We got to the town of Huatusco in mid-afternoon and immediately went to the beneficio, or coffee processing plant. Our tour guide was the manager Francisco
Mora Miranda. He had worked at the beneficio for 36 years.
This plant employed 25 people for five months each year, and only five full-time employees the remaining seven months. The beneficio took the coffee from “cherry to oro” in 60 hours – that is, from being freshly picked cherries with coffee beans at their centres to “green” dry beans ready for export and roasting. This was the first time that I ever saw the wet and dry processes together in the field.
The Huatusco beneficio processes an average of 62,000 bags annually. Each bag weighs 132 pounds and 250 bags fills one sea-bound shipping container. That’s almost 33,000 pounds of green coffee. To fill six containers for Green Mountain, the co-op needs 1500 bags of green coffee. This year’s production was down 30 to 50 per cent, depending on the zone. Some of this was weather-related; however, much of it was cyclical and due to the heavy harvest last year. This is the historic curse of the coffee industry: booms and busts in production.
We had a meeting with Josafat Hernandez Gonzalez, the plant’s general manager. At this meeting we discussed the co-op’s structure and function, the year’s crop, the co-op’s short-term financing, pricing, and what we were looking for from Huatusco. At the time, the Huatusco co-op had over 1800 members with an additional 1200 farmers known as libres, who were trying to become members. The average sized farm in the co-op was 2.2 hectares (5.4 acres) and generally produced just over a tonne of green coffee.
The farmers did not get paid completely until their coffee was sold. The co-op members did not have access to credit unions; however, the co-op pre-paid farmers a portion of what was due. This was done to help keep coyotes at bay. Coyotes are individuals who offer to purchase coffee from farmers during lean times, when they are in a vulnerable position, sometimes 30 to 40 per cent below the market price; reluctantly, the farmers often have to sell their coffee to survive.
At the time, the co-op had short-term financing – three to four months – at a 20 per cent interest rate. In US dollars, they could obtain an interest rate of 11 per cent, bringing their average interest rate to 17 per cent. While the interest rate in US dollars was significantly lower, it was also riskier according to Jorge, due to the potential of devaluation. Jorge and other co-op members said that the government announced that it was planning a 50 per cent devaluation by January 1997. In order for Green Mountain to obtain a second six containers of coffee this year, financing had to be arranged by February. Josafat looked for the partnership of Green Mountain, a Mexican bank, and Sustainable Harvest to find a solution to the financing.
At the conclusion of our meeting, Josafat said that this was the first time in the history of the co-op that the costs and pricing of all parties was made transparent. The co-op liked this open and honest approach. A farmer on the co-op’s board commented, “It gives us more confidence in whom we are dealing with.”
After a tour of the beneficio, Dave, Deb, Jorge and I joined the co-operative’s quality control team for a full day of cupping coffees. We first narrowed down the characteristics of the coffee Deb was seeking to use for our flavoured coffees: low acidity and consistency. Then we went through more than 20 samples until we found a coffee Deb liked.
At the end, someone broke out a bottle of tequila to celebrate. Identifying this coffee would pay significant dividends over the years to both the co-operative in Huatusco, to Dave Griswold and his burgeoning new Sustainable Harvest Coffee Company, and to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
That evening, we walked downtown to visit the relatively bustling coffee town of Huatusco. It was the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, a religious holiday for Mexicans celebrated both in the church and in the streets with food, music, and dancing. The streets were lined with food vendors, bands, dancing, and decorations. Every home and business had a beautiful shrine to the Virgin on display. Coincidentally, the main ceremonial church in Huatusco was named after the Virgin of Guadeloupe, so the festival had a bit more meaning here.
To reach it, we walked up a difficult dirt path in the dark, steep at times, with many other people going up and down. As we neared the top of the hill, the crowd was larger. The white church with blue trim was festooned with colorful streamers coming from all around the top of its steeple. The interior was beautifully decorated with bright colors and many flowers. Thousands of people surrounded the exterior of the church in celebration. Above us, shooting stars crisscrossed the sky. When we finally got to our hotel at about 2am, fireworks still sounded in the distance. It had been a glorious day.
Two days later we flew to the coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Jorge Cuevas and his boss at the time, Paco Zavaleta, met us there. From the coast, we drove high in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains to a village whose members belonged to the La Trinidad Cooperative. The village was Lagunilla, a Zapotec community.
It was very primitive in its coffee production and processing, but it was a great opportunity to see coffee growing and processing from the ground up. It was also a growing source of coffee for Green Mountain, and a source that also produced certified organic coffee. While we were in the mountains, we received a better understanding of the basic yet effective wet milling process at the farm level, including watching a farmer wash his de-pulped beans by hand to remove the remaining mucilage. Next to the bunkhouse where we were to spend the night was a basketball court used during the harvest season as a drying patio.
On the way to see some wet milling, we passed a small mud hut where a slender woman wearing a white gown stood in the doorway. A two-year-old boy stood clutching her leg. She waved but the boy was too serious for that. I looked past her into the single room home. Not a stick of furniture was evident on the dirt floor.
After watching the washing and drying of coffee at the wet mill, we walked back and the woman was standing in almost the same place. In one arm she held her young son, and in the other was a bunch of bananas. As we passed her, she extended her arm with the bananas, and offered one to each of us. I was so moved that I could barely say “gracias”. This woman who had so little was graciously offering us what she did have. Those who have the least always seem to give the most. She both humbled and inspired me.
As we were flying back to the States the next day, I was ready to spring from the blocks. I was excited by what I had learned about co-operatives and small-scale coffee processing. I was moved further by seeing more of the faces of coffee. I wasn’t back in Waterbury long before I learned that the coffee we ordered from Peru months ago was still sitting in a yard trailer. A few of us had been excited about this new product and its organic certification; however, clearly not everyone was.
This was frustrating on several levels. First, I was concerned about the quality of the coffee, which now had been exposed to large swings in temperature and humidity. I also couldn’t understand why we would let this coffee just sit in a trailer when we should have been roasting and selling it. I felt antsy and disappointed. I was fired up to help promote organic coffees but I was stuck in an office writing press releases about new flavoured coffees and other events that just didn’t seem as important to me. GCR