Sourcing Coffee in Central America - Part 2, Nicaragua

Earlier this year I traveled to Central America to visit our coffee producer partners in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I wrote about the first leg of the journey in a previous blog post, which you can read here. Finally, the coffees I tasted in Nicaragua back in March have landed and we have just started roasting them.

Although neighboring countries, the feeling on the ground in Costa Rica and Nicaragua are very different. I won’t get into the political, cultural and economic reasons for these differences here but, rather focus on the coffee and our partnerships with the people and organizations that grow it. Simply put, the people I met in Nicaragua were friendly and the coffee they produce very tasty. Unlike many of the boutique coffee producers I met in Costa Rica, who are experimenting with processing and variety separation to develop differentiated micro-lots, in Nicaragua there were many more smallholders who organize together in cooperatives to bring their produce to market. As such, Equator has relied on coffee from Nicaragua for many years as a seasonal component in our organic and Fair Trade certified blends.

My trip to Nicaragua was divided into two parts. The first was to visit the growers of the Santo Domingo Cooperative, which is located near the town of Telpaneca in mountainous Madriz Department. The growers of Santo Domingo farm small plots that average just one acre in size. Due, in part, to limited resources, many of these smallholders were heavily impacted by leaf rust disease, a fungus that if left untreated can cause defoliation and eventual death of coffee bushes. It was gratifying to learn that funds from a micro-credit load Equator extended to the cooperative nearly three years ago, had been used to replant the areas that were hardest hit.

The group members also used the micro-credit loan to tile the fermentation tanks and washing channels at their cooperatively owned wet mill, where much of the group’s coffee is processed. The tiles provide a smooth, easy to clean surface that resists the absorption of moisture, which results cleaner tasting coffee. With these improvements at the mill and, despite the challenges with leaf rust, the co-op managed to produce even better tasting coffee than the year before.

Now that Santo Domingo has paid it off, with interest, Equator has agreed to redeploy the micro-credit loan. We discussed possible projects with the group leaders and are very excited about their idea to build a receiving area at their mill that includes a special tank designed to float coffee, in order to easily remove under and over ripe cherries as well as leaves and sticks. They are currently designing this area and hope to have some of the funds left in reserve to make small repairs to their drying patio. We expect these improvements to lead to even better tasting coffee in the coming years.

The other half of the trip included a visit to Las Mercedes, an area located in the hills above the coffee town of Jinotega. We have been buying this coffee for the last couple of years and have featured it as a single origin offering in the past. Rich, sweet, delicate and complex are flavor characteristics come to mind with coffees from this area. The growers of Las Mercedes are a loosely connected group of farmers, who mostly process and dry their own coffee rather than doing so at a cooperatively owned wet mill. The umbrella cooperative, Aldea Global, takes over from there, overseeing finish drying, dry milling and grading of the coffee. The combination of efforts paid off again this year and we look forward to featuring the coffee soon.

Once again this year we are participating in a program managed by Aldea called Tierra Madre. For each pound of coffee Equator purchased from Las Mercedes, we pay a small additional fee into a fund that covers administrative, legal and logistic costs related to land rights issues for women in Nicaragua. Often, in historically patriarchal societies, women live on and farm land that they do not legally own. Although the government supports women’s land rights conceptually, the resources are not always available to process titles. The Tierra Madre fund has been set up to transfer land title to the name of woman who actually live on and take care of the property. Fortunately the expenses are relatively small; costs include paying a lawyer to draft the paperwork and transportation to the court to file the documents. The rewards however are great, as this process empowers women in a new way and for the first time allows them to do what they wish with their land.

It is satisfying to see all of the hard work pay off for our partners in Nicaragua. The quality of coffee is very good and getting better. We hope the contributions Equator has made, played some small role in this evolution. The projects we have focused on not only help improve coffee quality but, also improve the lives of the people are dedicated to growing the coffee that we all have the pleasure of enjoying each morning. We look forward to future visits and more delicious coffee to come.