Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes view from Santa Felisa´s wet mill.
Visiting coffee farms during the harvest is for sure a rewarding experience. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Felisa, located in Acatenango, department of Chimaltenango. This is in the Central region of Guatemala. I do the marketing plan for their Santa Felisa Reserva Especial Organic, an estate coffee auction run in the Stoneworks platform.
Since it is an organic coffee farm, César Lineo García, OCIA’S certifier, joined the trip to do Santa Felisa´s annual verification. He is the coordinator of the Organic Agriculture career in San Carlos University, the biggest and only public university of Guatemala founded back in 1676 during the colonial period.
García quickly started to talk about what he believes is the only alternative to ecology and a healthier living. “Doing ecological gardens for residential houses where one could cultivate its own vegetables”. My immediate question was, but how could you grow your own …? Without me finishing, he replied: “It is easy to build compost with organic material from your kitchen garbage”.
How functional would this be for real? Well, just by checking my own kitchen I can say that at least two pounds of garbage goes out every day so by the end of the month I would have accumulated around 62 pounds and at the end of the year probably a total of 744 pounds. At least, my conscious would be relieved that this amount does not go to public landfills. I am still not sure about doing my own compost, but indeed very challenging to grow some herbs for spices and vegetables.
Santa Felisa´s nursery ready to go to new plantation areas.
Now, what happens with farms? Can they only use organic fertilizers? Well in some regions of Guatemala it would be easier without a doubt. But in some others, this would be up the hill. Just as we started to do the field trip, an even more complex question was made. Can organic fertilizers stop and/or prevent plagues or diseases just like roya (Hemileia vastatrix), a fungus that has just affected coffee farms in central region of Guatemala and Central America?
To be honest, after that two and a half talk about ecology and how chemical fertilizers destroy the soil because they liberate nutrients, I am hoping it does. For many presidential periods in Guatemala (about 16 years ago), a marketing strategy to win the elections has been to give away chemical fertilizer for small growers expecting to receive their vote. According to those same small growers, they are not receiving it any more. Why? “Because the soil is spoiled”, they say.
As all the good coffee was originated in Africa, thus its worst diseases. Roya was first discovered in that continent in the year 1861. It was spread through infected seeds that were exported to other colonies located in other continents. Brazil was the first one to receive it 1970 and Central America in the last part of the eighties. The rain and the wind are two major ways to spread the fungus to the entire plantation. High humidity and excess of water in the leaves is its perfect ambience.
It could reduce the production up to 40% because it makes the leaves fall off and thus a very scarce blossom and fruit in the plant will be expected. An organic farm needs to take even greater controls to avoid roya in their plantations. Only systemic fungicides are able to stop the infection, but these are not allowed in an organic certification. “Systemic fungicides, when absorbed, are not eliminated and their residues stay in the organism until it collapses”, states García. Only fungicides based on cupper are allowed. Agronomists need to study what type of components is attracting the spores of roya. Once they find it, they need to break the cycle and stop the infection. But meanwhile, a whole lot of the coffee variety infected would be cut off if needed.
According to agronomists, parallel series of actions need to be taken as well:
1. A proper distance between coffee plants.
2. Pruning to regulate the sun light and a proper humidity for the plants.
3. Organic fertilizer with sufficient nutrients according to the plantation age, volume and type of soil.
4. Weed and insects control programs.
Sunlight at Santa Felisa is estimated around 180 hours average day/hours/months.
Santa Felisa for sure is just one example of what growers committed with the environment need to do in order to deliver an organic certified product. In some cases, they are risking not only economic losses but they are also confronting their beliefs and principals towards their responsibility with the environment. Choosing the traditional cultivation is perhaps not the easiest way, but for sure one way that has proven to provide better results regarding control diseases.
What do you prefer as a consumer? An organic certified quality product or a traditional one? I for sure prefer a cup of coffee that is delicious to my palate. But when being informed about all possible effects of chemicals, I would add: …and organic!