I recently took the opportunity to interview Javier Montel Valencia, a coffee producer in Mexico whose coffee placed 12th in the 2017 Mexico Cup of Excellence (COE), where Jen Apodaca and Alex Mason participated as judges. Francisco’s winning lot was produced on a 6-acre farm located in the community of Huehuetecpan within the municipality of Cosautlán de Carvajal in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Royal purchased the winning lot through the COE auction and it just arrived in Oakland.
How did you start working in coffee?
I started working in coffee when I was 13 years old. I remember it well because my grandfather on my mother’s side of the family, who took me to pick coffee said, “Francisco, today you will be paid for the red cherry that you pick without damaging the plants.”
I was worrying the whole day and was rushed the entire time. That is how I entered the world of coffee.
What is your favorite part about harvesting coffee?
There are two things that I like best. When I fertilize the farm because I know that in some way I am bringing what the plant needs for good production and I can stop and see that my coffee is healthy and green with a lot of fruit and this is a blessing to me.
The other thing is drying specialty coffee to its final day. My family and I have a goal of bringing the coffee to its optimum point, checking and checking, and battling day after day with the weather. Filling bags with these beans for the entire lengthy harvest takes a lot of effort. Selecting the best coffee and seeing a very clean coffee is something very satisfying.
How has business changed over the years?
Personally, I think the coffee business has changed a lot for two reasons. One, it is a huge challenge to maintain a farm in its best condition while battling the high costs of fertilizer and shortages of labor.
The other thing is the punishment that we face with the sale of our coffee to buyers.
(Editor’s note: Sr. Valencia further clarified by saying “Changes in weather and bad picking of coffee can cause cherries to look stained. Local coffee buyers will punish us by paying less for stained coffee cherries or refusing to buy them.)
How does your family help you during the harvest?
There are ten people in my family that help with the harvest.
Routinely my family is very involved because we are the ones that harvest the specialty coffee lots. My father, mother, brother, 2 sisters and their husbands, my wife and I, harvest the cherry and everything else all the way to sorting the dried parchment.
The men do the heavy work like loading the depulper, washing the coffee and putting it on the raised beds while the women sort the parchment.
Can you describe a typical day on your farm?
Usually the days are different, but typically when I go to the farm in Huehuetecpan I always take all my tools (boots, machete, pruners, and rope). I leave the house at 6:30 in the morning and arrive at the farm around 6:45 if I go in the truck. I eat breakfast on a hillside that I like a lot and then start working at about 7:10. I like to listen to the birds in the fresh morning air without the noise of cars or music. For me it is very beautiful to be on my farm enjoying the tranquility.
The work depends on the season. During the rainy season I cut the weeds but in a way that does not allow the water to carry away the soil. I work until 2 in the afternoon and then eat my lunch. Then I start again until 5 o’clock or for as long as I can before the rain starts. For me it is important to start and finish a section. Even though I am a loner, I usually don’t go alone because of the dangers we are exposed to nowadays. But also because I am not able to do all the farm work myself.
(Editor’s note: Sr. Valencia clarified the dangers they face, specifically stating that the area where his coffee grows is very steep and prone to dangerous landslides. Furthermore, there is an extremely dangerous snake that lives here, Bothrops asper or Nauyaca as it is locally named. For this reason, he does not go into the growing area alone.)
When I see my farm I like pruning, planting orange trees, macadamias, and other things that are enjoyable to sit and eat when they are in season. I like to walk around the outskirts of my farm, pick plantains, and watch my coffee grow, anxiously waiting for the harvest to come. I like to do it all and the workers who come with me understand how to do the work better. And in the evenings I like to gather firewood for my mother who likes to make handmade tortillas on the embers.
What are your long term goals as a coffee producer?
I have three goals. First, I would like to have another farm with Typica, Pacamara, and Gesha. Second, I want to add a cupping lab to my dry-mill so that I can taste every one of my lots. And the most difficult is to be able to pay for a Q grader course.
What is the hardest part of coffee production?
Maintaining the farm and fighting leaf rust.
How do the prices of coffee in the international market impact your ability to produce coffee?
There is a lot of impact on the producers’ pockets with such low prices. It is better to sell coffee in cherry than to try and process it. I have had the experience of drying coffee and when I sold it there was not enough for the 9 months of managing my farm much less care for my family.
What information about the international market is most important to you?
For me it is hearing that there will be a competition or new buyers who are looking for quality and having the opportunity to do business with them. Also when the prices go up and down and when there are new diseases in producing countries.
What is most important about coffee buyers for you?
The most important thing is to have a good relationship and trust that there will be a fair payment for my product.
Can you tell us about your experience in the Cup of the Excellence?
Every competition is a new experience. This year I had the opportunity to be a finalist. I was nervous about whether I would be among the best. Every day waiting for the date of the awards with so much hope. Listening for my name as a winner is something unexplainable. For me it is a big goal in my life to put the name of Cosautlán on the map and show its great potential.
The other experience was to see that as a specialty coffee producer we have to take action every day. You always have to consider advice, opinions and new developments from all of those who work with coffee. We should always be taking action in the field, ways of picking, fermenting and drying together with processing experimentation. The 2017 COE has given me new commercial relationships with producers who are already my friends and new roasters, baristas, and cuppers.
Also, COE has been a platform for me where we can visualize all we believe in and our work is validated.
The best experience this year was to sit with a person (Alex from Royal) that was not from my country who said that he loved my coffee. And, he was very interested in buying it. And even more, we could talk about why he liked it. This was a very gratifying experience.
I am thankful to Royal Coffee for so much motivational support and for your attention.
Thank you very much.