Local roaster returns from trip exploring coffee cultivation in Guatemala
By Chet Greason
A local business owner has recently returned from Guatemala where she observed firsthand the way farmers there grow and prepare coffee beans, as well as the positive effects that sustainable trade and growing techniques have had on the local population.
When Emily and Kevin Lagace started Snapping Turtle Coffee Roasters, they entered into an agreement with De La Gente (Spanish for “From The People,”) a not-for-profit organization that connects roasteries directly with the farmers that grow coffee beans.
This method, called direct trade, ensures that there are fewer middlemen between the suppliers and sellers, which means more profit for growers.
When an opportunity came up to travel to Guatemala to visit these farms directly, Emily Lagace jumped at the chance.
She returned from her trip on Tuesday, Feb. 27.
Lagace spent a week in San Miguel Escobar, a small community outside of Antigua that supplies much of Snapping Turtles’ beans.
“Each day, we’d visit at least one farmer, working in the fields harvesting coffee,” she explains. “We learned all aspects of coffee growing in Guatemala, from planting to harvesting to processing… Everything from bean to cup.
“It gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the hard work these farmers and their families put in.”
Coffee in San Miguel Escobar grows on the sides of volcanoes. Growers have to ensure the beans are shaded, but not too shaded. Not enough shade and the plants will wither; too much shade and the vines, seeking sunlight, will grow too high for the harvesters to reach. Farmers therefore plant shade trees, and are constantly pruning them to ensure the ideal amount of coverage.
Lagace explains that a coffee crop takes two years to reach maturity. Should a drought occur, farmers can expect a low yield two years later. To make up for any shortfalls, the farmers also plant avocados, carrots, and beets in amongst the coffee plants in order to supplement their living.
Coffee beans come off the vine wrapped in a fruit called a cherry. The fruit portions are kept by the farmers after the beans are husked, and reused later as fertilizer.
“Everything is grown very naturally on the side of the volcanoes,” says Lagace.
Harvesting, she said, was enjoyable; it was the trek to and from the fields that was arduous.
“Some fields have roads for trucks. Some farmers use horses, and some walk and carry the beans on their backs,” she explains. “We hiked up one volcano for more than an hour.”
Once the beans are brought back, the cherries are removed in a process called depulping. Some farmers have a hand-cranked machine that can husk the fruits. One used a homemade contraption made out of an old bicycle.
After a brief fermentation period, the beans are then washed and dried. Drying can take seven or eight days, depending on the weather. They are then taken to a facility called a dry mill, where a coating around the bean called parchment is removed.
The beans are then sorted by size. Larger beans are exported to companies like Snapping Turtle, while smaller beans are sold locally. Defective beans are removed. Lagace says that, for every 100 lbs of coffee cherries that are harvested, only 22 lbs are found to be suitable for export.
The farmers within the cooperative of San Miguel Escobar do almost everything themselves. Only the dry mill and a roaster used for locally sold beans are shared amongst them. Lagace said the sorting and drying of the beans is often done on the farmers’ diner tables.
While in Guatemala, Lagace stayed in a guest house. Lunches were traditional Guatemalan fare- mostly beans, rice, and eggs- prepared in the farmers’ homes. Every meal included homemade tortillas made from ground corn dough called masa. She was even taught how to make pepián, a spicy stew.
Guatemalans mostly speak Spanish. Lagace says she worked hard using the Duolingo language app before she left, but picked up the bulk of her Spanish while she was there.
“The more I listened to farmers speaking, my comprehension grew. By the end, I maybe understood half of what they were saying. I’d love to learn more and go back.”
Guatemala is among the poorest countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Lagace saw her share of poverty while she was there: in the abundance of stray dogs roaming the streets, or in the lack of potable water or modern kitchens, (ovens used in food preparation, for example, are often wood burning.)
But where she saw poverty, she also saw how direct trade with coffee producers is helping to fight against it.
“Definitely, the farmers who had joined the co-ops had improved living conditions,” she says. “They were able to upgrade their homes or install flooring.”
Direct trade should not be mistaken for Fairtrade. Fairtrade is a certification process, whereas direct trade is the direct linking of sellers to producers, cutting out large corporate middlemen who take the bulk of profits away from the farmers. Lagace says farmers used to just harvest and then sell the unprocessed fruit to large companies. Now, the profits are often reinvested by the farmers, allowing them to improve their processes through new equipment and education to produce specialty grade coffee, a classification that sells for higher and is more lucrative for them.
Coffee tourism, like the trip Lagace went on, has also helped to bring new income to the region.
“I fell in love with it, and I want to return,” she says. “I want to support what De La Gente is doing.
“It really changes your perspective on what we pay for a cup of coffee.”