by David Pohl
I just returned from a month on our farm in Panama. I have been writing about the progress on the worker housing as well as good news we received about the health of our coffee trees. Things are looking good.
My last week in Panama saw significant progress to the worker housing - much of the cement was applied to the walls, enabling the workers to begin putting up the roof this week. This was despite incessant rain, delayed materials and a flu epidemic that affected much of our workforce and their families (mine was spared). My last day on the farm I brought lunch for everyone, and we were able to share in a little informal, social time together - a rarity given all the work to do on any given day.
Looking back on my time in Panama, the complexity of Finca Sofia stands out - it is about more than just coffee. It is about roads, people, the environment and buildings too.
Ok, there is of course the coffee, and establishing this aspect of the farm is priority number one. We heard from Edgardo Miranda, the agronomist working with us since the beginning, that our trees are looking quite good. Good news. But beyond the coffee there are many other associated elements that are vital to the eventual success of the farm.
The Road to Finca Sofia
The road up to Finca Sofia is 3.4 kilometers long. It is unpaved, rocky and this time of year quite muddy. It is also beautiful, meandering through pastoral landscapes, climbing ever higher into the mountains of the western highlands of Panama. The only way up is in a 4 wheel-drive vehicle with ten inches of clearance. Or on foot, which takes 45 minutes. When conditions are good, meaning not too wet, it takes 11 minutes in a truck. When conditions are bad it can take twice as long or can be impassable. To give you a better idea of what I mean, here is a (long) video of the trip from bottom to top.
We need to be able to easily access Finca Sofia. One of our biggest expenses is transportation, and this will increase as we begin harvesting. We would love to pave the entire stretch but this would be prohibitively expensive at this point. So, we are looking into paving the last 600 meters of the road, and we have petitioned the local government to help with the first 600 meters. While I don’t know whether our request is going to be approved, Panama is currently on an infrastructure improvement push, in an effort to attract foreign investment. Of course our road isn’t priority number one (that would be the widening of the Panama Canal), but it does serve as a vital link for some 15 farms near us, all of which send produce to Panama City. Who knows?
Our Workforce is A Top Priority
As mentioned previously, the 8 people working on Finca Sofia spend at least 40 hours a week there, and many of them also live there. They have a deep understanding of the farm, know which trees are healthy, as well as which parts of the farm harbor snakes. We need to care for them, which is why we are building worker housing, giving out raises and offering support to family members like little Angelica, who is returning to the farm after three months in the US where she received much needed surgery to her leg.
Improving the Natural Environment is Another Priority
Finca Sofia is not an organic farm, and may never be, but we use a negligible amount of non-organic inputs compared to our horticultural neighbors. Furthermore - we are maintaining and reforesting all of our land, an important fact when nearly all of the land around us has been deforested, and we are right next to the Parque Amistad, an international reserve shared by Panama and Costa Rica. Most of the surrounding farms rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, usually applied by hand or with blowers. It surprised me, honestly, that workers on other farms would operate blowers with little or no protection.
So, why aren't we organic? The prevailing opinion in much of the coffee world is that if you don't use chemicals your coffee isn't as good as it could be. And while we know that great coffee can be grown organically, just like great tomatoes, the truth is that some of the best coffees are not organic. Why? It takes something like 40 pounds of compost per plant to have the same impact as three applications of liquid or granular fertilizer. Producing this much compost is not possible for most farmers, and the cost of labor to apply it makes it prohibitive. Imagine, on Finca Sofia we will have 35,000 plants. If done organically, this would require 1.4 million pounds of compost per year! The simple fact is that it is much easier and cost effective to use non-organic fertilizers for most farmers.
Finca Sofia has been relying on local resources and knowledge to get our farm started. Each of our coffee seedlings costs around $1.00, so it is our goal to make sure each plant stays alive and thrives. There are a myriad of pests and plagues that attack our coffee plants, and if left uncontrolled these would completely destroy the farm. We also fertilize based on the soil PH, to ensure the plants are getting the nutrients they need. Our long term vision is to be as "organic" as possible, replacing non-organic inputs with organic to the greatest extent possible. One possibility, demonstrated by farmers in Boquete, Panama, is to set up a compost cooperative in Volcan, allowing a group of farmers to invest in and benefit from the production of organic compost.
Building More Worker Housing
Over the next two years we will be building more worker housing for the people who will be harvesting our coffee as well as a mill to process our coffee. While we could hire people from town to pick our coffee, without offering housing, it is a long way from the main road and we know from experience that farmers that don’t have enough workers at the right moment can lose much of their crop. So, we will need another building within two years.
The mill can technically wait, as we could use one of our neighbor's. But in the long run we will want to have control of the entire process, and milling is a critical aspect in terms of the final cup quality. Putting our treasured “green gold” into the hands of another miller, even one we know and trust, is a gamble. I cannot tell you how many times we have seen coffee quality fall off significantly because a coffee has been improperly milled or stored. So, really, we will want to have our own mill up an running as soon as possible.
In the end Finca Sofia is a grand adventure – a project that will span many years and, we hope, decades. We have our work cut out for us, but we are excited and pleased with the progress so far.