Origin Story: Elise Goes to Guatemala

On my last day, I was able to meet Melanie, one of Luis Pedro’s staff who helped organize my stay in Antigua. In addition to many other things she helps with at the Bella Vista farm, she is personally passionate about agriculture and one day wants to own her own coffee farm. Her formal education and years of experience working with coffee made her the perfect teacher in explaining agriculture ecosystems. She drove us about an hour outside of Antigua to see small producing lots. We were able to walk among the beautiful foggy countryside observing how different producers chose to plant and care for their farms. Some were highly organized, laid carefully in rows with adequate shade and soil nutrients. Others, however, were most likely family lots passed down through generations, cared for sparingly and sold for a low dollar side-income.

COFFEE NERD ALERT: FARMING

Coffee is made up of many different sub types or varietals. Even though Granny Smith and Fuji apples are both still apples, they have very different appearances and flavors. It is the same with different varietals of coffee. The first plants we saw were of the bourbon (boor-BONE) varietal, which are tall and thin with minimal leaves. Laura, the green coffee buyer from 49th parallel later mentioned seeing a farmer in Honduras clustering bourbon trees together in groups of three to create a bush like plant. She swore that they were the best-looking bourbon she had seen all year. Most of the other lots were made of the Catuai and Caturra varietals, a more shrub-looking tree.

It may seem obvious to say, but the better taken care of, the more cherries a coffee plant will yield. Coffee is also a biyearly plant, which means that one year they will produce a great harvest while the next year they will produce a mild harvest. A common planting practice is to plant everything in groups of three so that a third of their harvest are baby or not fruit bearing plants, a third are on their good harvest year and a third are on their bad harvest year. This allows the most consistent crop yield from year to year. Coffee trees take about five years until their harvest is of commercial value. Once the coffee tree grows old and stops producing (around 20 years), a technique called stumping is used. The tree is chopped down to the stump so that when the new tree begins growing from the stump, it already has an established root system allowing for faster growth and better nutrient retention. The time it takes for coffee trees to mature also changes based on elevation and climate (the higher the elevation, the slower the tree growth).

Shade is also vital to creating and maintaining healthy coffee production. Coffee shrubs are often planted with other trees in order to provide natural shade. The most common shade producers we saw in the small lots were avocado and macadamia trees. The only danger in having fruit producing trees, Melanie mentioned, is that they can start to compete for the soil’s nutrients. After the first rain of the season, the shade trees are trimmed in order to make sure the coffee plants receive enough sunlight to produce ripe red cherries. If it gets too hot, however, without shade the coffee shrubs are left vulnerable to the elements. In a pinch, banana plants sprout up fast can be used for quick coverage. The most important part in planting shade trees is creating a viable ecosystem without the use of pesticides or chemicals.