Aaron MacDougall, roaster and owner of Broadsheet Coffee Roasters, won our Roast and GO roasting competition — and a trip to origin. Specifically, Honduras, home of Guama Danta, his competition-winning coffee. To our delight, Aaron agreed to write about his experience at origin. This is his fifth installment in the series. His first, second, third, fourth and fifth posts are all highly recommended reading.
Today is our last full day in Honduras, and first thing in the morning we drive three hours east to the Volcafe “model” mill and farm in the growing region of La Laguna. Bescafe, the mill, is up a muddy path, in a lush green hamlet spotted with palm trees and cacao.
Members of our group call it the most beautiful place they have ever been. The mill, however, has a tragic past. It was owned by a progressive coffee farmer who was kidnapped and murdered about 10 years ago. The farm passed to the farmer’s brother, a politician and physician with little experience in coffee, who about six years ago turned to Molinos de Honduras (MDH) for help. We’re here to learn specifically what MDH is doing on the ground and how they go about it — a philosophy they’ve branded the Volcafe Way.
Interestingly, when we arrive, we meet another MDH representative accompanying a coffee buyer from Delica, a Swiss wholesale roaster that has helped to fund a new mechanical dryer. Carlos explains that cooperation with other firms and organizations in the field is critical to the way that Volcafe leverages its efforts. We also see a large and, by appearances, brand-spanking new sign for the UTZ Certification, as well as two independent loading chutes for coffee cherries: one for coffee that will earn the UTZ certification and the other for un-certified coffee.
Certification is (to say the least) a controversial topic among coffee people, but Carlos explains that Volcafe leaves the decision to obtain certification up to individual mill owners, as certification can open doors to new markets.
Certification is (to say the least) a controversial topic among coffee people.
We go on a quick tour of the facility and Carlos points out changes made since MDH has gotten involved. The mill has, with the help of MDH, purchased new eco-pulpers that de-mucilage the parchment and bypass the old and water-hungry manual washing channels that still run through the facility. They now use the piles of extruded cherries and pulp as fertilizer. There is a new commissary on the property that serves as a grocery store for the farmers in the mountains. They have a new medical brigade.
The discussion centers on how Volcafe is using this mill as a model to reach out to farmers in the community. MDH has worked with Technoserve to train a Field Support Officer — a local farmer now equipped with technical skills to help others in the neighborhood — who draws a salary and lives near the mill.
MDH also sends an agronomist periodically to the mill to talk to local farmers about techniques for increasing crop yield via fertilization, planting and pruning techniques and the like. Carlos stresses that they never tell producers what to do or not to do, but simply present options and choices. There is also no membership fee to use the Bescafe mill; if producers like the price and service they receive, they can sell their cherries or wet parchment to it — or not. When it comes to pricing, however, Volcafe strictly regulates what the mill pays to producers to an amount they feel offers the mill the possibility of a fair margin, while preventing the mill from underpaying and extracting intermediario-like profits. Thus, the profitability of the mill is largely determined by efficiency and cost control, and growing the volume of coffee that’s sent to it.
They now use the piles of extruded cherries and pulp as fertilizer. There is a new commissary on the property that serves as a grocery store for the farmers in the mountains. They have a new medical brigade.
We hop back in the red, mud-encrusted Land Rovers and drive up the craggy roads to a MDH model nursery, as we head a short distance to the model farm associated with Bescafe mill. The nursery is a simple plot of land, the size of a tennis court, with a dark plastic mesh suspended about seven feet over it. It is hot and humid under the canopy, but Carlos patiently explains how they suggest farmers raise baby coffee plants — using large soil bags that allow the root structure to develop, instead of the traditional small bags. A side-by-side comparison of plants of the same age in the different bags shows the plants in bigger bags to be double the size of their root-bound peers.
He also talks about the efficiency of keeping the young plants in the nursery for a full year, versus the standard six months. Watering and fertilizing the neat rows of bagged plants is easier and cheaper than trying to do the same in the field; the older and larger plants also have a much greater chance of surviving to productive adulthood.
A side-by-side comparison of plants of the same age in the different bags shows the plants in bigger bags to be double the size of their root-bound peers.
Then we’re off to the farm where we receive further lessons in agronomy (planting orientation, distance between plants and between rows, how often to prune to maintain stable productive output and the like). Carlos again stresses that they are most interested in practical implementation and that they offer only advice and options. His goals are to gain the respect of the farmers, develop long-term relationships and maintain a diversity in planting methods and coffee varieties, to better allow the region to survive what nature throws at it.
We trudge up to the top of the lush green mountain, take in the views, then head back for water, the hour drive to our hotel in San Pedro Sula, and dinner involving margaritas, beers from around the world and a local fortified liquor made with tamarind juice — which is much tastier than it sounds.
— Aaron MacDougall, Broadsheet Coffee Roasters