest season, and have to make that income last for the other 11 months, feeding their enormous family, maintaining the farm, paying bills and supplemented only by income from their other small crops, and the money their children send from the cities to help support the grandchildren.
On a personal note, it really made me feel terrible for working at Caffe Nero for so long. Sure their coffees are expensive, but for a £2.30 latte, the two espressos in it costs the company 4p. The amount farmers like Bernabe receive from each latte we drink in the UK comes to a fraction of a penny. I gave the family as much as i could for my stay there – the equivalent of what would have paid staying at a hotel and eating in a restaurant for a week. I also gave the kids a present of 30 cordobas each – about a pound. Best fiver i’ve ever spent – that buys them all a notebook for school and chocolate bars for a week.
I hope my reader(s) are dutifully feeling first world/middle class guilt now. And please don’t even contemplate buying Nescafe instant now you’ve read this. Muchas gracias.