Article and photos by Nora Burkey
The morning of Saturday, March 8, 2014, I was awoken by a cheerful voice crowing, “Happy International Women’s Day!” It was none other than Nicaraguan powerhouse Fatima Ismael Espinoza, general manager of SOPPEXCCA, a second-level coffee cooperative representing 12 base-level cooperatives in the coffee-growing region of Jinotega. She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek as I pulled myself out of bed to get ready for a day of producer visits. While there are many coffee people who can say they’ve shared meals, meetings, or visits with general managers of coffee cooperatives, far fewer can boast of having shared a bedroom with one. Fatima had forgotten her house keys the night before, so we had invited her to crash in the hotel room I was sharing with Laura Roldan Salazar, a young and eager Costa Rican working to promote cook-stoves that can produce less smoke and a certain beneficial organic carbon called biochar.
Riding in the back of a battered Toyota pick-up, Laura’s boss, Art Donnelly, director of the Estufa Finca Project, told me he first got interested in cook-stoves from a health standpoint. Over time, he came to realize that clean cook-stoves were capable of achieving multiple environmental and health goals at once. “The Estufa Finca Project has worked in Costa Rica for four years introducing biochar and biochar technology, like the Estufa Finca cook-stove. In the Talamanca region of Costa Rica, the indigenous Bribri communities we work with are primarily using dead-fall and pruned branches from their organic cacao orchards as fuel,” Art said.
The project set up a “buy-back” program where the cooks using the Estufa Fincas can sell the biochar they make in the community as a second income. Families can make up to $20 extra a month just by cooking food and saving their stoves’ biochar.
Robert Cirino, or, “Biochar Bob,” was also along for the ride. Bob works for The Biochar Company traveling the world preaching the gospel of biochar. “The biochar story is so compelling and convincing,” he said, “So it’s just a matter of finding the stories worth telling that will bring about new awareness of biochar’s impacts.” According to Robert, biochar retains more water and nutrients, produces better soil, and can reduce disease. Indeed, for the past two years, the Estufa Finca project has worked with the agricultural research institution, the Center for Tropical Agricultural Investigation and Education (CATIE), studying the interaction between biochar and commercial crops such as cacao and bananas.
“The research with banana starts has shown that plants amended with biochar, inoculated with beneficial microorganisms, had a recovery rate from the devastating fungal disease, mal de panama, of 87.9% after three months,” Art says. “The second year results for the on-farm biochar and cacao trials showed a 30% increase in the weight of beans per pod on the trees amended with biochar and composted chicken litter.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of disease reduction we could see by using biochar to make coffee plants more resistant to la roya (leaf rust), a fungus found in coffee plants currently wiping out entire harvests in Central America. Eric Morales, agronomist and member of SOPPEXCCA’s technical team, said, “Rust is one of the biggest fights we are facing right now. SOPPEXCCA is trying to find varietals of coffee that are both resistant to rust and cup well,” Eric continued, “But initially, productivity drops when you make a switch from one varietal to another, and the price margin does not compensate for the switch.” Art suggested that biochar could be a new tool in the arsenal of organic amendments needed to build healthier soils. “Building soil quality is one of the most important ways farmers have to fight disease,” he said.
The effects of climate change on producers don’t stop at just rust. Rains are starting earlier, in May, and they’ve seen an increase in sporadic rainfall, so plants are flowering earlier and this makes it even harder to control disease. Meanwhile, the cooperative is introducing cacao in many of their base cooperatives in an effort to diversify production. As the ideal elevation for growing coffee is getting higher and higher due to climate change, and homes of farmers are staying in the same place, the cooperative is hoping to find alternative income sources for families that might be climate-changed out of the quality coffee market. Laura and I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant to suddenly be growing cacao on coffee farms. The two plants are not supposed to grow optimally in the same conditions. We wondered what was going to suffer more: the cacao or the coffee. The good news is biochar doesn’t just help grow some plants; it appears that it helps grow them all.
Art, Laura, and Bob demonstrated the biochar stove at one base-level cooperative of SOPPEXCCA called Julio Hernandez. They set up outside the house of cooperative member Sandra Isabel Obando, and began by passing around the stove to let the farmers peer inside. Everyone collected twigs and leaves to fill the stove. To demonstrate cooking time, a large pot of water was placed above the stove, which we planned to boil for coffee. There was an amicable disagreement among the farmers and the foreigners regarding the correct water temperature for putting ground coffee into the pot, and then there was a search for sugar, a well-known component to the beverage in the campo many coffee people would like to ignore.
An hour-and-a-half later, when all the “fuel” was used up, about a third of the amount was left as biochar in the bottom of the stove. The Estufa Finca team quenched the char, and then top-dressed six coffee plants with it and mulch. This technology isn’t new or lost on coffee growers. The farmers and technical staff at SOPPEXCCA were not ignorant to the benefits of carbon as an additive in soil, “but the costs have been prohibitive,” said Rigoberto Pineda Rios, another member of the technical team. The Estufa Finca team suggested that their 55-gallon drums, biocarboneras, would be a low-cost way for cooperative members to produce biochar that could go into the fertilizer the cooperative produces.
The technical team and manager Espinoza wondered about the best input to use to make biochar since all biochar is not equal. To date the team has made 16 biochar samples from materials as different as coffee chaff to goat droppings. The best performing biochar they have seen comes from woody materials like coffee wood or cane-type plants like bamboo. But while one kind of biochar might be superior to another for particular plants, Cirino said, “In most cases, any biochar is better than no biochar.” Art agreed, saying, “Whatever is available and local, that’s the best input to use.”
Traveling with Estufa Finca, it was hard not to believe that biochar was like magic. While biochar probably isn’t going to solve climate change on its own, it can contribute to better soil amendments and the incorporation of waste into production in a way that socially impacts producers. It seemed to me at the very least worth exploring, especially for coffee farmers who are making a serious switch in commodity production, or a switch from conventional to organic, or who at this point, because of rust, truly have nothing more to lose in trying to fight it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nora began working in the Nicaraguan coffee lands in August 2013 as an intern for Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, where she evaluated a women’s empowerment initiative supported by Dean’s Beans, ETICO: The Ethical Trading Company, and Social Business Network. She is currently reporting from cooperatives both in Nicaragua and Peru with a focus on development programs. She hopes to connect more roasters, importers, and coffee shops to projects they can directly support in order to strengthen existing relationships throughout the supply chain.