TRIP REPORT: EL SALVADOR – JAN 21-28, 2013
Some of my favorite coffees year after year come from the tiny, but very diverse country of El Salvador. The cup quality is outstanding from the farms we work with, but perhaps even more, the relationships we have built as a company over the years with them are perhaps the strongest Direct Trade relationships.
So needless to say I was excited, and honored when I was sent to represent PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. on our annual harvest season farm visits.
Going with me were Ezra Anderson, our long-time delivery driver and barista at the Flying Monkey, and Evan Inatome, owner of Elixr Coffee in Philadelphia. I think they were every bit as excited as I to get there, and delve into our jam packed itinerary.
I will be issuing my report in several segments, because otherwise it’d take all day to read.
We began in San Salvador meeting up with Roberto and Lucia Ortiz, of Finca Las Mercedes. Piling our luggage in the back we all piled in and set off to the Southeast toward the Usulatan area, and more specifically Santiago de Maria. Located about 120km away the ride took about 2 hours staying mostly in the coastal plain and lowlands that are full of sugar cane fields. Its high harvest time for that as well, and we were delayed by many a truck loaded heavy with the precious sweet cargo.
As we drove up into the mountains we began to see coffee farms and were in for a bit of a shock.
At first, in the lower elevations where picking was completely done already I thought what I was witnessing was simply bad stripping practices, as we saw tons of trees left with virtually no leaves at all. Then Lucia informed us that what we were looking at was Roya, or Leaf Rust, and its devastation.
Roya is a fungus that attacks the leaves of coffee trees, particularly Bourbon, the hallmark coffee of El Salvador. It basically kills the leaf off that it nests on and spreads its spores in the wind. If untreated, it will so severely inhibit the tree’s ability to make food, that it will stop pumping food energy to the fruit, leaving it to simply rot on the branch without ever coming ripe.
All that’s left as it runs its course untreated, is entire mountainsides populated by skeleton trees with no leaves at all, and bundles of still green and black fruit. It was eerie, and left me wondering about the conditions of our partner farms.
The crew at Las Mercedes has been doing everything they are allowed to stem the onslaught of this plague under B.E.S.T. Practices and Rainforest Alliance recommendations. It has been somewhat effective, but not completely. In Lucia and Roberto’s words, it does only so much good to treat if your neighbors are not. The spores just fly over in the wind and hit new trees. So, it’s still spreading.
That said, by and large, the tablons of Las Mercedes were looking pretty good. El Pepinal 1, a section we have been buying from for some time, was already completed with its final pick. It is a bit early for that, but it was. What was good, was very good I was told. I didn’t have a chance to cup any of the product while there, and likely it would have been too fresh to accurately describe anyway. However, I would be inclined to believe these folks, are former COE winners and multiple time placers. They know their business and we’ve never been let down.
After hiking through Pepinal 1, we went a little down the hillside and on the other side of the mountain face to El Pepinal 2. They still had a few passes to go here, and the harvest was looking good. Pepinal 2 hosts the Bourbon, and Caturra varietals. There was some touch of the damage here, but not as bad. The Caturra in particular was looking nice and healthy. The picking we witnessed was of very good selection! The pickers are rewarded well for their high quality work. It is a challenge faced by all farm owners, to get pickers to only pick the ripest cherry. They are paid by weight of pick, so they don’t always put the proper care into their practice. Here however, and with most of our partners in El Salvador, they are paid a higher rate to encourage and reward good selection. The fruits being picked were nearly exclusive of that beautiful blood red ripeness, with sweet cherry like sweetness in the fruit. Ezra in particular loved the taste of the coffee cherry!
On our hike we encountered a long time picker who went out of his way to tell Lucia and Roberto how much he liked working this farm, and how beautiful the coffee was. His story was interesting. He told them that the farm was blessed by the land, because it had blessed the land. The Ortiz family has taken very seriously their role as care takers of the earth, following B.E.S.T. and Rainforest Alliance practices. But also how they use water. There is a rich underground aquifer on the mountain and there are many natural springs that percolate to the surface. Family Ortiz does not use this water for the irrigation or processing of the coffee, and takes measures to ensure it is protected from runoff and pollution. Because of this, the picker said, the earth itself thanks them by growing beautiful coffee that everyone will love. Quite a story!
After lunch (lasagna made by Lucia) and stroll around the beautiful clay tile patios at the wet mill, we shot even further up the mountain to Finca La Avila, another of their farms. It is much higher than the previous areas we toured, and as such the effects of the rust were barely seen. The terrain was extremely steep and made for a difficult hike, but we followed Roberto as he guided us to the very pinnacle of the mountain on which the Las Mercedes family of farms resides. And, it was worth it. The trees in La Avila were very healthy looking, and lots of young plantings were interspersed with a lot of shade and wind screen trees. This section of farm is going to be increasing in production in the coming years, which I take as great news, having loved many lots from this high section.
The view we were rewarded with upon making the top was one I will hold with me forever. Looking out over the coastal plain, and Usulatan, and on into the ocean. The sun was beginning its slow descent and the water shimmered golden and faded into the horizon, so one couldn’t tell where earth ended and sky began. A cargo ship, silhouetted against the golden ocean, seemed to simply float across the sky. Cutting its way across the land, the Rio Lempa seemed ablaze surrounded by the dark green foliage. It was breathtaking, and no picture would ever do it justice, though we tried.
Exhausted, we loaded back into the truck and headed down to the mill to watch the El Pepinal 2 harvest being processed. For those who haven’t watched the process taking place it was a good night, as the Bourbon was being done in a Honey process, and the Caturra in a fully washed process.
We did make a quick stop at the nursery on the way down. This place was big, but not as full as it was in previous years. At our visit it was housing over 60,000 young coffee seedlings to be planted in the next year. There were of course regular Bourbon and Caturra varietals, but also some Icatu (about 10,000 trees) and Bourbon 300 which is said to grow shorter to make it more wind resistant (very important at La Avila).
The mill at Las Mercedes is by no means large, and definitely not small. It is a good medium sized operation, taking care of their whole family of farms, which have historically produced a lot of very nice coffee.
The most interesting note on their mill operation is the water source. In many of our pictures of Las Mercedes throughout the years, you will see many giant water tanks, including “El Big”. These are filled with natural rain water, collected from roofs and cisterns throughout the rainy season, and saved for just this purpose. Like the picker on El Pepinal 2 noted, family Ortiz has been careful to protect and not use the natural resource in the aquifer for their benefit. Using the rain collected this way saves millions of gallons of water each year. The pulp and mucilage are collected from the processing and carefully composted to be used as fertilizer. Basically, they are doing things the right way, and its one of the reasons we are so proud to work with them year after year. That and amazing coffee quality!
The biggest projects for Las Mercedes in the coming year are pretty straight forward.
1. Try to beat the Roya where it has struck, and prevent any further spreading.
2. Plant new trees in all areas, part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the older sections of the farm.
3. Expansion of the patios.
Beautiful work being done, and it was a great start to our adventure!
After a late dinner we went to bed completely spent. The next day we were off early to go back to San Salvador, and on to our next locale.
-to be continued…