by Kimberly Easson
When I visited Nicaragua last summer to help Equator launch a new partnership with the Santo Domingo Cooperative, I was prepared to taste some really great coffee. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the stunning beauty of the countryside and the ecological soundness of the cooperative’s small family farms. Set in the rugged, yet lush mountains of Northern Nicaragua, a four-hour drive from the capital of Managua, Santo Domingo’s members’ small farms are difficult to spot under the dense canopy of shade trees.
In order to even get close to the farms, one must first traverse miles of country roads made of cement blocks that wind through the hills of Madriz Department, from Palacaguina to Telpaneca, and then on to Santo Domingo. Gazing out over the rolling hills densely covered with forests and coffee farms, it’s easy to understand how the guerilla war that took place in the region in the 1980s continued so long.
Not only is the cooperative dedicated to producing high quality, organic and Fair Trade Certified Coffee, these farmers go beyond, to produce truly “ecological” coffees. In the heat of the day, when temperatures reach 90+ in the full sun, stepping into the lush farms brings immediate relief, thanks to a dramatic drop in the temperature. Birds and butterflies alight on the branches of the coffee trees and native forest tree species, all of which thrive in this biodiverse habitat.
The cooperative’s 115 members, of whom 39 are women, take their responsibilities for business, environmental protection and social development seriously. All of these factors are closely tied together. Ecological practices lead to higher quality and higher prices, and they can also protect yields during increasingly common periods of extreme weather by providing shelter for the delicate coffee trees.
Under the rigorous standards of Fairtrade certification, the farmers must be democratically organized and transparent in their decision-making. The premiums they receive from coffee purchases are allocated separately to projects, which all the members vote on.
It was exciting to be on hand to help launch this new relationship. It’s clear that the quality of the coffee will fit well into the Equator line-up, and that the premium price the farmers receive for this quality product will translate directly into both community and business development. As part of the partnership, Equator has pledged a micro-loan for the cooperative to use to boost organic coffee yield and quality.
Good organic seedlings, careful organic fertilizer application, and sound farming practices can double yields of organic coffee in a short amount of time. Higher yields lead to higher incomes, allowing farmers to invest in additional farm and mill improvements that will increase quality over time. Higher quality coffee is less dependent on commodity markets, fetching consistently higher prices, which leads to economic security for the farming families.
As the projects resulting from our micro-loan develop, we’ll be providing regular updates. In the meantime, harvest is starting this month, and we’re all looking forward to sharing this promising new coffee with you in the spring.
Kimberly Easson has taken hundreds of coffee industry professionals on tours throughout Latin America and Africa to forge connections between traders, roasters, retailers, coffee aficionados and farmers. Visit the Java Ventures Website.