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.

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