Coffee Economics Pt.2 of 3
My second stop in Guatemala was at the ASOBAGRI co-op in the Huehuetenango region after a very bumpy 12-hour drive through winding mountain roads with beautiful vistas. I enjoyed the glimpses of people going about their lives in small communities along the highland road, herding sheep, washing clothes or just sitting quietly, zenfully basking in the sun like iguanas in the front of small shops. I travelled with a young agronomist named Joshua who is employed by the co-op to work with coffee farmers to improve organic production methods. It was very interesting to talk about sustainable agriculture with him and to get a sense of what the farmers are doing to work towards a more profitable industry for themselves in the future.
We spent the day in Barillas, to meet with the co-op managers, to see the bodega warehouse where the recently harvested coffee is stored and to cup samples from the lots that are planned to be shipped to Just Us! in the spring. The green coffee still needs time to rest at origin in its protective parchment shell, to allow flavours to settle out in the beans before being dry-milled, sorted, bagged and shipped. ASOBAGRI is located in a temporary facility while they rebuild after a rogue mudslide wiped-out their warehouse and offices during heavy rains last year. A major blow to the co-op and the community, which also lost 8 people in the same slide. Still, the co-op just keeps moving forward with confidence and resilience, as best they can under the conditions.
We cupped the samples in their lab and went over quality control standards. I shared some ideas with them about best practices in the cupping lab and we discussed the qualities that we found in the coffee. I was excited about the potential of these high altitude Guatemalan coffees. We have put a lot of work into our relationship with this co-op and started to offer quality incentives to them to segregate small lots from the best farms for the containers that we buy from them. The program has proven very successful and their coffee has shown consistently to be some of the best quality that Just Us! has to offer, with rich tangerine, cherry, chocolate, hazelnut and even hibiscus and licorice-like flavours in the cup. We feature their coffee in our Guatemalan line and it is the base for many of our medium-dark blends.
We also discussed become involved in their Café Feminino project this year, which provides support for women in the co-op to advance their social and agricultural programs. The next morning, we headed up the mountainside to visit with some of the farmers in the co-op. Most of them provided lots that went towards the containers for Just Us! last year. They were very excited to be working closely with the agronomists and Just Us! to keep developing production methods to maximize quality, in the hopes of advancing a market together that appreciates artisanal farming, roasting, brewing and the intrinsic qualities and nuances of their beans. They told me that the prices they are being paid by Just Us! are adequate to sustain them and their families through the year and that they want to keep building on our trade relationship.
We spent the day going over harvesting and production methods in detail on the farms. I was very impressed to see how the co-op has focused on developing small processing infrastructure on each farm rather than having large factory processing beneficios that serve whole communities. This allows each farmer to maintain hands-on control over the quality through each step of processing and allows the co-op to maintain traceability so that they can sell high quality microlots for a premium in the market and provide higher net incomes for these farmers. I respectfully shared my observations with them about their successes, as well as some recommendations for further quality improvements. They were very receptive and said that I was the first coffee buyer to give them constructive feedback on their farming and production. I really think that this co-op is set-up well for the future, to be part of a value-added industry that will allow small farmers to make sustainable profits and invest in their livelihoods. They specialize in organic production and have the technical skills, natural environment, systems, drive and vision to produce beautiful, delicate and rich coffee.