Our friends Lowell and Mayra Orellana-Powell of Catracha Coffee recently installed 7 of the Climate Edge NEXO meteorological stations around farm areas in Santa Elena, Honduras. Catracha is like a shark – always moving forward. Lowell and Mayra’s energy and enthusiasm is obvious every time you talk to them. Here’s a summary of their 2017 season, where you can read about some of the innovations they implemented last year.
As far as the new climate stations go, Lowell told me that part of the Catracha Quality Project premium had been applied to funding the installation of the devices, which currently monitor air and soil temperature, as well as air humidity. It’s a great example of roasters directly financing improvements in farming that will return benefits, both in terms of better practices for the producer and better coffees for the consumer.
I spoke with Lowell and Mayra over the phone recently to get their perspective on what these stations can provide for a community like Catracha. I thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of an organization of smallholders, to compare with that of a larger estate like Huixoc.
One of the big differences Lowell immediately mentioned was the tendency for larger farms to already rely heavily on data collection and management. Large scale production, by nature of its size, must focus on numbers to remain economically sustainable. Conversely, smallholders tend to rely on traditional methods, routine, and anecdotal experience.
Without a preexisting culture reliant on data and analysis, the learning curve is much steeper for smallholders. It can also make investment in new technologies daunting, as there may be a tendency for it to languish underused or imperfectly implemented. Fortunately, the Catracha coffee community has a couple of capable project leaders in Mayra and Lowell, a critical asset for implementing new strategies like the NEXO stations.
Lowell’s optimism for the new technology was tempered by pragmatism. The devices, still very much in their early stages in terms of sophistication and execution, have had their share of hiccups. One or two have stopped working – they’re solar powered and apparently the batteries in them have stopped holding a charge. They’re also still limited in their capacity – while eventually the NEXOs should collect a vast array of climate data including sunlight intensity, precipitation, and soil moisture, they currently are only gathering temperature, relative humidity, and soil temperature. However, these challenges and limitations have provided valuable insight for the design upgrades on the next version of the NEXO.
That’s not to say that the NEXO is neither useful nor technologically ambitious – as it is both. NEXOs are designed to stand alone, sending their recorded data to the cloud even in low reception environments. They work well in groups, however, as a single NEXO can act as a central transmitter for the region if it is in a position of better reception. These devices have the added benefit of being affordable on a small scale, an attractive prospect considering sophisticated meteorological equipment can be pricey and inaccessible to smaller farmers. Combine this with a soon to be implemented personal dashboard, and the ability to access broad swaths of climate data at the click of a mouse and you’ve got an immensely powerful and immediately accessible tool for driving data-based decisions related to ever-changing climate conditions.
Lowell remarked that the NEXO stations have already begun to impact the way the Catracha community is processing their coffee. Previously, he told me, he would have to wait until the season’s end to collect, compile, and analyze climate data from the year. Considering the vast amount of labor involved over a large span of time during the growing and harvest seasons, it’s not hard to imagine the nuance of small climate events being overlooked. Now, however, with real time data at his fingertips, Lowell is already experimenting with alternative fermentation and drying methods post-harvest, and hopes to further implement changes in the future as more data is examined and results can be tested. Future updates to the technology promise push notifications, advanced alerts, and recommendations for adaptation to changing conditions.
In the meantime, Lowell and Mayra have taken the lead by implementing startup technology to help prepare them for an uncertain future. Climate change is the global equivalent of the lobster in tepid water slowly coming to boil. Dr. Peter Baker, director and scientific advisor on the board of Climate Edge, notes that roasters and consumers often seem “unconcerned by both the price situation and the climate…”
“I guess this is normal for most people; if their own livelihoods are not directly impacted, they block it out.”
More difficult still can be encouraging the kinds of investment needed for smallholders to access these kinds of technologies. Fortunately for the farmers of the Santa Elena community, the Catracha Quality Project, with its network of committed roasters and strong leadership in Mayra and Lowell, is in very good hands.