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Americas Beans Series 6 – A Coffee Farm Diary

One Day in a Coffee Farmer’s Life

Francisco Valera is a coffee farmer from Trujillo State, Venezuela; he has a wife and two young children. They live together in a small house that he built himself over the years.

He lives in what is traditionally a coffee area; his ancestors were established in that area above a century ago. However, he really doesn’t know about their whereabouts from that time; he only cares about his grandparents–the ones who raised him and grew the coffee plants which allowed him to go to school and raised his family. Once his grandparents passed away thirty years ago, he and his father took care of the land and kept harvesting the coffee plants. Unfortunately, he had to start preparing plant nurseries to replace the old plants due to the age of the plantation. Since then, he has been growing thousands of coffee plants.

He has witnessed how yields had been affected by climate change, and if you ask about this issue, he can tell you that warmer weather affects the plants’ flowering. Another issue that worries him is the deforestation around the area: “Some years ago, the price of coffee was very low, so my neighbors decided to grow other crops and raise cows”. This decrease in the national coffee market was mostly because the government started to import coffee from Brazil and Honduras for the public roasting companies.

As a result, the local farmers are left in a hard situation. Therefore, they cut the coffee plantation to turn to other crops as well as raising cows. The side effect, however, was that the soil got exposed to erosion and organic matter loss. When there was a drought three years ago, many farmers found themselves in a harsh predicament due to the lack of water and drip irrigation systems for their short cycle crops.

Francisco says: “There wasn’t enough water for the cows.” Not only that, the increasing inflation in the country made daily lives harder just to buy supplies for the cows and fertilizers for the crops. Recently, the national coffee prices started to increase, resulting in a profitable coffee cultivation again. For instance, more coffee plants are needed and Francisco once again has more job to do with the plant nurseries.

Harvest time in his location arrives between June and July. He starts the day by waking up and putting on his clothes: a pair of boots and old pants which used to belong to his dad. His wife leaves to prepare coffee before taking the kids to school located 6 km away by foot. As Francisco drinks the coffee meditatively, he prepares his mind for all the tasks that must be completed during the day. At the same time, he also worries about the presence of “Broca” (bean beetle) in the plantation. He has been removing damaged cherries every week to decrease the population of those beetles threatening to decrease the yield.

Once he is outside, it is just a short walk to reach the plantation. Patiently, he collects the mature cherries in a pot attached to his belt before leaving them on a clean surface near his house. This process is repeated for the whole day. Taking a break at midday, his wife, Maria, called him for lunch: a soup of beans that he grew in the backyard and harvested last week. By the end of the day, he has collected more than 500 kilos of cherries. He then lay them over a clean surface to be dried by the sun. Finally, Francisco is now able to pay attention to other daily activities. He would later have dinner, talk with his children about school. Normally, they are good kids with good behavior but even then, they are sometimes the source of their parents’ headaches. By 10 PM, the lights are turned off and everybody must rest. For the next four days, the daily routine is very similar, giving priority to the harvesting. After one week, he has already collected most of the mature cherries in his small plantation and laid them to dry enough before putting them into sacks. Putting the sacks on his 70's model Toyota truck, he moved them to a small and rusty facility around the area where the meat (pulp) from the bean will be removed. Afterwards, the beans are weighed as it is the final step before selling the harvest to the coffee industry.

While the machine removes the pulp, Francisco pays the fee and talks with the other farmers who arrived that day for the same service. He keeps an eye open over his coffee to make sure it won’t get mixed with some other farmers’ coffee. With the current situation, every bean becomes valuable. Once the service is done, he returns home and dries the beans for a couple of days. Nowadays, he can get more or less 10 sacks.

Next, he can plan a trip to the nearest coffee roasting factory which offers better prices, and it is only a three-hour drive from where he lives. First, it takes two hours to reach the city of Trujillo, choosing the routes with almost no maintenance except irregular surface which challenges most vehicles–except motorbikes and small trucks. Along the way, he watches many acquaintances walking to the city. Since public transportation in this area is quite difficult, he usually lends a trip to his friends.

Once in the city, he needs to get through with his documents as some policemen and military men try to use any excuse to make the farmers commit an infraction, and maybe, so that they get some of the harvests. For this reason, many farmers try to manage the paperwork themselves with their community representatives. However, there is a lot of work to be done especially because farmers in rural areas commonly don’t have access to the internet or printing devices to get all the needed documentation whenever possible.

After leaving the small city of Trujillo, Francisco arrives in the town of “Flor de Patria”, seeking to sell his coffee to a roasting company with the same name as the town. Inside the facilities, the coffee is inspected, evaluated, weighed and at last, paid. Those ten sacks would be profitable enough for Francisco to pay many debts and buy food as well as other goods for his family at least for some months. Inflation is a ghost that always haunts Venezuelan economy, a menace threatening both farmers’ and consumers’ pockets. For the moment, though, Francisco is happy as he can heave a sigh of relief.

Coffee Roasting in the Company “Cafè Flor de Patria”

Located in Trujillo State, in Venezuela, this medium-sized private company is important for the region as a source of employment and business. It also participates in cultural and sports issues.

The process began when farmers such as Francisco bring the raw beans into the facilities. There, they are received by two old grumpy men with years of expertise in inspecting coffee which is verifying the beans’ quality. After their approval, workers put the coffee beans into the machinery which filters and shakes the beans to remove wastes and sticks. Later, the coffee goes to the roasters where the technician watches over the roasting temperature, taking samples every once in a while to verify the degree of roasting. Some samples are delivered to a small lab inside the company to have further evaluations. The sound of the alarm indicates the ending of a roasting cycle and finally, the roasted beans are dropped into a circular container where a metallic rotating claw stirs the coffee beans to release the heat before passing them to the grinder and packing device.

Despite the fact that the company is able to process around 30 tons of coffee per day, it is working at minimum capacity; not enough coffee is arriving at the company to fulfil its full potential. This is due to social and political factors in the last decade; coffee cultivation surface in the country was reduced, resulting in a shortage of coffee across the country. Despite the situation, the company remains active to deliver its products such as Gourmet and Premium coffee to big cities as “Maracaibo” and “Caracas” where the major clients are located. At the same time, the company and public organisations joined in an effort to promote the use of disease-tolerant coffee varieties. They hold meetings with farmers, try to interact more with them, and together they reach solutions to the current problems.

Because inflation, many people in rural areas are toasting their own coffee, for self-consumption, and former coffee plantations that were cut to raise cow are turning back to coffee, a valuable product that is becoming a new sort of cash among farmers, whom started to trade part of their harvest for other products and goods. This may be an example of how farmers and sustainable agriculture must being priority for politicians, since without farmers, there is no food, coffee or society.

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