Is it any wonder that the patron saint of coffee, Saint Drogo of France, could be in two places at once? Witnesses living near the fields of Sebourg in the 1100s spoke of the astounding possibility that St. Drogo could journey into church, alighting candles for harmony and offering up prayers and yet – astonishingly – others would see him at the same time on the other end of the village working the fields.
Those who cultivate coffee will likely agree: the double act of prayer and working the fields harmonizes the dual energy of the coffee worker, particularly now as we head into Central America’s anticipated rainy season next month. Our coffee farmers walk through the lush, fertile crops, which smell deliciously of jasmine flowers. They adjust irrigation techniques, protecting the coffee crops at times with covers, hiring the workers to work through the cherries and – alas – they watch and watch the sky above.
With one hand offered in prayer and the other hand working the soil, our coffee farmers prepare for the rains even as this issue goes to press. Coffee grower Juan Francesco Pira, of Guatemala shares his world: “When we see each other, we are like this: we say, ‘Hi. How are you? Have a good day. I hope it is not going to rain too much.’” The concern is private as well as public. “Every night and every morning I pray for normal rain,” he says, “every night and every morning.” As he speaks, I see the image of St. Drogo who can somehow pray with the prayers and work the fields, simultaneously, and I laugh at St. Drogo’s place as the patron saint of coffee and coffee houses. To imagine Central America is to imagine, in a sense, a large island. Winds and waves come through from both the east and west, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Central America cradles seven percent of the biodiversity of the planet, a feature that amplifies the concept of microclimates. Any variation in the seas creates a direct influence on the weather and habitats of Central America. With so much diversity, the rains deeply affect the terrain of Central America. In the hurricane season on the Atlantic, or in the Pacific the seasonal El Niño or La Niña creates variety and an opportunity for patience in the mind of the coffee farmer, who must stay committed to the practice through a variety of weather, which is near mythic.
“Having all this in mind, we can say that any variation will have direct influence on the weather of the Central America region. It’s very easy to begin having awareness of the delicate balance that’s needed to avoid natural disasters,” says Pira. Traditionally, rains trickle down in May and stay present continually through October. Already, however, some farmers wonder about the possibility of thundering rains. Memories of very rainy years and even complete submission to 2005’s Hurricane Stan distracts now and again from the brightest optimism of the loveliest spring day. Here in America, a local distributor told me: “Some of the stories I’ve heard are very, very sad. You can hear about the world of the coffee workers, but until you visit the farms – which are often located on the sides of volcanoes – you really cannot get a feel for how steep the terrain is. When the rains really come, landslides occur, and I’ve seen the mass graves where people have died, entombed in mud.”
Mother Nature’s touch with rain deeply affects the crops, influencing the lives of everyone who works with coffee, from the cherry picker to the one carrying the cherries to the seller to the buyer and finally – whether we think about this or not – the consumer.
This talk of heavy rains slows speech and pivots the imagination toward the past, and to a future involving challenges from working with the land to supporting the local families who give to the farm as workers and receive income they can exchange for their food and shelter. The world of the coffee farm workers has changed profoundly, as some regions lost their land and their usual livelihood, says anthropologist Elizabeth VanDeventer.
People speak of the heavy rains, and their voices grow slower. They talk of the trees sliding down the hillsides, and the schools built which topple like toy models. The cherries can grow so wet that fungus takes over; wet conditions open the door to the borer beetle. If the rains come quite early or if they saturate the crops, it can be very difficult to cultivate the specialty coffee farmers count on for both profit and for helping their community.
“When it really rains, I can no longer give out the work I like to give to the local people,” says Stephanie Anderson, a San Franciscian who moved to El Salvador six years ago to nurture her grandparents’ farm. She has become a part of her rural area, and speaks of the fine balance that keeps the local ecosystem going. She describes a world where a worker can work an entire day and receive $4.50 – just about the price of a very fancy specialty drink at Starbucks. Her eyes open to the way the world works now for coffee workers, and like the farm owner mentioned above, she hopes as well for the kindest weather for the workers. “There are simply not as many cherries that ripen. That can be very sad. The work I can give out which really helps the people here is no longer as available; they end up working half the amount of time and receiving half the amount of work.”
Some farms grow other crops, like avocados and mangos. Some can adjust a rainy season more easily. Still, “there are many risks that are out of a grower’s hands that have a huge impact on viability,” says Juan Luis Barrios of Finca la Merced in Guatemala. Blanca Castro, formerly of Anacafe in Guatemala, talks of fungicides, and certain rain-protective techniques. Today is a beautiful day in Guatemala City. “There’s no rain; just shine. No rain since February; it’s crazy. There are certain showers, even in this season, every day.” Every farmer studies the sun and the shade, working to manage the impact. Blanca recalls the rains of last year. “Last year, the heavy rains caused a lot of trouble. The bridges fell down and communication became an issue.”
To really understand the world of the coffee grower and how the rains can change everything, consider the comment of one of our readers from Colombia, who wrote: “The rains that are a daily havoc! The best coffee cherries are dropping to the ground. I was expecting a bumper crop and now I am seeing a real negative impact from the rain.” He speaks of trade winds coming from the East. “It feels like September or October. If this keeps on, we will have a dry period. Right now, we are exporting coffee to Colombia for local consumption because there is so little rain.”
While there are many impressions of the weather, one thing remains constant: the weather affects every aspect of life for the coffee farmer. Stephanie Anderson of El Salvador describes the heartbreak of this years’ St. Valentine’s Day rain. “I went outside after that day and looked at the coffee crops and the flowers had opened and bloomed. Oh!” An early rain can end up altering the coffee cherries and the expected rhythm of the coffee workers. While conducting interviews for this piece, I began an email correspondence with Juan Luis Barrios of Finca La Merced in Guatemala. A brief study of his life as a coffee farmer gives great insight into the challenges facing the growers.
He told me: “Many farmers employ terracing techniques, such as wind-breaker trees, to try to minimize the effects of heavy rains because of where they are located. Some farmers have stopped using herbicides to kill off all of the weeds, but rather allow some to stay in order to help stop the soil from eroding. Each farmer tries to break the run-off as much as possible, to still make available the rich topsoil.”
And yet, for some farmers, the challenge is not about the soil washing away. Instead, the greatest wonderment is whether they will receive enough water filtering through the soil quickly enough. “In areas with little vegetation, like the internal roads made of dirt, the clay soil becomes very muddy and heavy. You step into the mud and the next step is like you’re carrying an extra couple of pounds on your shoes,” Barrios says.
He continues, offering more of a picture of the challenges. “Heavy rainfall, especially for an extended period will cause us more logistical problems than agricultural ones. Luckily, these are somewhat manageable and can be resolved within one or two days. I did however have to make a substantial expense this year to repair a lot of the damage done to our internal roads over the past three rainy seasons. Although the rainfall was within the yearly average limits, the pattern of rainfall was not; we got periods of little rainfall and others of very heavy rainfall.”
Farmers also watch for rainfall pattern. “The more pattern you have, the better for the plant. In Guatemala, the rainy season is typically from May 15 to October 15. However, for some of the coffee growers along the south whose farms are on the Pacific side of the slopes, they will have a much more extended rainfall. A similar case is found with coffee growers in the northeast, where they have the Caribbean influence.
Some of the rain falls on the dry side. This is in the middle of the country. So to ensure the proper growth of fruit from the flowers, proper rainfall patterns become vital, particularly just after blooming.” Reflecting in a way that perhaps speaks for many,” Barrios says: “I don’t mean to cast a dark shadow on coffee farming, but there are many risks that are out of a grower’s hands that have a huge impact on viability. And despite all this, a coffee farmer is one of the most passionate people around. There is an emotional tie to the practice. There’s just something about watching the farm evolve, seeing your harvests go up and down, going bonkers trying to ‘understand’ the coffee C contract market – among many other things – that keeps us at it year in and year out.”
The current crop in Guatemala
According to the Agro-Technical Manager of Anacafé, coffee production decreased 3% of the 3.4 million 60kg bags estimated on 2011/2012 crop. The source of the decrease? The heavy rains in 2011 that developed severe fungus problems. The technical team of Anacafé has been monitoring certain coffee areas to advise growers on how to prevent this and protect their coffee plants.
According to Anacafé, the main affected areas: Yepocapa, Acatenango, Guanagazapa, Escuintla, Siquinala, Palin, San Vicente Pacaya, Amatitlan, Villa Canales, San Miguel Petapa, Fraijanes, San José Pinula, Palencia, Alotenango, Ciudad vieja, San Miguel Dueñas, Chiquimulilla, Taxisco, Guazacapan, Nueva Santa Rosa, Cuilapa, Oratorio, Moyuta, Barberena, Pueblo Nuevo Viñas and Atescatempa.