The only time I’ve ever actually sprinted through an airport to catch a flight, I was on my way to Guatemala City, from Chicago, via Miami. While the Chicago-Miami connection landed on time, the gate was not ready to receive the plane, and we sat for nearly 30 minutes on the tarmac. I just barely made my connection to Guatemala, but my luggage did not. I spent the next few days trekking through Antigua with a single set of clothing and very little else. A rambling, two-lane highway connects Guatemala City to nearby Antigua. If it weren’t for the legendary traffic, the trip would take a mere 30 minutes. The two cities could not be more different.
Guatemala City is modern, almost entirely reconstructed after earthquakes levelled its architecture in 1917-1918. While the same earthquake damaged many important structures in Antigua, that city’s history and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site have preserved many of its historic structures as ruins. Spanish Baroque-style architecture, cobblestone streets, and brightly painted buildings stand testament to its former importance as the colonial capital of all Central America.
Antigua also happens to be at the heart of some of Guatemala’s most famous coffee growing regions, and coffee growing may in fact be responsible for the re-population of the region in post-colonial times, after its abandonment in the wake of an earthquake in 1776.
The fields and valleys and mountain sides surrounding Antigua are filled with coffee. Antigua’s reputation for high quality coffee dates before the 1776 earthquake, however. While the 18th-century exports from Central America were largely dominated by sugarcane, indigo, and cochineal (a short-lived insect-derived dye), Spanish Jesuits cultivated coffee in Antigua prior to 1767, and perhaps as early as 1730, according to Gina Wagner’s History of Coffee in Guatamala.
The view from coffee fields in Antigua is shadowed by Volcán de Fuego, one of three highly active such volcanoes in Guatemala. Thirty-four other volcanoes dot the Guatemalan landscape, many dormant or dead, remnants and reminders of the presence of the seismic hotbed known as the Ring of Fire. Yet on most days, plumes of smoke can be seen wisping from the crevasse of Fuego. As recently as June 3 of 2018, the volcano spewed active lava fields (killing nearly 200) and dusted the region in ash. My friend Raúl Peréz helps to run his family’s farm, Finca La Soledad and manages their account (@fincalasoledad) on Instagram. The image from June 3 is haunting.
Raúl is a young man, raised on the farm in Acatenango, a short drive from Antigua, that has been in his family since 1895. He represents a new wave of Guatemalan farmers, as he learns and works alongside his father. Farmers in all parts of Guatemala are adapting to business in the 21st-century.
I spoke recently with Melanie Walleska Herrera Moreira, who works at Bella Vista, a large Antigua-based coffee organization that includes farm management, post-harvest processing, and export services. Her postgraduate degrees in International Trade and Education have led her to a career in coffee where she admits she wears many hats. She “helps with green coffee sales, manages client relationships and social media, builds chains of small producers (traceability) and assists them in production/quality matters, costs/budget plans for farms, teaches in a school program that we have with Anacafe and APCA in Antigua…”
She told me that among the most important innovations in coffee she sees is “First communication. With social media, stories are easier to tell and reach more people. This opens up opportunities and closes a big gap for marketing and communication that existed for many years.”
The mountains that sweep across the center of Guatemala, particularly those catching the Pacific winds on the country’s southwestern side, are the heart of coffee production. San Marcos, Atitlan, Acatenango, Angitua, Fraijanes Plateau, and Nueva Oriente from a nearly-unbroken chain of coffee regions from Mexico to El Salvador.
Yet specialty coffee roasters are likely familiar with another region: the remote Huehuetenango in the far northwest of the country, home to a wide range of diverse peoples, the majority of whom belong to indigenous Maya groups. The porous border of Huehuetenango and Mexico’s Chiapas region has contributed to an ongoing immigration path that leads to the United States.
Chronically low coffee prices combined with stiffened border patrols, immigration crackdowns, and intolerable conditions for families in migrant detention centers in the United States have captured news headlines. While hardline policies have actually reduced the numbers of new immigrants to the U.S. in recent years, the treatment of those immigrants, particularly those from Mesoamerica attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico, has in some cases reached humanitarian crisis levels.
In our industry, it begs the question: Are Central American farmers fleeing to the U.S. as a direct result of historically low coffee prices? Recently published works in the The Washington Post, The Independent, Time Magazine, and Quartz have made that link.
The truth is that while coffee price crises may fuel the fire, there are other factors at play, and Guatemala exemplifies a country whose complex history can serve as a cautionary tale. In 1954, the democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz was ousted in a U.S.-orchestrated coup. Árbenz’s progressive policies included labor and land reforms that were unpopular with the established elite. While Árbenz’s attempts to reclaim Guatemala for the working class were popular with the smallholder farmers of the day, his administration eventually fell to aggressive anti-communist factions, fueled by the interests of wealthy European descendants and the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, the country descended into a civil war that lasted until 1996, costing more than 200,000 lives and creating the conditions for paramilitary groups and urban gang violence.
Ongoing bloodshed and disillusionment with government corruption in Guatemala are stressors sufficient to drive emigration, regardless of the value of a pound of coffee. Add punitive socio-economic policies like sanctions and extortionary loan repayment policies from global superpowers like the U.S., and farmers are faced with a thoroughly unsustainable system for survival. So they leave.
Yet Huehuetenango also offers some of the brightest hopes for the Guatemalan coffee growers, whose beneficial climate and elevation stand the best chance to continue cultivating coffee into the future.
I speak with some frequency to Alejandro Solis, who manages two family estates in Huehuetenango, called Huixoc and Injertal.
A third-generation farmer, Solis has the privilege of running large and successful operations blessed with abundant spring water. Even so, he has also observed climatic changes over the years. He is a conscientious coffee caretaker, and it became apparent to him that investment in climate technology throughout his farms would provide his family, his farm, and his employees with security to continue growing coffee into the future.
His gathered climate data has been used to help predict temperature and rainfall, and contributed toward an impressive scientific report led by Dr. Peter Baker at Climate Edge, a U.K.-based firm that aims to empower farmers with predictive weather and temperature models.
When I asked Solis if I could share the data he’d collected, he told me this:
“I think your customers need to know what coffee farmers are facing these days. With unpredictable and unstable weather, the risks of producing coffee have increased. Flowering, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and all other labors are greatly influenced by weather… and of course quality. So I think this topic is always important for everybody to learn.”
Alejandro’s farms produce some of our most consistent, excellent tasting high grown Guatemalan coffees. It’s clear, with such a comprehensive picture of his farm and climate data, that Finca Huixoc doesn’t simply make great coffee happen by chance. Concentrated efforts, preventative measures, specific solutions for both short and long-term challenges paint a picture of a farm dedicated to scientific analysis and sustainability.
Alejandro Solis has developed a partnership with Guatemalan coffee juggernaut Anacafé, the country’s national coffee association. Much like such agencies in other coffee-producing countries, the organization engages in farmer support, education, marketing, research, and data collection.
Anacafé’s partnership with farmers like Solis allows them to produce educational resources for other farmers seeking to learn better practices for farm management or to grow improved cultivars.
Like most Central American countries, Guatemala was devastated by the Coffee Leaf Rust fungus outbreak in 2012-2013. Most farmers in Guatemala grow a mix of legacy varieties:
Typica was the first coffee introduced to the country, and it’s single-gene dwarf mutation Pache is a uniquely Guatemalan cultivar. Bourbon trees would be introduced later, as well as Caturras. Every one of these is susceptible to leaf rust.
While Catimor and Sarchimor hybrids were already common in lower-elevation regions of Guatemala, they became increasinglyimportant due to their genetic resistance to rust and high yield potential. But their robusta genes (both hybrid groups are crosses of arabica with the Timor hybrid, an interspecies arabica-robusta plant) are often derided by specialty roasters as inferior in cup quality.
So while a producer can grow moderately good coffee in high quantity with a Catimor, they are unlikely to be able to achieve a 90+ cup score and get super-high premiums or international recognition.
Anacafé’s research center, Analab, was already working on a new cultivar that would satisfy the competing demands for high cup quality, good yields, and disease resistance. In fact, they’d been quietly doing so for nearly 30 years! In the early 1980s, in southeastern Chiquimula, Guatemala, near the country’s border with Honduras, a farmer named Francisco Manchamé observed something strange on his farm. Catimors growing alongside Pacamara plants created a new spontaneous hybrid. Manchamé, and later Anacafé, would undertake an intensive ‘selection’ process, where many plants are bred en masse and then the best of the seedlings are chosen for desired characteristics. Finally, in 2014 (better late than never), Anacafé began distributing their improved hybrid called (unimaginatively) Anacafé-14.
The long development time is quite common in coffee breeding programs. The research and development, the process of breeding, growing, selecting, crossing, and observing all take significant time, as does finally producing enough seed to distribute with verified genetic results. And the irony is that these plants cannot produce ‘stable’ offspring. Hybrid cultivars yield non-homogenous children, even when self-pollinated. So while the hybrid plants create a solution for some problems, like disease resistance and yield, they present the farmer with a new problem: dependence on a seed supplier for more plants in the future.
Often overlooked in the modern specialty coffee scene, where Huehuetenango and Antigua loom large, is the central highland region often referred to as Cobán, the name of its largest town.
Also home to the bulk of the world’s cardamom production (Guatemala grows 60 per cent of the world’s supply) the region of Alta Verapaz is also home to coffee growers.
Finca San Lorenzo is a 225 acre estate in the less traveled department of Alta Verapaz near the city of Coban. Luis Valdés, affectionately called ‘Wicho’ to distinguish him from his father and grandfather who are also named Luis, has been running San Lorenzo since 1999.
Wicho started following his father around the estate when he was young and later earned an agricultural engineering degree before taking the reins. Constant rain yearround at Finca San Lorenzo creates some unique challenges. Wicho has used his life-long experience and education to overcome this obstacle. The entire estate is terraced to protect against erosion during the heavy summer rains. Wicho has also created several different drying strategies (raised beds and mechanical dryers) to cope with the unpredictability of winter rains during the harvest.
Melanie Herrera told me that much the same is true in her experience in Antigua.
“With climate change and all it involves, coffee growers have to rely on technology to be able to produce more and better tasting coffee using less productive land, less water and less resources than before (or at least with less opportunity to control as temperature rises, long droughts or excess of rains in places, and so on). This leads to precision crop management that can improve the economic and environmental sustainability of crop production. More precise information on inputs required specifically per unit of production, needs of irrigation with real time information for efficient use of water, drones for fertilizing, apps for control of plagues and diseases. And furthermore, breaking the normal models of planting and by this I mean the exploration of using different spacing between plants and rows for a more efficient use of land.”
Sra. Herrera also mentioned that there are still many challenges to face as a country. “Guatemala has been consistent in quality and has always excelled in this matter,” she said, “But because of that, we have forgotten about productivity. Now, more countries have drawn attention with quality and with cheaper labor; they are very competitive. So we as a country need to focus on productivity. And this requires investment, education, better prepared labor. All these aspects are a huge challenge for a country like ours.”