In October 2016 I was lucky enough to travel to Marcala, Honduras. It was my first visit to country of origin! There I joined around 20 producer partners from the following cooperatives:
Maya Vinic & Michiza in Mexico
CCDA & APECAFORM/Manos Campesinos in Guatemala
Las Marias 93 in El Salvador
Las Diosas & PROCOCER in Nicaragua, and
Sol y Cafe, PANGOA and Norandino in Peru
Cooperative Coffees’ Director of Sustainability Monika, fellow roaster member Joe from Third Coast Coffee in Texas, and Martha who’s an acro-ecology researcher based at the UVT also joined for an intense week of learning. Some of the producer partners traveled 72 hours by bus to make it to Marcala!
Co-operative Café Orgánica Marcala (COMSA)
Since the foundation of COMSA in 2001 the co-op has grown significantly. The transition from conventional to organic farming, as well as moving from commercial to specialty buyers was hard for some farmers. This meant that many of the approximately 70 initial members dropped out of the cooperative. COMSA engineer Fredy described that - after their initial growing pains - they were beginning to understand that they would first need to recover the life in the soils that they’d been killing all those years with chemical production poisons. Only then they could expect improvements in organic production. It was at that time that they began experimenting with micro-organisms.
First successes with micro-organisms led the members to be more open to experimentation with innovative organic practices. This in its turn led to the application of micro-organisms in compost, exploring the use of minerals, the production of fermented moleculas vivas, and strengthening the material gris of their technical team, members and a strong educational program with their youth and women's groups.
COMSA now has 1200 members and a waiting list of producers still hoping to join the organization. New members can only join if one of the current members decides to leave COMSA. Even then, farmers on the waiting list only get a chance to join if they’ve been recommended by a current COMSA member. These strict membership rules ensure COMSA consists of farmer members who are committed to the co-op, are willing to work towards success, and filters out any farmers who are only interested in access to market.
Our week: farm visits and recurring themes
Our group stayed at Finca La Fortaleza, the experimental farm and headquarters of the hosting producer co-operative. COMSA prepared a fun and full six days of learning for us. After an introduction to their cooperative, we learned about Finca Humana and sustainable community development, practiced organic compost making, and were taught about the the 5M’s as well as the influence of the moon and permaculture.
Sometimes we spent hours on La Finca Fortaleza, other times we visited local farms. The whole week was a great mix of classroom time and field work.
Our first farm visit was to Finca Los Cascabeles. Owner Mario Perez passionately told us about Finca Humana: each of us plays a role within their families & communities, and every single one of us is an important part of the whole. He repeatedly emphasized that we shouldn’t blindly repeat and copy what others do, and memorize their practices. Instead the key to awareness and innovation is to actively take part: to think, to analyze, to observe critically, and to be inventive.
Mario repeated what other COMSA staff had told us the day prior: we’re part of the universe, we’re stewards of the earth and we have a responsibility to take good care of it - to take excellent care of our family, our community & the natural world.
Mario’s wife Joselinda proudly told us about the high quality coffee she roasts on their property and that she sells in the COMSA store. This store is located in Marcala and provides the COMSA community with a place to sell produce, delicious warm lunches, treats, homemade jewelry and various organic compost materials. It’s a bustling place that’s open one day a week.
Of course we also walked around on Finca Los Cascabeles and it was on this farm that I saw the first coffee trees. Although I know that it might sound cheesy, it was a truly moving experience for me to see coffee cherries on this farm. Knowing that some of these cherries could very well end up as roasted beans in my cup of coffee at Bean North’s cafe makes the circle round. This was one of many deeply touching moments I experienced in Honduras! The passion for healthy living and good stewardship for the earth was prevalent all week. Organic farming isn’t just something the farmers do, it’s their way of life and they strongly feel it’s their responsibility to the best they can.
Juan David Chavez is the president of COMSA, and when we visited his Finca Catalunya he emphasized more than once that for him, and for many other COMSA farmers, organic farming is about health. His philosophy is that it makes more sense to try to prevent unhealthy situations than to try to find cures after the fact.
Juan David amazed us all by telling us that he produces 25-30,000Q of organic compost annually (1Q=100kg). He does this all by himself! It was quite the adventure to reach his farm and we travelled muddy roads with steeps hills. Finca Catalunya is located at 1650 meters and today’s beautiful farm is the result of 30 years of organic farming. Hard work by individuals and the way the co-operative’s members work together is one of the reasons he yields great results. Juan David is one the most inspiring & passionate farmers I met that week!
COMSA isn’t ‘just’ about organic coffee, it’s a co-operative that serves the larger community by supporting their members and their hometown of Marcala. Recently they even brought their farming practices and way of holistic living to an area north of Marcala. The Rivera Hernandez neighbourhood in San Pedro Sula is considered one of the most dangerous places in Honduras due to gang violence. COMSA saw a chance to bring some people from this neighbourhood to Finca La Fortaleza to educate them about the possibilities of farming. COMSA’s general manager Rodolfo Peñalba and passionate farmer Oscar Omar Alonzo Aguilar then traveled north to help the community with the start of their farm. The documentary we watched about the project brought everyone to tears.
Finca La Fortaleza provided ample opportunity for the group to practice what we learned in the classroom. After Roberto explained to us how the moon cycle influences farming, we were asked to determine when various tasks should take place. When the gravitational influences push plant liquids to the roots, it’s an ideal time to prune coffee. When the gravitational influences pull plant liquids to the leaves it’s an ideal time to harvest fruit bearing trees for market.
Another class focused on permaculture which is a philosophy of working with nature. Permaculture involves close observation of the landscape and its features, and looking at plants and animals in all their functions. It focuses on the whole rather than the separate areas of a system. In COMSA we see this philosophy penetrating across all areas of their work, as they perfect their capacity to get as much gain as possible from their local resources – transforming, recycling and leveraging the natural elements. We then split up in small groups and were given a blank paper and some data that described the topography and characteristics of ‘our’ piece of land. Our task was to use the information provided and to design the ideal farm: water capture, which types of crops should be planted on which location, and where does our livestock go? Victor from Sol y Cafe in Peru took it a step further and made this project into an art project! The permaculture exercise then moved outside and we were tasked with tracing the contours that will be the keyline guide for planting and water harvest. These very practical lessons were great fun and constantly tested our knowledge.
COMSA’s Propuesta de vida
One the main reasons we all gathered at COMSA to learn about organic farming practices is that all producers in attendance have been affected by La Roya (coffee leaf rust) in the last few years. A coffee tree with roya has ‘rust’ spots on its leaves and doesn’t produce a harvestable coffee cherry. This means producers might only be able to export a very low harvest, or that they’re unable to export any green beans. Since coffee is the main source of income for many producers roya can result in the loss of a full season (year) of income for producers. The organic farming practices used by COMSA ensure a strong and healthy coffee tree that can resist the negative effects of roya. It’s no wonder that the visiting producers were eager to learn from COMSA’s producers and tecnicos.
Every day, at every farm visit and throughout all classroom times we heard how the 5M’s are beneficial to coffee producers’ practices: 1- Microorganismos de Montana (micro-organisms) the life of the soil: micro-organisms contain the complete & complex natural system; 2- Materia Organica (organic material); 3- Moleculas Viva (‘sweetener’ for fermentation); 4- Minerales (Harina de Roca ‘rock flour’); 5- Materia Gris (strengthen your brainpower). Energía was a key word all week: energy from all levels of the natural world, from the micro-organisms to the producers’ and community’s energy.
We spent a whole day preparing various compost recipes. It was inspiring and fun to see how all course participants jumped in with great enthusiasm! On the first day it became clear to me that everyone was very grateful to take part in this course, and to learn many super practical tools they can then share with the members of their cooperative. Every time a visiting producer would ask a very specific question about a compost recipe, the COMSA tecnico (engineer) would respond that this is an example but that they need to think about how this particular practice can be adjusted to their own home environment. Clearly, the soil conditions and many other aspects change dramatically from Mexico to Nicaragua to Peru, and COMSA repeated the principles of the Finca Humana at every chance.
The most fun was had during the cow manure composting workshop. Understandingly we were all a little bit hesitant when we first smelled the fresh manure, but we had no choice but lend a hand. The manure was massaged - with bare hands! - and various minerals were added throughout the process.
It started as the fairly sacred process it is, and included chanting by all. After about an hour of massaging the manure participants started to start building sculptures, and the sacredness was lost for a little while. After about an hour the manure was buried in the ground, where it stays for four months. The final product is so powerful that just a pinch of the fladen powder is needed for each member’s compost pile. The batch we created during our workshop should be sufficient to help fertilize the land holdings of each one of COMSA’s 1200 member population!
Wrapping up the week
The enthusiasm lasted until the very end of the week. When given the chance to spend the final afternoon in Marcala or to go on another unplanned farm visit, everyone chose to visit Victor Contreras’ farm.
To improve his own understanding, Victor’s been experimenting with trial and error the past three years on this plot – with the intention of recovering the genetic memory of old stock Bourbon. These trials intend to demonstrate that if the coffee shrub is grown under optimal soil conditions for its genetic make-up, you can successfully produce excellent quality coffee without all the additional inputs.
No wonder the visiting producers were eager to visit Victor’s farm!
Before we all went our separate ways to bring home what we learned at COMSA, there was an official ceremony where we all received our diplomado. This ceremony included speeches as well as music and dance, and was followed by a fiesta: great local food and then - of course - dancing into the night!! A fun way to wrap up a wonderful week.
It was more than inspiring to be in country of origin, to feel the energy at COMSA and to experience the energy of Cooperative Coffees. It was amazing to get the chance to meet people from almost all the Latin American producer co-operatives Bean North works with. To meet the faces behind our high quality coffee and to see some of the farms this coffee comes from definitely added a dimension and made me love my job even more!
Read more about this week at Cooperative Coffees' website.