Monday, February 24, 2014

Relationships renewed and begun

Written by Sally Wevers, who led a team from Calvary Church in Holland, Michigan, on a visit to La Unión from Feb. 11 to 18. 

An eight person team recently returned from La Unión, Honduras. Despite different ages, backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, the group bonded extremely well. The Unión MicroFinanza staff did an amazing job setting up the schedule, as we were able to spend time with farmers, families, students at Abundant Life school, and individuals in La Unión.

The trip was unique in that it took place during coffee harvest, and we were able to receive and process Marlon Carcamo's (Calvary's coffee provider) coffee cherries. We picked coffee, unloaded 150-pound bags of fresh coffee cherries, processed them through the beneficio, hand sorted, stirred beans in the solar dryer, smelled, tested and tasted coffee.

We had times of reflection, devotions, and debriefing, sharing, and challenge. In order to share so many thoughts from the team, we are listing some observations, impacts, and responses. We hope you enjoy reading about what we have learned.

- There is extreme poverty next to spectacular beauty, and the two extremes painfully clash.
- Calvary's coffee farmer, Marlon Carcamo, was thrilled and honored to have North Americans pick in his field and have lunch in his home with his family. But, the honor was ours.
- Our hearts hurt for the difficult physical labor and efforts placed on our farmer friends, so painfully affected by a leaf rust fungus that was no fault of their own. The fungus destroyed major portions of the coffee fields for many farmers. Knowing the families, having faces with names, brings authentic sadness and concern to the team. Our prayers will now be more intentional for them.
-"It is unfair that they work so hard and their provision for food is wiped out. The unfairness makes me mad!  I don't think I will complain when I get my Saturday chore list anymore," shared by the youngest member of our team.
- Physical provisions for families have been negatively affected, but there is more. Education for many has been taken away. We spent limited time in Nueva Paz -- this is where a team helped to build water collection systems called pilas two years ago. Eight children could be named from this one small community who had to quit their local school for lack of $15 per student for the semester!

- We are committed to purchasing the Aldea Coffee at church, and sharing our experience with others. The choices we make at home do dramatically impact others.
- We are partnering with an amazing organization in La Unión. The Unión Microfinanza (UMF) staff is committed to change. One of the staff members shared this with us, "Coffee is the thing we do to partner with and provide change. It could have been tea, or something else. The driving passion we have is the people, not the product."
- The UMF staff has the wisdom and the education to teach and replicate supplies needed to create smaller scale beneficios for area farmers. This training continues to have ripple affects in the community. We are grateful for Calvary's partnership with this organization.
- The team was challenged to attain more responsible personal stewardship, to consider what "living with less" might look like, to realize a growing appreciation for UMF's tremendous commitment to La Unión, and we experienced a greater appreciation for the education offered at Abundant Life school. The spiritual maturity of high school students was a powerful witness to us.

Most, if not all of us, have been asked,"Why go on a mission trip?" This is a summary of our answers. It is not about how much work that could be accomplished, but rather it is about relationships renewed, and others begun. It is not about what we could teach them, but what they had to teach us. When we now know names with faces, people matter. What they do and need matters, and responding to needs brings Christ-centered joy. Mission trips motivate personally and communally. Step out of your comfort zone. Mission trips are addictive!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Photos: What’s new at the UMF beneficio

The first coffees of the 2014 harvest are in at the beneficio! As we discussed in a previous post, we made some changes to how we are running things at the beneficio this year. But we couldn’t do this without making some changes to the beneficio itself.

First, and most importantly, we turned our four large fermentation tanks into eight smaller tanks. This is important because it allows each farmer to have two small tanks, meaning they can bring coffee more continually:

Second, we are building another two solar dryers. One will be a large solar dryer, totaling four, so that each farmer has access to their own dryer. The other will be a smaller dryer that we designed in the off-season. This dryer will be used mainly for experimentation, and will also serve as a model to farmers who produce small amounts of coffee and cannot afford to build a larger solar dryer:

Third, we have our custom-built coffee cherry size sorting machine up and running. This machine will sort out under-ripe and over-ripe cherries that would otherwise lower the quality of the coffee:

Fourth, we have installed a biodigester. This biodigester will use anaerobic fermentation to treat coffee wastewater and coffee pulp, ensuring that we are not contaminating the environment around us. Additionally, it will produce methane gas that can be used to run our processing equipment. More on this in another post.

We have also made several smaller changes including a newly designed valve in our upper tanks that will facilitate coffee flow, lowering our processing water usage, and check boxes in our wastewater tubing to prevent blockages:

All of these changes will help UMF to better achieve our goals of quality, training, and sustainability at the beneficio.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A new approach at the UMF beneficio

We’re firing up the depulping machine at the UMF beneficio in La Unión, ready for the 2014 coffee harvest! This year will look a little different at the beneficio – let us tell you what’s new and what we hope to accomplish through the changes we’ve made.

Each year, we learn more about coffee processing and how to better achieve our goals of quality, training, and environmental sustainability. The 2013 harvest season saw successes in all three of these areas, but we want to improve on it by making changes for the 2014 harvest.

The biggest change we’ve made is that only four different farmers will process their coffee at the UMF beneficio this year. These farmers were pre-selected based on their participation in previous years at the beneficio and in our microloan program. The main idea for having only four farmers each year is to ensure that we are able to provide the best training experience possible, so that they will be able to replicate and continue processing high quality coffee on their own in future years.

The fermentation tanks get tiling after being split in half.
In addition, we (UMF) and the farmers will be better able to manage how much coffee is coming to the beneficio for processing, and when. Each of the four farmers will be assigned an entire solar dryer and two fermentation tanks (we modified our previous tanks to divide them in half and create eight tanks in total). Farmers will be in charge of managing this equipment, so they will know before they pick coffee if they have room at the UMF beneficio to process, ferment, and dry it. Through this experience, farmers will learn about managing the coffee processing at their own beneficios in the future.

By working in-depth with four farmers during this harvest, we will also be able to visit coffee farms on the day of picking and offer on-site advice on picking quality coffee. High quality picking is one of the areas that we have identified as having the greatest impact on final quality, so this will benefit the farmers (who will get a higher price for better quality) as well as consumers, who will get even better coffee at the end of the day.

Also, we’ll require farmers to spend at least 20 hours at the UMF beneficio to learn about the different processing stages that their coffee is going through, including receiving, fermentation and drying. This in-depth training is important to enable farmers to process their own coffee in the future. Since we also want to make sure that other farmers have the opportunity to receive this training in the future, we’re limiting the number of years that a farmer can process at the UMF beneficio.

All of these changes will continue to transform the beneficio into a stepping stone to farmers achieving their own coffee processing capabilities. Within the next few years, we are excited to see farmers graduate from the UMF beneficio and implement high quality, environmentally sustainable beneficios of their own. We will be posting updates throughout the harvest!

Monday, December 16, 2013

In coffee leaf rust experiment, a surprise discovery

We're just over three months into UMF’s experiment comparing chemical and organic treatments for coffee leaf rust. The experiment is going well, but full details on how the treatments are working will come later, as we are still analyzing the most recent sampling. Apart from the treatment results, we have observed something interesting and unexpected. We first saw it a little over a month ago, and we confirmed it with formal sampling this past week: branches that don’t have any leaves start to die, but branches with even one leaf remaining, stay alive.

In our analysis, we found that 91% of branches that have no leaves showed signs of dying (dieback): blackened ends and softening of the branch. However, only 16% of branches with a single leaf showed signs of dieback. And 0% of branches that had two or more leaves showed signs of dieback.

These results are interesting for two reasons. First, it suggests that keeping a single leaf on a branch will prevent most long-term damage that will affect future harvests. Having two leaves on a branch ensures that no long-term damage will occur to the branch.

For farmers dealing with leaf rust, this observation has important potential implications. Throughout the course of the harvest year, a coffee plant grows new leaves, although this growth is concentrated during the rainy season. Farmers may be able to prevent long-term damage to a plant simply by using proper preventative measures to protect new leaves, even when older leaves of a plant are highly infected by leaf rust.

Second, our observation suggests that the long-term effects of leaf rust are branch-based, rather than plant-based. If a branch losing all of its leaves had a negative effect on the rest of the plant, we would expect to see a larger number of branches that show dieback but still have leaves. This means that proper treatment of leaf rust on one branch will not necessarily prevent long-term damage to other branches on that same tree. But, conversely, damage to one branch will not necessarily cause damage to another branch.

Furthermore, it appears that the effects of leaf rust are not transferred between primary branches and the secondary branches that grow off of them. Even though they are part of the same branch, we are seeing that secondary branches can lose all of their leaves and start to die while the primary branch continues to be healthy, and vice versa.

These numbers are not yet conclusive, and further experiments will need to be run in the future to be certain that leaf loss is causing, not just associated, with the dying of branches. There is still much to be done in terms of understanding how to take these new results and convert them into practical leaf rust prevention advice to farmers. However, they are certainly suggestive that the last few leaves are vital to the survival of coffee plants. We will continue to keep you informed as the experiment progresses.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

UMF's 2012-2013 Coffee Transparency Report

At UMF, we believe that transparency is better than any particular certification. For this reason, we are proud to present our second annual Transparency Report, detailing all pricing for the coffees that we purchased from farmers in the 2013 coffee harvest. This report details how much coffee we purchased, which farmers we purchased from, what prices we paid directly to these farmers, and how to compare these to numbers reported by Fair Trade or direct trade coffees that report FOB pricing.

Coffee farmer Rudy Carcamo on his field.
Farmers in La Unión were hit doubly during the 2013 harvest, with large losses resulting from coffee leaf rust and prices dipping to three year lows when farmers were ready to sell coffee. Although most coffee buyers, including Fair Trade Certified coffee, dropped prices with the falling market price, UMF made the decision to maintain prices from the 2012 harvest. If the coffee is as good this year as last, why would we lower the amount of money that we pay to purchase it? This year, our average green coffee purchase price was $2.54 (it was $2.48 in 2012) and our average parchment purchase price was $1.59 (it was $1.81 in 2012). Over the same time period, the coffee market price dropped 73%.

We encourage you to read this Transparency Report and ask questions. There are many companies and organizations around the world that claim to be helping farmers through the prices they pay for coffee, including ourselves. Without transparency, it is impossible for you, the consumer, to make informed decisions. Once you have read our transparency report, look for transparent information from other socially conscious coffee companies so that you can make an informed decision on what you buy for your morning cup.

How we pay farmers

UMF receives purchased coffee from farmers.
Among the numbers you will see below is the price that UMF paid for parchment coffee, or coffee with the shell still attached (this is how the vast majority of farmers sell their coffee). UMF and coffee farmers signed contracts in La Unión at the time of purchase, and these contracts show the total amount paid to a farmer for his or her coffee. The parchment coffee price is the amount of money paid directly to the farmer, divided by the amount of coffee sold to us, and it is the most transparent representation of what farmers received for their coffee.

To make comparison easier, we also translate this number into an amount paid to farmer per pound of green coffee as well as FOB pricing. FOB pricing is the most common number given by companies who report what they pay for coffee. However, this number includes shipping, preparation, and taxes that was NOT paid to the farmer. This number is different for every coffee but, as seen below, was an average of $0.41/lb green for the coffees that we purchased during this harvest.

To learn more about how this parchment price differs from prices quoted by Fair Trade and other exporters, read our 2011-2012 Transparency Report.

The Basics
Gilberto and Pedro sample coffee to be roasted and cupped.
UMF received and cupped 86 different coffees from 47 different farmers in the 2013 harvest. From these candidates, we selected and purchased the best 50 coffees from a total of 33 farmers. Eleven of these farmers participate in UMF’s microloan and training programs. In all, we purchased a total of 67,284 lb of parchment coffee from farmers. Next, we sent the coffee to a processing center in Honduras to remove the parchment and prepare it for exporting. This left us with 42,408 lb of green coffee, ready to be exported to the United States and sold. 

The smallest amount of coffee that we purchased from a farmer was 103 lb of parchment coffee, and the largest amount was 5,201 lb of coffee. The highest price that we paid was $1.78/lb parchment, and the lowest price paid was $1.38/lb parchment. As a comparison with Fair Trade Certified prices, the highest FOB price we paid was $3.72 and the lowest FOB price paid was $2.43. For reference, the Fair Trade Certified FOB coffee price this harvest was between $1.60 and $1.78 the past year.

The Numbers
Here is UMF’s 2012-2013 coffee transparency information:

A note for the blends: the price per pound green to farmer and the FOB price are estimates because the coffees are mixed prior to processing. However, the parchment price is exact for each farmer’s coffee in the blend. The bolded prices for the blends give the average for the entire blend, and the bolded number for total exported represents the weight of the entire blend.

Below, we’ve posted a sample contract to show how we purchase coffee from farmers (we’ve removed from the sample the part of the contract that includes personal financial details). The main parts of the contract are explained here:

  Código del Café (Coffee Code): A unique code assigned to each sample we receive.

  Cantidad (Amount): The amount of parchment coffee we purchased in qq, or quintales. (One quintal is 100 lb.)

  Oferta (Offer): The rate we offer for each carga of coffee. (One carga is 200 lb, and the price is listed in the Honduran currency: Lempira. 1 USD ~ 20 Lempira depending on daily exchange rate)

  Precio Contrato (Contract Price): The total price paid to the farmer -- the amount of coffee purchased multiplied by the rate offered. (Oddly, the standard practice is to list the amount of coffee in quintales, or multiples of 100 lb, and to make the offer per carga, or 200 lb. It’s a confusing system, and we didn’t invent it. The contract price takes this difference into account.)

  Firma (Signature): This contract was signed in UMF’s La Unión office by UMF Financial Officer Charles Heins.

For a glossary of terms in the transparency report, and to view last year's numbers, visit our 2011-2012 Transparency Report.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Coffee Leaf Rust Experiment Update: One Month In

It has been just over a month since our initial sampling and treatments in the coffee leaf rust experiment that we are running here in La Unión (for the basics, read here). We have applied all organic treatments twice, all conventional treatments once, and have just finished looking at the data from one month in.

So what did we see?

Pedro must take precautions when
applying conventional treatments.
First, the conventional treatments: Although Alto 10 poses health and environmental hazards, it is hard to dispute its effectiveness. Of all the treatments, it is the only one that showed a decrease of rust incidence in all measured severity factors. Silvacur, the other systemic fungicide we are testing, showed a slowing of rust development, but didn’t show a decrease in the measured severity. Copper, the final conventional treatment, did not show significant initial results. However, this is logical, since copper is a preventative treatment whose effects are more likely to be seen over a longer time period.

Now, the organic treatments: When compared to the copper trial, milk whey showed a slight decrease in infected leaves, number of spots, and coverage area of rust. However, these decreases are relatively small and could still be attributed to random error. Sodium Bicarbonate showed a decrease in all areas when compared to copper. However, these decreases are also relatively small and could also still be attributed to random error.

And finally, the madrifol  treatment: Of all of the areas, this treatment is perhaps the most confusing. Upon initial analysis, it appears that there was a large increase in the number of rust spots in this plot. However, it was observed that two of the five treated plants appeared to have decreased rust incidence, while the other three showed significant increases in rust severity.

Martir applies organic
treatments to the plants.
We currently believe that this difference is due to differences in spacing—the two plants that showed a decrease have normal spacing while the three plants that showed an increase have closer than normal spacing due to planting irregularities on the test farm. This spacing difference appears to cause overlap of branches, leading to areas of higher infection.

We separated out the two trees that have normal spacing and found a decrease in both coverage and spot size, suggesting that madrifol may actually interrupt the development of rust spots, but only with proper spacing and pruning.

We are continuing to apply both organic and conventional treatments on the test farm. We will take the next sampling in another 30 days, and we will keep you updated on the progress of the experiment.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Experiment targets coffee leaf rust through prevention and treatment

Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR), caused by Hemileia Vastritix, is a fungus that attacks coffee plantations worldwide, leading to leaf loss, loss of harvest and, in severe cases, long-term damage to coffee plants. During the 2012-2013 growing and harvest season, this fungus caused massive economic losses to farmers throughout Latin America, with some farmers losing as much as 90 percent of their harvest.

In response to the continuing problem that farmers face in dealing with CLR, UMF is performing an experiment to evaluate different inorganic (chemical) fungicides as well as potential organic treatments, with the goal of finding organic treatments that can serve to control the rust and prevent future damage to the farmers of La Unión. Chemical fungicides are very expensive and, following the loss during last year’s harvest, many of the farmers in UMF’s program have been unable to purchase proper treatments. 

Additionally, these chemical fungicides have been shown to have harmful effects on the health of farmers that spray them, even more so since access to proper protective equipment is difficult for small-scale farmers. And finally, chemical fungicides have been shown damaging to the environment, wildlife, and water sources. The discovery of organic alternatives to chemical fungicides holds the potential to address all three of these issues.

Martir checks each leaf on a selected branch.
The way that we are running this experiment is relatively simple—select different areas of a farm, apply different treatments to each of those sections, and monitor results. We are working on the farm of long-time UMF client Amado Reyes for this experiment.

In the last week of August, we took initial samples of each area of Amado’s farm. These samples will serve as a baseline for the effects that chemical and organic treatments have on CLR. We then sprayed the first round of treatments on each area.

The chemical fungicides that we are using are copper, Silvacur, and Alto 10. These are the three most recommended fungicides currently available in the area.

The organic treatments that we are using are milk whey, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and madrifol.

Milk whey is widely available from dairy farmers in the area as a waste product from producing cheese. This means that farmers are able to attain it without cost. Whey has been shown to have effects as good as, or in some cases better than, chemical treatments when applied to powdery funguses in grape vineyards and cucumber farms. The powdery funguses that attack grapes and cucumbers are not coffee leaf rust, but they have similar structure. This leads us to believe that there is a high likelihood that whey will be able to control rust outbreaks in coffee.

Gilberto sprays copper on one section of plants.
Sodium bicarbonate, otherwise known as common baking soda, has proven capable of different levels of control of powdery funguses in crops such as roses and grape vineyards. We are hopeful that the same mechanisms control powdery funguses in other plants will prove effective when applying sodium bicarbonate to control coffee leaf rust.

Madrifol is a locally-made fermented mixture of ground leaves from Madreado trees and wood ash. Although there haven’t been any scientific studies showing whether madrifol is effective, it is used as an anti-fungal in different applications in Honduras. The added wood ash contains bicarbonates (similar to those in baking soda), other organic salts shown to be effective in controlling powdery funguses, and small amounts of copper. We are unsure of the expected outcome of this treatment, but this home-made remedy has long use in Honduras, and we are hopeful that it will be effective when applied to coffee.

We will continue spraying organic/inorganic treatments and monitoring the progression of CLR in each of the separate treatment areas over the coming months. We believe that this experiment is the most important way that UMF can support both farmers and the environment in La Unión as coffee leaf rust outbreaks continue in coming years. We will keep you updated on the progress as we go.

To view photos of our first data collection on the farm, visit our Facebook album here.