My first visit to Selva Negra – a completely organic farm north of Matagalpa, set up and run by a German couple, Eddy and Mausi Kuhl. The farm produces around 5000 sacks of award winning, shade grown arabica coffee every year. There are 150 permenant workers there, all housed on site, paid $100 a month, given three meals a day and there´s even a school for the 64 children on the farm, and three baseball teams!
Eddy and Mausi took over in 1975, and reserved a third of the land to natural forest, a third for coffee, and the rest to farm buildings which house the workers and pasture for cattle, pigs and chickens. Eddy has written book, “Nicaragua y su cafe” – i’ve got to try and find that on Amazon! I met Eddy very briefly (as my guidebook says, they are both happy to give you a tour but only they are not busy, which is not often!). He seemed very enthusiastic when I said I was a student of coffee, and everyone else I’ve met says he never stops talking, so he could prove very handy for this project!
The coffee is processed at a ‘beneficio’ or mill which is attached to the main farm house. However, this roaster is very small, and they only roast a little for domestic sales – you can buy bags of their coffee in the souvenir shop or at the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa for instance. (and yes, i bought some!) 80% of the main crop is exported to the States, and the other 20% to Spain – this is all exported green (unroasted) however.
Unsurprisingly, the farm is certified organic, and also has the Rainforest Alliance stamp. In 1995 it won a “Semper Virens” award (‘always green’) from the International Ecological Summit. The only stamp they don’t carry is FairTrade – but they don’t need it. They are SCAA members, the coffee obviously commands a very steep price, even during the coffee crisis, and the workers are looked after very well indeed. This may be one example where I will agree with the Cup of Excellence people, it is quality coffee which makes money just by being high quality. However, this is also a large, private farm set in near-perfect coffee growing area. What they do here couldn’t necessary be done on tiny farms within community owned cooperatives.
The green credentials are extremely impressive however. The biggest polluter in coffee production, particularly in wet processing like this is waste water which is used to wash the coffee cherries off the beans. The water gets extremely acidic with the fruit juices and on most farms, is pumped into the nearest river. Here, however, it goes through a two-tank pressurised purification system that uses the porous volcanic rocks to filter the water. These tanks allow the juice to ferment until biogas can be collected – this is used for cooking on the farm. The remaining water makes its way round the farm in over 1km of PVC piping, and evertually makes it to their hydroelectric plant, which also uses natural streams and a lake to power the turbine and provide electricity to all the farm buildings.
Biogas and/or methane is also collected from an anaerobic digestor. All other organic waste, including human waste from the compost toilets, cattle manure and chicken waste/bedding is added to these digestors. Once the gases have been collected, the solid waste joins the decomposing coffee cherries as worm food in the delightfully enormous worm farm, and comes out again a few weeks later as perfect compost.
No part of the coffee plant is wasted, as even the husks (parchment) are burnt under the huge grills in the kitchen – apparently coffee-smoked meat tastes fantastic, and I can well believe it! (the restaurant on site serves authentic German smoked sausage from the farms pigs – i wonder if they were coffee smoked too? They were exceptionally good!) The ashes from these grills are then mixed with water, until they can be used as liquid fertiliser on the crops again.
Other plants are also used throughout the farm as natural, sustainable ways of crop protection. Banana trees shade the coffee and feed both the workers and the cows, tall, strong yucca plants provide windbreaks and protect against landslides, a special type of moss is grown specifically on slopes to avoid soil erosion in heavy rains (and trust me, there is a lot of heavy rain in those mountains!!) They even grow eucalyptus trees, then shred the leaves, mix them with water and spray it on the coffee plants as a natural insect repellant. Finally, the very clever red bottles trap the ‘brocas’ (coffee weevils) – but even they die drunk and happy.
I came away from this first trip mightily, mightily impressed (and soaking wet). I think my two companions for the day, Dean and Julie, were a little taken aback with quite how geeky and excited i got by it all, but they both said the found it interesting too so I am not quite mad. However, I now have a million questions for Eddy and Mausi, the main ones being, how on earth did they design all these green processes?? And more importantly, does any of this ecological wonderfulness actually affect the flavour and quality of the coffee? I did ask, and was told by our guide for the day, Manuel, that it would be possible for me to come pick coffee there when the harvest begins properly in a week or so. I’m not entirely sure if he was taking me seriously, however. I have every intention of going back up there on Monday though, so we shall see!