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By Jaman Matthews | World Ark contributor
Photography by Russ Powell
In Mexico, Heifer horses and training ease the load of coffee farmers who battle steep terrain, challenging weather and back-breaking work for a harvest they count on to feed their families for an entire year.
"WHEN YOU DRINK a cup of coffee, it concentrates the work of a lot of people," Heifer Mexico project officer Max Garcia said as we drove into the interior of the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. A lot of coffee is grown and processed in the Sierra Madres, and we were here to see all the work that goes into it.
Our first stop was Independencia, a small town at a bend in the highway about 25 miles southeast of Jaltenango, the largest town in central Chiapas. In the mountains above Independencia, perched beside a steep road, was a large, white warehouse. The USDA Organic and Fair Trade logos were painted on the building's exterior wall, and a volunteer coffee plant with dark, glossy leaves grew just outside the 10-foot-tall sliding bay doors. This was Union Ramal Santa Cruz, one of several coffee cooperatives that Heifer works with in the area.
Within a few minutes, a dark green Ford Ranger with mud tires backed up to the bay doors and unloaded four large orange sacks of coffee, tied off at the top with twine. Then two men, one on each end of the 100-pound bags, picked them up and swung them onto the scale, stacking all four bags. A man in a red cap nudged the scale and recorded the weight—just less than 400 pounds.
Carlos Altuzar Gonzalez checked the quality of the coffee as it came in. When the coffee arrives, it is called pergamino, which literally means "parchment." The coffee is dried but still has its papery husk. He jabbed a calador—a 12-inch-long, hollow, needle-like instrument into each sack of coffee to obtain a random sample. Gonzalez took a small handful of the coffee and rubbed it briskly between his hands to remove the husks and detect the level of humidity. Gonzalez has been doing this so long that he can accurately detect the humidity to within one-tenth of one percent. The humidity of this coffee, he said, is 11.5–11.6 percent, well within the level of acceptability. Gonzalez then dumped the sample beans on the table to pick out the mancha, or low quality, rotten beans. In this co-op, the mancha rate must be below 4 percent. Everything is recorded in a ledger—dates, names, weights, rates.
While the farmer waited at the table for his check—it would come to about $650—a short man hoisted one of his own three bags onto his shoulders and walked to the back of the warehouse and up a narrow wooden plank to plop the sack down on a growing stack.
|Vidal Palacios Vazquez spreads coffee beans out to dry on a cement lot.|
But cooperatives like Ramal Santa Cruz are transforming the process by dealing fairly with both sides—ensuring not only that farmers get a fair price for their coffee but also that the roasters will get a quality product. And Heifer International is finding ways to plug into and strengthen the economies in coffee-growing communities.
Down the mountain from Ramal Santa Cruz and a 25-mile drive across the hot fl atland lies the city of Jaltenango. The town's official name, Angel Albino Corzo, is used nowhere except on maps, it seemed. As we drove into town, the words, "Compras de cafe" — "We buy coffee" — were painted on doors and banners strung across storefronts. In the early months of each year, Jaltenango transforms from dusty outpost to bustling coffee bazaar.
The coffee middlemen—those with the compras de cafe signs—buy sacks of coffee directly from some of the thousands of growers in the surrounding mountains. When they have enough, they bundle it and sell it to a larger, usually foreign, coffee roaster. Some of the larger middlemen advertise the coffee roasters they supply, like the one with the Starbucks logo painted on the side of its building.
But most of these operations are small—a single storefront with a roll-up metal door and a lone, large scale inside a white-walled room. The coffee that comes in with high humidity is dried just outside the front door on the edge of the street, pieces of plastic blowing into the drying beans.
At one such place, a stern woman ran the scale. When a family brought in three meager sacks of coffee beans, she eyed them with suspicion. The woman made them empty their beans into new sacks and, as she must have expected, found that under the layer of good beans had been hidden bad beans—mancha—dark, shriveled, small.
But unlike a well-run coffee co-op, which would not accept anything approaching this poor quality, this middlewoman bought the beans, albeit for a paltry 50 cents a pound.
The next day, it was hot early. Women walked down the unpaved streets of Jaltenango carrying flowery umbrellas to protect them from the relentless sun. A man in a cowboy hat steered his bicycle with his left hand and carried a machete in his right. Near the northern edge of town, where the grid of streets played out, was the head- quarters for CESMACH, a co-op much like San Ramal.
Inside the relative cool of one of the offices, CESMACH community development program coordinator Octavio Carbajal explained the differences between the coffee middlemen and a co-op.
"The middlemen, their main goal is to sell at the highest price," he said. "But the cooperative, that's only one of the goals." A member of the cooperative can receive training and technical assistance, or even interest-free emergency loans. Middlemen give out loans but at usurious rates of interest.
|Carlos Altuzar Gonzalez removes husks from coffee beans.|
CESMACH works with more than 360 families in 21 communities throughout the Sierra Madres. The harvesting begins at the lower altitudes in December and continues up the mountainsides through late spring. The farmers pick, depulp and dry their coffee at home. They store the sacks of dry coffee in their homes until it is trucked down to Jaltenango to be weighed and tested.
Carbajal estimated that 460-465 sacks come through CESMACH in an average year. And while CESMACH has set up a small roasting operation here that allows them to sell a value-added product, 90 percent of this coffee will be exported to roasters like Green Mountain Coffee and Equal Exchange.
Opposite the offices, across the concrete courtyard where coffee dried in the sun, CESMACH has its own large coffee warehouse. Early on Monday, a green Chevy dual cab backed into the CESMACH compound. Three people rode inside and two boys rode in back. The truck was so weighted down that the tires almost rubbed the wheel wells.
The truck left Galeana, a community in the mountains, at 4 a.m. to get to Jaltenango by 8. They untied the yellow rope securing the 12 sacks of coffee in back, and one of the boys—short, stout, with a ball cap turned backwards—let down the tailgate, wrestled a sack onto his right shoulder and staggered into the storage building. His left arm swung away from his body to help balance him under the heavy load. He let the sack fall just inside the door, near the scales. An older man in a red headscarf came out to help, grabbing bags, tossing them to his shoulder and carrying them in at a trot. The pile of sacks beside the door grew.
When all 12 bags were unloaded, warehouse workers grabbed the burlap sacks using small cargo hooks and swung them onto the scales, one on top of the other. Coffee beans crunched under foot. For the final bag, the man got a small running start before launching it, and several others ran in to push it up. The mountain of sacks weighed more than 2,100 pounds.
Like at Ramal Santa Cruz, as it was weighed, the coffee was also tested for moisture content and quality. At CESMACH, a sample from each farmer is kept in a sealed plastic bag with the name, community, number of sacks, moisture content, quality and date. The CESMACH officials behind the folding table and calculators issued the farmer a receipt, which he walked to the treasurer's office across the courtyard to claim his check.
A dozen farmers and their families milled around the offices, taking the chance to talk to people they don't see often. The conversations revolved around weather and the price of coffee.
|Jose Luis, left, and Rodisel Sanchez load coffee sacks into a truck.|
Puerto Rico sits at the confluence of two rivers and backs up to the mountains. The school's basketball court doubles as the village square, and four dirt streets stretch out from there. The streets on the upper side of the square quickly dissolve into footpaths that lead up into the surrounding mountains where families have their coffee plots.
There, above the village's shining corrugated roofs, Samuel Roblero Torres, in a wide-brimmed straw hat, blue T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, led a horse down a red dirt trail. His horse—Mocho, named for its bobbed tail—carried two large sacks, one on each side of its saddle, filled with freshly picked coffee. The horse is part of an innovative Heifer Mexico project. Torres' family received two horses from Heifer to help with the coffee harvest. (The other horse was killed when a fl ash flood swept through in 2010.)
Coffee harvesting is hard work. First, each ripe coffee cherry (here they are called uva, or "grape") must be picked by hand. Pickers use small wicker baskets tied around their waists that, when full, are emptied into heavily patched burlap sacks. When the sacks are full, beans are carried back to the community for cleaning, fermenting and drying. This has usually been done on the backs of the growers. As a coffee grower in another community told us, "Taking so much coffee out of the fi elds day after day just kills a person."
Watching the men and even boys near Puerto Rico buckling under the weight of coffee sacks, shuffling down the dusty streets, would disavow anyone of a romantic view of coffee farming and help them to understand the relief the horses bring.
"Before, we would have to carry the coffee," Torres said. "Now we can haul the coffee with the horses."
Gregorio Sanchez Perez, 77, has been growing and processing coffee his whole life.
"Those of us below are the ones who do all the hard work," he said. "We do the harvesting, the cleaning, the drying, everything."
Behind Perez's office on the edge of Puerto Rico is a large, above-ground concrete vat. Just visible on one corner, written when the concrete was still wet, are the words "Octubre de 1979" and the initials "GSP." Coffee growers like Samuel bring their freshly picked coffee cherries here to be wet-processed and then dried, so they can be taken to town and sold.
Perez measured a load of cherries and then dumped them into the vat, which was filled with water. The beans that floated, called "vain" beans, were scooped off. (This "vain" coffee will be processed separately and sold for low-quality instant coffee or kept to be consumed in the community.) Perez unstoppered the vat, and beans and water rushed from the drain through a length of two-inch PVC pipe and into a gas-powered depulper.
|Hermenio Rolpero Vasquez inspects a coffee bush to check for ripeness.|
The beans then passed through a filter and finally into a concrete fermenting tank, where they were left to ferment for two days. They will then be washed again, scooped up and spread on the concrete patio to dry in the sun. Only after they are thoroughly dry — four to seven days — are the beans ready to be bagged and taken down to Jaltenango, to either the co-op or the coffee middlemen.
A large warehouse sits just along the highway a few miles outside Indepencia, surrounded by a cornfield and cow pastures. Inside the massive bay doors, it was almost empty this early in the coffee-harvest season, except for the giant machine that takes up almost a quarter of the cavernous building. It looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption or a theme park ride mock-up, with tubes and hoppers leading to more tubes and hoppers. This is the maquiladora, the final step before the coffee is exported to roasters in the U.S., Europe or Japan.
The pergamino—dried coffee with the husk still attached—comes in from co-ops like CESMACH and Ramal Santa Cruz. When it's time, the coffee is dumped into a chute in the concrete floor. From there, the machine lifts it 20 feet, and then dumps it into a cleaner that removes any debris. From there, it goes into a hopper where the papery husk is removed. At this stage, the coffee is called oro, or "gold."
A rotating drum separates the beans by size. The smaller, inferior or underdeveloped beans are kept for the local market. Any broken beans are removed before the coffee is lifted into a final stainless steel hopper. A new burlap sack is positioned beneath the hopper, and a lever at the bottom is pulled, filling the sack until it weighs exactly 62.5 pounds. Then the sack is sewed closed and stacked on a pallet with dozens of others, ready for export.
"All that's left is for the trucks to come and take it to the ports," said Edgar Lopez Roblero, who oversees this part of the operation. "Last year, we processed 30,000 quintals" or about 3,000 tons. In 2011, he expects to do more, since the maquiladora only became fully operational in 2009.
But it was still early in the harvest season, and there was a lot of down time. While the workers waited for the next truck, they swept the warehouse, raising the dust.
Eventually, a truck arrived from nearby Ramal Santa Cruz with 250 sacks of coffee. The coffee had papers documenting the weight and quality, but while the truck was unloaded, Roblero's crew checked the humidity and quality again. The machine processes 600–700 sacks of coffee a day, so Roblero won't process this coffee until they have enough to make it worth it. But once they have enough coffee on hand, they will begin taking orders and then process the coffee to each roaster's specifications.