Editor’s Note: This is part of a continued series on our commitment to the Catracha Quality Project. Look for further articles and for the arrival of these coffees in the coming months. We have a few of these coffees available SPOT in both Oakland & Seattle.
When I was visiting Catracha Coffee farms in Santa Elena, Honduras last month, I heard a lot of stories about changing weather patterns. It is clear for many of the producers I spoke with that there is a dramatic change in the weather of this region. To adapt, producers are changing how much coffee is grown, what varieties are planted, and farm management practices. These changes include massive pruning (potentially delaying the subsequent harvest for up to three years) and fungicide usage that, if not managed properly, could reduce resistance to leaf rust (or la roya).
In an effort to fight leaf rust, many producers are hedging bets by planting rust resistant varieties like Catimor (a hybrid variety that is part Hibrido de Timor and part Caturra). There are several different sub-varieties—Lempira and Noventa being fairly common—but they do not have the same reputation for quality as other heirloom varieties (and won’t sell for as much). Our loyal readers will remember the Colombia Sensory Trials that compared the quality of Castillo (engineered to be resistant) and Caturra (tested quality performer). Two studies, one led by Michael Sheridan at Catholic Relief Services and one by Royal Coffee, found comparable quality in the two coffee types. This is early evidence that resistant varieties can be good quality performers, but I don’t know of any research on Lempira or Noventa in Honduras (do you? Email me!).
Below I’m going to share some of my anecdotal experience with Catracha farmers and other producers working around Marcala. But I have also been reviewing the scientific research surrounding leaf rust. In a forthcoming post I’m going to try and answer a tricky question: to what extent is leaf rust affected by climate change?
Climate is an issue for coffee production and coffee quality, but I think it is also important to think of it as an issue of food security. The vast majority of producers grow coffee on a small amount of land, and it is their livelihood. Even the disruption of just one season’s harvest because of weather or rust can be an existential threat.
In Honduras, nearly 80,000 hectares were affected by an epidemic of coffee rust between 2008 and 2013. The fungus decimated 10,000 farms completely and nearly 20,000 farms saw a decrease of their coffee production by 50 percent according to an assessment prepared for the United States Department of Agriculture in 2015.
The reality of climate change is threatening but it does not have to be catastrophic, and the coffee industry is rebounding here in Honduras. One individual, Ivan Vasquez, a well known producer, cupper, and coffee professional who works with the RAOS Cooperative in Marcala is helping to change things for the better. I had the pleasure of cupping coffee with him and staying with him in his home.
Vasquez works on a seemingly endless number of projects and his family recently started a farm called Los Catadores (he cuppers). It is a small, high elevation coffee farm with rich soil located outside of Marcala, where he lives. The one problem is this: the land is a known hot spot for rust. Many people told him the property was better left untouched but Vasquez is not one to be deterred.
The farm is young but Vasquez and his family are enjoying some early success. They are applying organic fertilizers, planting a diversity of coffee varieties, and providing lots of shade and hedgerows. The farm is very organized with plenty of room and light in between plants. Despite all the time and care he is still constantly struggling to control the spread of rust on his trees.
Vasquez and his family ferment and bottle wine from pulped cherry—it’s delicious and tastes like a pungent kombucha. The process is anaerobic—organic compounds in the coffee cherries are broken down by organisms—and he uses the byproduct as a spray on his trees as an added protection against rust (the jury is still out on how well this works but it is a creative and inspiring idea). He is resourceful and really embodies the spirit of creative adaptation.
A few days after touring Los Catadores we visited the farm of Mateo Perez. (I remembered his coffee from the Catracha coffee cupping from last year—it scored an 89 and was delightfully floral.) There was something special about the Perez farm and pulping station; this was clear to our entire group. Everything had a place, a label, and was very carefully organized—even the garbage. It reminded me of being in a pristine roasting warehouse—a sign of care and dedication. Catracha Coffee provided a sign stressing processing principle and Perez had it displayed prominently.
Like Los Catadores, the farm had evenly distributed shade, cultivated air circulation through spacing, and built hedgerows to protect against wind and keep moisture on the farm. While Vasquez showed creativity in adaptation, the Perez farm is an example of how care, organization, and cleanliness can be the best protection against changing weather conditions. I could see how utilizing Perez as a resource for the community can add value to many of the Catracha farms—and that is the intention of Mayra and Lowell Powell. But even on this farm Perez is still fighting leaf rust and other climate issues. One persistent problem is managing water and soil erosion.
My trip happened to correspond with a visit from Paul Hicks, the Catholic Relief Services water resources coordinator for this region. He seemed a little dumbfounded when a vanload of coffee buyers piled out into the streets of Santa Elena. The town is located high in the mountainous region of the department of La Paz, which borders El Salvador to the Southwest. It is beautiful, quiet, and very rural with long views into the valleys below.
Hicks was visiting with local coffee producers and others to discuss improving soil and water management for the area. He has written very convincingly about the need for better management on coffee farms. It is not just an issue of coffee production but also a public health concern. Nutrients washing away from coffee farms can contaminate local drinking water.
He gave a talk at the SCAA Symposium last year.
Over a few cups of coffee and baleadas Hicks framed water management as an issue of climate change. The long, slow rains that commonly saturated this coffee growing region are infrequent these days. Santa Elena averages less precipitation overall but recently storms have been more intense, eroding soil and flushing nutrients away from farms and into the rivers.
He told me that the lack of slow rain “creates a huge problem for farms.” Steady rain will provide a reserve of water during the hot, dry season, whereas intense storms will erode the land and deplete the storage of water; this is bad for coffee production and the rivers downstream. Simply put, Hicks is trying to keep water on the farm, and the nitrogen and phosphorous in the ground and out of drinking water. (The meticulous hedgerows cultivated by Vasquez and Perez are a good technique for keeping water on the farm).
There are a number of ways that farmers can manage leaf rust and control for water retention. An expert on the topic, John Casazza, an agronomist and sustainable agriculture development and food systems consultant is advising Catracha Coffee and traveled with us.
Catracha encourages collaboration among local producers to share the community of knowledge and Casazza tells me that facilitating these conversations is paramount to the success of this project. Part of the project is creating opportunities for producers like Perez to share their experiences within the local coffee farming community, as well as with buyers and others that visit from outside of the community.
I think this is an important point: Vasquez, Perez, and others sharing their stories with buyers will help facilitate a better understanding of the issues and difficulties facing growers. Interactions between Catracha growers and visitors provides a space to find solutions for the challenges of climate change, water quality, and food security.