Article and photos by Nora Burkey
Independence in coffee is anything but efficient. Buying from cooperatives, where members must always work and make decisions together, can be something of a statement of solidarity, or a show of political opinion, rather than a choice based on the coffee alone. While producers belonging to cooperatives do produce excellent, high scoring, and frequently organic coffee, these results depend on the ability of farmers to produce what they know tastes best, or on the capacity of cooperative technical teams to provide assistance towards that end. Whereas growers at private estates dedicated to quality coffee have the luxury of telling their workers what to do to achieve the desired bean, threatening removal if directions are not followed, cooperative producers rely on each other and must trust that others members are doing what is best for the coffee and the organization. If farmers don’t want to comply, well, they can choose to vender a la calle, or, sell to coyotes who will take just about anything. Freddy Torres of base-level cooperative Luis Alberto Vasque says, “Unity in groups is important,” he said. “But there can be a problem if people want to do their own thing.” This becomes especially true in times of crisis.
Luis Alberto Vasque belongs to second-level union PRODECOOP in Esteli, Nicaragua. Torres attended a soil workshop at one of PRODECOOP’s other member cooperatives, Heroes and Martyrs of Cantagallo, where farmers spent the whole day making organic fertilizer for just one manzana of coffee. The day began at 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., with only a half-hour break for lunch. Everyone wanted to get back to work, even though, laughing, they all said no one’s stomach was settled. “Hard work, isn’t it?” said Salatiel Valdivia and Martha Centeno, members of PRODECOOP’s development team. It was, and that was just for one manzana of coffee. The base cooperative wants to be ready by July to grow another 41. After spending a day watching the members work, and picking up a shovel or two to help out (I shamefully managed to get a callous on my hand after a short 10 minutes of labor), I had no doubt this cooperative could do it. Valdivia says the second-level is focusing their efforts to combat coffee rust with Heroes and Martyrs of Cantagallo specifically because it is one of their hardest-working base cooperatives.
Over the years, their hard work has paid off. President Douglas Padilla said, “We have 94 members and a lot of coffee.” But there’s a hitch to this success. “The problem now is we have too much coffee. Rust just keeps passing from one plant to another.” In this past year alone they lost 70 percent of their harvest. Sitting down with the board of directors of this cooperative, they shared all the problems they are now facing because of rust, as well as their hopes for the future.
“I call myself a coffee producer,” said Maria Elsa Gutierrez Lira, the gender coordinator. “But I feel bad saying that because right now, the reality is that I am producing nothing.” She was happy with the soil workshop, she said, and believed they were going to overcome the plague with the new fertilizer. “It is something different than what we’ve been doing before. I think we will see results in three years.”
You can’t cure rust with fertilizer alone, but you can use the best farming practices to reduce the presence of the disease. Torres said, “It’s not that we never had the knowledge about what makes good fertilizer, but putting our knowledge into practice was a whole different story.” He explained that before, they used their old practices and thought their plants would just grow. But now people are realizing they have to act on what they know. Because of rust, they feel motivated to do so.
Technicians at cooperative CAC Pangoa in San Martin de Pangoa, located in the Junin province in Peru, shared similar stories. Juan Lazaro Caja said, “Rust is opening up a lot of farmers’ eyes. As technicians we do all sorts of soil workshops with our members and teach them how to make soil the same way, but at the end of the day they are making it on their own. Because of this everyone’s soil comes out differently. Rust is really opening up a lot of farmer’s eyes. They are seeing they really need to focus on quality to fight this. They are learning to listen to the technicians.”
Eyes have certainly been opened. “We’re in a grand crisis,” said Padilla. “We are not harvesting anything.” He spoke about the base cooperative’s plan to take out all their trees and start planting new ones. They intend to make an improved-quality fertilizer for 42 manzanas this year and for another 42 the next year. Over 4 years, they hope to grow 138 manzanas worth of coffee. “Everyone is animated,” he said. “We want to make this fertilizer collectively so that each member has their share.”
Indeed, it was a very collective effort. The day began with members pounding soil with branches to break up the largest pieces. There were buckets of molasses mixed with water, and piles of leaves and branches that stung you if you weren’t careful. Some members were hacking the piles to death with machetes and others carrying sacks of coffee pulp (the cherries) or coffee chaff (the parchment) from the truck to the field. It was an inspiring use of coffee waste, not to mention the large piles of bean husks they used to layer in between. The cooperative stacked the materials like lasagna, one layer of this, one layer of that, with most members standing as far away as possible to avoid the grime. The stack produced an unbearable amount of dust for such a hot day, relieved only when the molasses water was applied. We quickly made a water chain from the well to the fertilizer to pass buckets from one person to the other when our supply got dangerously low.
Watching all the members of Heroes and Martyrs of Cantagallo work and laugh together while making this fertilizer was both moving and exciting, and an example of what the good cooperatives, and small family-owned farmers, can do for the coffee world. For one thing, the members were all smiling and cracking jokes with each together, and for another, there were no children around except the ones walking back from school, a contrast to what you may see on some larger, privately-owned farms: children traveling with parents and working with them during the harvest. The youngest helpers making fertilizer that day were teenagers, or, members-in-training. “Lots of our children are planning on becoming members of the cooperative,” said Padilla. “They are learning this process now with the fertilizer so that in three years, they will know what they have to do to grow quality coffee.”
Teofilo Cesar Torres, president of Luis Alberto Vasque, added, “We are doing these things to fight coffee rust so our kids will have something in the future. With help from the second-level cooperative,” he said, “we can achieve what we want for tomorrow.”
This is the promise of the cooperative model: achieving sustainable development together. And at the end of a long day of work, the problems these collective organizations face, quality related or otherwise, are reparable. Meanwhile, members may still call themselves their own bosses, helping to ensure that small, family-owned farms dominate the thing that is the second most-traded commodity in the world. In this case, being small-minded is a good thing.