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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Conquering coffee leaf rust, one farm at a time

By Heather Farrell

The air cools as we pass through La Zona Alta – The High Zone – on our way to Pedro Mejia’s coffee farm. The Honduran village is appropriately named – we’re level with the clouds that still cling to the mountains across the valley, remnants of last night’s thunderstorm. My coworker, Pedro Hernández, guides the motorcycle carefully on the damp dirt roads. We’re meeting Mejia to walk his field with him and do a leaf analysis that will identify disease prevalence and nutrient deficiencies on his farm.

Pedro Mejia holds up a rust-affected leaf.
Mejia has worked with Unión MicroFinanza for years, participating in our microloan program and selling us his specialty-grade coffee. But Mejia’s past harvest, like so many in Central America, was affected by the outbreak of coffee leaf rust, known in Spanish as la roya. Now he wants advice on what to do about it.

Mejia knows about leaf rust: he has been to large, general trainings offered by engineers from coffee organizations in Honduras. But as for a specialist from any organization coming to his farm to show him what to do in practice? “Never,” Mejia says. His two fields are less than two acres each, and the larger organizations do not have the resources to visit small farms like these.

Unión MicroFinanza has begun individualized field trainings to meet this need. A majority of the farmers in this region own small lots; but each finca, or coffee farm, has different agricultural needs. Coffee leaf rust will not be brought under control through general trainings, or through educational materials offered at a price outside the budgets of most coffee farmers. Each farmer, no matter the size of their field, must know how to control and prevent the disease from spreading.

“Look, this is lempira – it’s resistant,” Mejia points to the rust-resistant coffee variety that’s full of leaves and easy to distinguish on an affected farm. Three-quarters of this finca is red catuaí, a variety known for its quality, but which is susceptible to leaf rust. Some of the plants are recovering from leaf rust and have a good number of leaves, some have only a few leaves hanging on, and some Mejia has already cut down because they were beyond recovery. Last harvest, only 50 percent of his red catuaí cherries ripened. The rest didn’t ripen because the plant didn’t have enough leaves to produce energy for ripening the fruit.

Mejia and Hernández conduct a leaf analysis of the farm.
Mejia plunges deeper into his field to show us more plants. I struggle to keep up, sliding on the loose earth, crashing through dead branches, and getting facefuls of spider webs and wet leaves. Hernández shows Mejia how to perform the leaf analysis – pick 100 leaves from different trees without looking at them. Then, they examine the sampling, and based on shape and color irregularities, determine what nutrients the plants lack and what diseases are present (leaf rust isn’t the only coffee plague: diseases like ojo de gallo can be just as damaging to leaves, and affect varieties resistant to rust.)

“We recommend you do the analysis each month. The purpose is to control roya through nutrition and vigilance, to see if it’s going down,” Hernández says.

After the analysis, we move down the road to Mejia’s second farm. Right away, we see the plants are dramatically different from those on his other field. These lush young trees are of the variety yellow catuaí. Already they are laden with green cherries. I haven’t seen branches of catuaí trees so full of coffee in a while. Seeing these beautiful young plants, I now understand why Mejia might consider stumping and replanting on his older field.

The trees on his other farm are 12 years old; they’re tall and already have most of their expected harvests behind them. Yes, it would be less time, work and money if they could recover from the leaf rust after a year. But the time and money put into fighting the disease and trying to re-grow leaves wouldn’t be worth it; it’d be better to wait the two years needed for a new plant to produce a harvest. And, as farmers are now fully aware, preventing a disease like leaf rust is much easier than fighting it off once it has settled in and done its damage.

I ask Hernández if leaf rust was so bad last harvest because it caught everyone off guard.

“Yes, the outbreak was a surprise, so there wasn’t a chance for prevention,” he says.

Mejia walks between rows of
red catuaí coffee plants.
With his yellow catuaí, Mejia is ahead of the leaf rust: he can make sure the young plants stay healthy, with all the nutrients they need to ripen their large harvest while fighting off any leaf rust attacks. If he sees the rust start to take hold, he can use preventative sprays before it damages the plants.

As for his older field, he will control the rust as well as he can and wait a year to see if the plants recuperate. Hernández recommends a prevention product based on the results of the leaf analysis (more than 50 percent of the sampled leaves showed rust), and calculates how much of it Mejia will need. He’ll be able to purchase the product with the help of a microloan from Unión MicroFinanza.

If the trees don’t recover, he will stump some trees and clear the rest to plant anew.

“But I want to replant with catuaí again. And maybe bourbon. They have good flavor and I don’t want to lose that,” Mejia says. This is exactly what Unión MicroFinanza hopes – that farmers will maintain diversity on their fields and keep coffee varieties such as catuaí and bourbon that result in more flavorful coffee. Through individualized trainings, farmers will receive the practical knowledge they need to overcome coffee leaf rust and produce a consistent harvest of high-quality coffee.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Communities of San Agustín and Fort Collins reunite

By Kayli Horne

For three years, Flood the Nations and Life Church in Fort Collins, CO, have been visiting La Unión and surrounding villages. Last year, a team worked with the village of San Agustín to install water filters. This July, a group returned to spend time in the village again, catching up with people they'd met, seeing how the filters were improving families' health, and meeting with village leaders to discuss possible partnership projects for the future.

As a summer intern with Unión MicroFinanza, I got to witness the community partnership-based model of development as the group visited different families in San Agustín, and see how the filters have impacted their lives. Unanimously, the people spoke of improved health for themselves and their children due to the filter systems. The Fort Collins group got to see how their fundraising and trip last year have been effective. This is a crucial aspect of this development model. Monitoring the success of past projects keeps people accountable, prevents wasted resources, and informs future initiatives.

UMF's Patrick Hughes translates as leaders
from San Agustín present project proposals.
The highlight of my time with the group was the community meeting in San Agustín. Community leaders, husbands and wives, and children, along with the UMF team and the Fort Collins group, congregated in the village's meeting place: the church. Here is where I saw the difference in this kind of development strategy, which involves the close participation of community members. As North Americans, we did not start the meeting with our plans for the community. Rather, we offered it up to the community to present their ideas. The main presenter was an amiable middle-aged man, who professed learning to read and write in his adult years on his own. My respect for him instantly swelled. He outlined six main proposals that had been designed with general community needs in mind.

Watching this man speak and then the community members vote on a proposal, I was reminded of my readings about development theory. In his book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues that freedom ought to be viewed as the means and ends of development. When one of the community leaders was presenting, I began to see how this theory works in practice. Through involving him in the planning process, he is a direct agent in the process of development. His meaningful work planning proposals is not only helping accomplish the goal of our work here, but also is the goal itself.

It is no wonder to me that people scoff when one aims at grand poverty alleviation plans or having a desire to “save the world”. These goals are too general, and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the needs. The beauty of one community partnering with another is that communities with excess material goods can narrow their focus in the developing world, while at the same time building meaningful relationships.

As one member of the Fort Collins group put it, the people of San Agustín may be poor economically, but we are poor in spirit. Through visiting year after year, these partnering communities create a relationship based on mutual respect. Rather than a give-receive based model, these partnerships foster collaboration and working together, as well as meaningful relationships for members of both communities.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Notes from a coffee field training

By Kayli Horne

Our altitude is around 1,550 meters as we pull up to Rigoberto Paz’s finca. I have made the ascent on the back of Pedro’s moto, passing waterfalls, clouds, and two aldeas, Chimizal and El Sitio, along the way.

Rigoberto prunes a coffee tree.
Gilberto pulls out his phone to call Rigo to let him know we’ve arrived, but he laughs because we can hear his phone ringing in the distance. We make our way through the rows of coffee trees, guided by Rigo’s whistles, and find him, machete in hand, among a section of newly planted coffee trees.

Rigo tells me he has owned his farm for fifteen years and has sold his coffee to Unión MicroFinanza the last three years. Patrick, UMF’s president, had told me that Rigo’s coffee last season was especially delicious—in each cup there were chocolatey-mango flavors. I feel privileged to be here at his finca, where the warm, liquid deliciousness I enjoy in the morning originates.

We start with pruning the farm. Gilberto tells me that although it seems counterintuitive, a coffee tree should not have as many hijos, or branches, as naturally grow; optimally, each tree should only have 2-3 hijos growing from the trunk. This is so that the leaves can get sufficient air and sunlight. If there are too many branches, the tree will actually produce less coffee, because there isn’t enough energy being allocated to cherry production and nourishment.

The section of the finca we’re working on is only two months old, and already there are up to seven hijos branching off. “Qué lastima,” or “what a pity,” Gilberto laments, as he cuts off five hijos from the tree. His face cringes, as if he can feel the plant’s pain. His love for coffee farming runs deep; he tells me he learned much of his knowledge about diseases and caring for the farm from his father. 
Light sprinkles of rain come and go throughout the morning. Pedro and Gilberto help Rigo prune about six rows of coffee trees. I ask Rigo how much time it will take him to do the whole farm. He says it will take him a week to prune half of a manzana (that’s a little less than an acre). 

Pruning, however, is just one of the basic practices that UMF covers in its trainings. Next, Gilberto and Pedro teach Rigo how to identify diseases and nutritional deficiencies. We assess the health of the farm by analyzing 100 leaves chosen without bias from different trees and parts of the farm. Pedro holds up each leaf one by one and identifies if there is a deficiency or disease. Rigo records the results in the UMF libreta, or notebook, in which he can continue to document leaf analyses every month.

Rigoberto and Gilberto record results from the leaf analysis.
As we’re finishing up the 100-leaf sample, the sun comes out, which if you were wondering, is pretty intense in the tropics at 1,550 meters. Ten of the leaves have roya, or coffee leaf rust, 20 have ojo de gallo, or chicken’s eye, and a handful have nutritional deficiencies. The verdict? Rigo makes plans to fumigate later this week with cobra verde to limit the spread of the diseases, so the leaves can continue to grow, making healthy plants and, in turn, more delicious coffee during this year’s harvest.

With personalized training sessions, not large-scale demonstrations or brochures, UMF makes the connection between current agricultural research and small-scale rural farmers. This is a relationship-based organization that is here for the long haul, not just to buy coffees during harvest or distribute microloans. The innovative farming techniques aim at improving the quality and increasing the quantity of the coffee, so the farmer can make more money during the harvest. This works toward our ultimate goal: enriching the lives of the people of the communities in which we work.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Life in La Unión, by the numbers

By Kayli Horne

¡Buenos! Kayli here, the newest addition to the UMF intern team this summer. My academic year didn’t end till mid-June, so I’m just getting settled here in beautiful La Unión.

Here’s a bit about myself: I just finished my first year studying at the University of Chicago. I haven’t decided a major yet, but I’m interested in the social sciences, particularly sociology, public policy, and human rights. 

But before moving to Chicago, I grew up in Spring Lake, MI, where I got involved with Unión MicroFinanza. Last summer I helped Andrew sell coffee on Saturday mornings at Muskegon Farmer’s Market, and would explain to customers what UMF does for the farmers and community here in Honduras. This was all second-hand information, however, because I had never been there myself! The beauty of being able to spend the summer here in La Unión is getting to see the mission of the organization played out daily. But—it’s only been a week! To give you a sense of what life is like in La Unión, here’s a look at my first week—by the numbers:

Hondurans who told me I looked like my brother: 7

Dillon, one year older than me, was an intern for UMF last summer. It’s clear he made quite the impression on many people in La Unión; they all seem to remember him and miss him a lot.

Even though I’ve only been here one week, I can already see how building relationships with the community is at the top of UMF’s priority list.  Rather than imposing what we as Americans think the community needs, we are asking the community through genuine relationships.

The view from my front porch.
Sightings from my front door of clouds below the mountaintops: 3

All I could think was: I’m never going back to the Midwest. 

Moto rides: 1

I took a motorcycle ride to tour UMF’s beneficio, where the coffee undergoes the first stage of processing. A bit of a coffee nerd myself, I was geeking out at the beneficio.  It’s truly amazing the love and care that goes into every cup of coffee we enjoy in the States. Cooler still, the beneficio serves as a replicable model for the coffee farmers: the goal is to improve the quality of the coffee through sustainable processing. 

Different comedors visited: 2

Comedors (small eateries) are great for two reasons: 1) the food is delicious, read Sakina’s blog post for more info, and 2) It allows us to talk to locals in a friendly, laid-back way. 

Interviews with coffee farmers: 2

The other interns and I visited Sara Juarez and Fito Juarez this week to ask questions about everything from their harvest this year to how many children they have. It’s wonderful to be in the homes of not only local people, but farmers who have sold their coffee to UMF. 

Profiles of farmers made: 18

This is an integral part of what UMF does: connecting the consumer to the farmer.  Through the information we provide the customers of our coffee, they not only know where the farmer is from, but they learn the farmer’s goals, their family and exactly how much money they were paid for their coffee. This is such a clear step up from “Fair Trade,” it seems to me that it is the optimistic future of how we choose to consume.

Bats I witnessed the Hondurans exterminate from the other interns’ house: 3

I’m just glad it wasn’t my house...
Waiting for sunrise over La Unión.

People I stood with as I watched the sunrise over La Unión: 6

Martir, Pedro, and Gilberto (the amazing Hondurans who work for UMF) took Martir’s daughter, Kerry and I on a hike up the mountain to watch the sky light up at 5 a.m.

One week over, nine to go. I look forward to sharing my summer experiences with you via this blog! Stay tuned for updates on life in La Unión. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Meeting farmers, hearing their stories

By Kerry Huang

A lot can happen in a month. A business can be started. A house can be built. A farm can be planted. Or a life can be changed.

Only five weeks ago, I was in my comfortable room back home in Rochester with no clue of what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been to Central America before; how different could it be this time? What I didn’t realize was that living in a place for an extended period of time is completely different from vacationing there for a week. Since my first blog, I got to see and learn a lot more about life in La Unión. This post touches on two different aspects about my observations and opinions, both centered on farmers I have met in Honduras while in the office.

Kerry talks with farmers receiving their microloans.
Specifically, I have been busy working on microloans and on my research project. Here, microloans are distributed to farmers in the form of fertilizers. Farmers from aldeas (villages) around La Unión come to pick up their orders and receive any other information they need for their next monthly meeting. In preparing for microloans, we needed to set up a distribution sheet for all the farmers and go over what types of fertilizers they requested. Lead by Martir, Gilberto and Pedro, we reviewed every client’s loan application and determined how much each farmer qualified for and how much they would receive for their microloan. These numbers take into account the farmer’s attendance at bimonthly meetings and repayment records from past microloans.

Every client who came into the office had a story. The farmer that made the deepest impression on me was a man who walked in with crutches. At first, I thought his foot had nails in it that came through his socks, but that didn’t seem plausible. I glanced back. It did. On March 6th of this year, he had been chopping wood with an ax and accidentally chopped right through his foot. The nails were surgically implanted to hold his foot together until the wound healed. He is hoping to get the nails taken out in September but will need another checkup just in case.

In the aldeas, surgeries and emergency medical care aren’t available for many miles. The nearest hospitals are 2-3 hours away by bus, and for more serious cases, residents need to travel to San Pedro, about 5 hours away by bus. This farmer’s accident would have cost him not only medical bills, but also the income lost from not being able to work on his farm. Moreover, like much of Central America, his farm suffered from roya, or coffee leaf rust disease, which would have further impacted his harvest income. I can only imagine the hardships he endured (and still is enduring) to support his family. Despite the situation, his strength resonated. This has been a recurring theme with all residents of La Unión: resilience. They find a way to come back.

I was likewise impacted by another example of strength and resilience. It regards a common story shared by only a handful of voices: the voices of women. In the week and a half of microloans, I was excited to see a few women farmers walk in to buy fertilizer. In La Unión, women typically stay at home to cook (it may take hours to prepare one meal) and take care of their children (many households have three or more children). The male of the household is usually in charge of working on the farm or other business. In one of my conversations with Hondurans from La Unión, I mentioned that some fathers in the U.S. stay at home to take care of the children and do household work while the mother supports the family with her job. They simply laughed and thought I was joking. Although women in Honduras have many duties, they are usually not the main income-generator of the household. That is why I was very excited to witness five women, out of 143 clients, walk into the office for their microloans. Although only five physically came into the office, we have a total of 24 women microloan clients—17% of our total clients. (For those who didn’t come into the office, either their husbands picked up the fertilizer, or the village organized one or two representatives with trucks to pick up everyone’s fertilizer.) I recall learning that one of the women farmers represents La Cuesta as a village leader. And, in the town of La Unión, another woman simultaneously raises her three daughters, manages her coffee farms, and owns a coffee processing facility. I was impressed by the strength and independence these women show in their leadership roles.

By interacting with these and other farmers during these past few weeks, I have witnessed their unceasing ability to overcome obstacles. Whether faced with economic or social obstacles, they adopt a mentality of not succumbing to defeat—this is not for themselves, but for their family and their children. In every interview and every meeting with the farmers I have had, I see their faces light up as they mention their children, their cousins, and their parents. Through my conversations, I'm continuing to see how the people of La Unión work to support the ones they love. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reflecting on microloan season

By Sakina Shibuya

Sakina oversees the warehouse as
farmers come to pick up their fertilizer.
Last Friday marked the official ending of this year’s first round of microloans, which lasted for about two weeks. During this time, we distribute the agricultural input microloans to farmers in our program. In this post, I would like to share what, in my humble opinion as an intern, I find fascinating about UMF’s microfinance operation.

But, before I get into details, I would like to quickly explain what microfinance as a concept means in general, for some who may not be familiar with the term.

Microfinance generally refers to various financial services provided to a client population which is traditionally not served by conventional financial institutions. It includes anything from savings accounts to micro-insurance. Some may recall the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohammed Yunus. He is the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which is internationally famous its ultra small loans for small businesses, mostly owned by females. How ‘micro’ are Grameen Bank’s loans? It may be as small as a couple hundred US dollars.

Within the realm of microfinance, UMF provides microloans that are quite different from those of Grameen Bank. And I, as a graduate student who studies microfinance, am absolutely intrigued by UMF’s loans (I hope you are too, after this blog post.) So, let me be a bit arrogant and teacher-like for just a little, and explain why that is the case.

One may wonder how UMF implements loans and delivers cash to each farmer in a town where roads are unpaved, and water and electricity stop frequently. (La Unión doesn't have a bank branch – the closest branch is about an hour and half away by car.) It is quite risky for a bank to store loan funds in cash at its office. Additionally, having no bank in town indicates that farmers themselves are not going to be able to withdraw cash easily from their accounts (if they have any). Hence, conventional loan implementation through fund transfer between bank accounts doesn't make sense in the context of La Unión.

Given these obstacles, UMF implements loans by distributing fertilizers, rather than by allocating cash to farmers. Lending through the distribution of fertilizer has several implications. Firstly, it means that UMF can replace risk of keeping cash with one of storing fertilizer in a secure warehouse. Obviously, the latter has much lower risk.

Secondly, by distributing a specific commodity (fertilizer), UMF can restrict the use of loans. While cash can be used for purposes other than agricultural, fertilizer can only be applied to soil. Though it may be sold to attain cash, fertilizer is far less flexible than cash. Using fertilizer helps UMF reduce the necessity of fund tracing after loan implementation.

Brilliant, isnt’ it?

I very much enjoyed being part of UMF’s microloan operation. My responsibility during microloan time was to be in charge of the fertilizer storage and inventory control. It was my job to assure the right type and quantity of fertilizer that remained in physical inventory at the end of each business day.

Although my Spanish ability is limited, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with our coffee producers. One day, two producers from the same village came to pick up their fertilizer, but their truck broke down as soon as they parked it in front of the storage. A moment later, I was pushing the truck with them in order to kick-start it so it could go get fixed. After seeing the car leave, I went back to the office. Then, the daughters of one of the producers brought me a bottle of orange juice and crackers. It was their thank-you present for pushing their truck.

My Spanish is horrible, and I honestly doubted that my wimpy push was much help for them. But they shared with me a small part of their daily experience, and let me be part of their group just for a moment. The orange juice, crackers, and the smile they gave me were indescribable. Maybe I’m being too sentimental. But this has been my favorite moment in La Unión so far.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Adonil's corn mill, one year later

Interviews by Gilberto Barrientos and Pedro Hernández

Adonil and Gilberto
Jose Adonil Tejada came to La Unión on Friday to pick up his microloan of fertilizer for his coffee farm. Last year, Adonil received a loan from UMF to purchase a corn mill to grind corn into flour for his family and the community of La Ceibita, where he lives. In the year since he was able to buy this mill, he has paid off the loan and has secured a small but steady income for his family from the mill.

Besides receiving money from other families using the mill, Adonil’s family saves money by being able to use their own mill instead of paying to use another. Currently, they have an average of four people from the community coming to use the mill each day. The price Adonil charges others to use the mill depends on how much corn they bring, but he said the average is about 3 lempiras per person. This means the family earns about 12 lempiras per day from the mill.

Twelve lempiras is about $0.60, which doesn’t seem like much. However, many families in the La Unión region live on less than $2 per day. To receive an extra income of 360 lempiras (about $18) per month is no small thing, especially if a member of the family needs medical care, new clothes or school supplies. In addition to this income, Adonil’s family saves about 90 lempiras per month by having their own corn mill, making their total income/savings 450 lempiras (about $22.50) per month.

Adonil has not had to spend anything on the mill for repairs because he and his family perform simple maintenance to care for it. They make sure water does not fall into the motor, and they clean the mill immediately after grinding corn. They also clean the band of the motor and use resin on it to keep it on track.

Adonil said that he and his family are very happy with the mill, and that it has been a good investment for them. He likes that it is easy to operate for him, his wife or his daughter. At UMF, we hope to continue offering access to microloans for processing equipment, through which farmers may support their families, as well as provide a service for their communities.