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In anticipation of this year’s Central American harvest, I have been reflecting on last year’s trek from Costa Rica to Mexico. From the start, the impact of leaf rust (roya) on organic coffee was foremost on my list of inquiry.

One of the first visits was to Hacienda La Amistad, located in Coto Brus, a canton in the province of Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Roberto Montero, a third generation coffee farmer, owns and operates the 4,000 hectares estate that shares a border with Panama and La Amistad International Park, the largest natural reserve in Central America. See our interview with Roberto here.

Given nature’s dominance in this isolated corner of Costa Rica, organic farming seems like an obvious way to cultivate coffee. But Roberto has taken organic farming to an unparalleled level of sustainability. Roberto only utilizes 300 hectares of land for coffee cultivation while the remainder of the estate is preserved forest teeming with wildlife; the hallmark of Roberto’s commitment to organic farming. The coffee plants are healthy and produce a high yield of cherries because they are fastidiously fertilized five times a year. Leaf rust has not been much of an issue at La Amistad.

The source of Roberto’s success is the ability to produce organic fertilizer in abundance at La Amistad. Everything is a potential ingredient for Roberto’s organic cocktail. Beyond coffee pulp, the base ingredient in most organic fertilizers, Roberto adds ash, the byproduct of coffee parchment burned in furnaces that heat mechanical driers. Manure collected from chickens and dairy cows are also added to the mix. Roberto relies on micro-organisms and worms harvested from the forest to refine the fertilizer before returning this rich supply of nutrients to the coffee plants.

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Roberto has also made coffee processing efficient and environmentally friendly. Water running naturally from forest springs passes through turbines generating electricity to run the wet and dry mill equipment at La Amistad. Water from depulping cherries (honey water) is treated and used to irrigate fields of grass grown specifically to feed dairy cows that in turn produce milk used for organic cheese production.

Diversifying production at La Amistad has also created new efficiencies and other revenue sources. In addition to exporting over 20 containers of organic coffee each year, Roberto produces and exports 12 containers of organic dried fruit. The fruit trees, intercropped with the coffee, include bananas, mangos, papaya, and pineapple. The fruit is dried using ovens fueled with coffee parchment. Tourism is also on tap from the comfort of the La Amistad hotel with amenities upstaged only by the monkeys and birds that share the estate.

La Amistad quickly became the benchmark as I visited other coffee producers in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. In many places, leaf rust has harshly impacted coffee production. The most direct solution (obvious after visiting La Amistad) is to safeguard the health of the coffee plants with more fertilizer. But finding funds to increase inputs is not so easy when the market price of coffee is already so low. Purchasing fertilizers might be beyond the budget, but increasing organic fertilizer production might simply require educating more farmers to make their own. For example, an association of organic coffee farmers in the Marcala region of Honduras called COMSA boasts a demonstration farm where innovations in organic farming are being perfected and then taught to farmers. This model could have a positive impact in a time when leaf rust may be here to stay because more organic fertilizer offers plant protection and higher yields without breaking the budget.

Other cost-saving innovations can help to offset the rising expense of combating leaf rust. Alternative energy sources (hydro-power, bio-digesters, solar and wind) can create major savings in a coffee mill. Almost every dry mill I visited in Central America uses coffee parchment to fuel mechanical driers. In Ocotepeque, Honduras, COCAFELOL has bio-digesters that convert honey water into bio-ethanol that fuels generators to power mill equipment. Much more can be done to promote the proliferation of technology and the impact can certainly help the bottom line for farmers.

Diversifying farm production for other sources of revenue is also appearing in locations throughout Central America and Mexico. In Chiapas, Mexico, Union Ramal Santa Cruz is completing construction on a production plant that will convert cow manure into concentrated organic fertilizer. In Capucas, Honduras, COCAFCAL has a thriving honey production program.  In Oaxaca, Mexico, orchids are being cultivated for organic vanilla production. Intercropping solutions have endless revenue possibilities but can also have an important impact on food security when opportunities are created for farmers to put food on their own tables.

Replicating successful innovations that stimulate cost effective organic coffee production may be the silver lining taken from the leaf rust crisis. La Amistad is proof that organic farms can thrive and also make good business sense. Moreover, organic farming provides a practical model that promotes environmental and social responsibility, goals that are becoming more and more important to our collective futures.

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