I recently returned from a 26 day coffee trek through Central America and Mexico with filmmaker Sarah Gerber. We interviewed, filmed, and photographed Royal’s coffee producing partners with an eye towards bringing the production of coffee, in living color, home to Royal’s coffee consuming clients. In anticipation of these “farm to cup” films, I wanted to start a written dialog that conveys the extraordinary dedication of coffee producers, who overcome adversity with the grace of superheroes. Many producers struggle with the unpredictable commodity market price for coffee, which in recent years has been lower than their costs to produce coffee. There was a market uptick that began while we were traveling through Central America this February. This is certainly good news for many producers. However, all of the Royal producing partners that we visited have worked hard to forge ahead in the specialty coffee market, where the market value of coffee does not control their destiny. In the specialty coffee market, superior cup quality and certifications are the defense against an unpredictable market. Regardless of the market price, producers have come to depend on coffee consumers who are willing to pay a just price for quality coffee that has a positive social and environmental impact. Building the connections between likeminded producers and consumers is the path to growth and sustainability.
The sheer depth of adversity underscores the value we must place on the production of specialty coffee.Ricardo Valdivieso, a third generation coffee producer in El Salvador, recounted his trials and tribulations over the last decade. In October 2005, the Santa Ana volcano erupted and covered Ricardo’s farm, Santa Leticia, in ash just as the cherries were starting to ripen. The ash destroyed the 2006 crop and interrupted the coffee plants’ ability to flower, which meant there would be no crop in 2007. In January of 2008, there were three days of sustained 70 mile per hour wind that knocked the ripening crop to the ground before it could be harvested. The 2008 crop was destroyed and the stress interrupted the flowering again, which meant there would be no crop in 2009. In 2012, leaf rust (roya) damaged coffee plants on Ricardo’s farm and the 2013 harvest was nearly cut in half. After the harvest, leaf rust unexpectedly began to attack plants at higher elevations and the 2014 harvest was cut in half again, meaning leaf rust had reduced the farm’s production by seventy percent in 2 years. In the midst of the rust crisis and incredible losses, Ricardo and every other producer in Central America has been confronted with a question that has no apparent answer- how do you recover?
In the thick of the rust crisis, Ricardo started a nursery with tens of thousands of plants, all rust resistant varietals, to replace the rust ravaged bourbon and pacamara on his farm. Those rust resistant plants are ready to plant now, but Ricardo has decided to sell them and begin an aggressive strategy to save his bourbon and pacamara plants. He will have to turn to banks and high interest loans to cover the cost of this labor intensive recovery plan. When asked how he can remain so dedicated in the face of such adversity, no words come to him. Instead he replies with a wry smile and eyes glazed with emotion. It is not hard to interpret this response. Ricardo loves coffee and he will forge ahead with the grace of a superhero.