I recently had the pleasure of taking a trip to Guatemala. It was my first time visiting the country and Central America all together, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The only place I could compare it to was Mexico, having traveled there many times.
Guatemala is a beautiful country, with very welcoming people, rich historic culture and bustling day to day life. Since I work in coffee sales at Caffe Vita I was very excited to go to a country that is in the top ten coffee producing countries in the world. In every restaurant or café I would go to I had to try their coffee. Didn’t matter where I had coffee it was always way better than your average cup of joe.
Trying many Guatemalan coffees was amazing, but spending a full day at the Santa Isabel (Finca Nuevo Vinas) coffee farm was an experience I will never forget. Caffe Vita has been sourcing coffee from this sustainable and organic coffee farm for 9 years.
The trip to the farm started out with farm owner, Martin Keller, picking us up in Guatemala City. At first he offered to fly us down in his plane. A short 8 minute flight was all, but my wife preferred that we drove. So we hopped in the car and headed down. Martin and his brother Alex own and operate this family farm and were born and raised in Guatemala. Their great grandparents came to the country from Germany and purchased the land the farm now exists on. Now, four generations of the Keller family have owned and operated this 3000 acre coffee farm that is about an hour drive south of Guatemala City.
As we got closer to the farm our discussions focused on the major two-year problem in Guatemala, and all of Central and South American, taht coffee farmers are facing. This would be “Rust”, a fungus that severely affects and kills most all plants and fruit bearing trees.
The origin of Rust is still unknown, and there are many theories to where it came from. Climate change? Or something man made to target smaller producers? There are more but the bottom line is that its impact on the coffee industry has been very significant. In 2013 Guatemalan coffee production was down 40% as the rust causes plants to produce a lot less fruit and if untreated the plant will eventually die.
Many small produces are forced to spray chemicals to try and treat this disease. However, Martin pointed out many farms that have sprayed a number of times, their plants are still in bad shape and not producing as much coffee fruit as they did before.
At the Keller family farm, (Finca Nuevo Vinas) they are a certified organic farm, so spraying chemicals is not an option and furthermore they just don’t believe in treating the plants this way. So they have been doing all they can figure out the best way to fight this problem. They have up-rooted many of their 20-30 year old coffee plants and re-planted new ones, and they currently have a nursery of coffee plants 20 times the size that they normally do. Many scientists have also come to their farm study the disease, but the future is uncertain.
The Keller family is really on the forefront of this issue and is on the Board of Directors for Ana Café, the Guatemalan National Coffee Association. The board is knee deep in discussions with 1000s of Guatemalan coffee producers to help each other out and get Guatemala’s coffee production back to where it should be.
In all business there is a risk, but when something like this happens to your crop, your livelihood is in immediate jeopardy, especially for the small Guatemalan farmers that just make enough money to take care of their families. If their crop is very low or non-existent there is nothing else they can do to support their family.
We proceeded to tour the farm and I was so impressed by the Keller family’s practices in sustainability. They literally engineer everything on this farm. From welding steel pieces for irrigation systems, to building of their own 50 kilo coffee roasters down to the nuts and bolts.
The farm also has 900 sheep that tend to the weeds, and a new crop of 150 baby sheep on the way to alleviate using weed-eaters that take gas and manpower. The mothers of these baby sheep will actually teach them which weeds to eat and to not eat the coffee plants!
After the amazing tour of the farm and production facilities we sat down with Martin to enjoy a farm fresh meal. Home made soup, roasted chicken (they recently butchered) and a fresh garden salad. It was now time to cup some coffee!
We cupped their most recent crop of naturals (organic), as early November is the very beginning of the harvest season in Guatemala and lasts until the Spring, as well as last years naturals and some new coffees they are featuring as part of their roasting business. I really enjoyed all their coffees and could not wait to share my experience with my friends and co-workers back home in Seattle.
After the cupping and one final espresso we headed back to Guatemala City. It was my last night in Guatemala so Martin’s brother Alex took me out to dinner at his favorite Guatemalan steakhouse, filled with business people (all who knew Alex and said hello as we sat at the bar). We chatted about a lot of things happening at their farm and roasting business. Alex also told me the story about how the Keller’s got started with Caffe Vita and how the deal was made when Vita Founder, Mike McConnell’s took his first trip to the farm, but that’s a story for another day…