Entre Montañas – A conversation with a Guatemalan coffee farmer

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Just south-east of Guatemala City in the rich volcanic soil of the Fraijanes Plateau coffee region of Guatemala you will find Finca Las Victorias. It is a shade grown coffee farm that has been passed down generation to generation by Carlos Letona’s family for more than 130 years.  “We have been producing coffee as it has been a long time family business since former Guatemalan President Justo Rufino Barrios in the late 1800′s,” he tells me. Barrios had taken steps to make coffee production Guatemala’s key to survival. He distributed a million seedlings to farmers and by 1880 coffee made up 90% of it’s exports. Las Victorias was born and operated unofficially for about 70 years until Carlos’ grandfather legalized the business and began exporting his crops to Belgium until the time of his death in 2001. For a time the farm remained out of operation until 2011 when Carlos (who attended school in Houston and who’s mom works as a teacher in Alief) inherited it and began undertaking the task of getting it up and running again. 

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“I basically started from zero,” Carlos says. “It was a complete jungle, all the machines were rusty and all the contacts my grandpa had was no longer there.” The farm and coffee plants were not the only things that he had to start off with. The workers that his grandfather had hired still lived on the land. “My grandpa gave them permission to live there around 45 years ago,” he recalls. “They saw me when I was a baby and now I’m their patron.” He continues to let them and their families live there as well as giving them a salary in exchange for their work harvesting the coffee. He takes care of them because they are the ones that care for the production of his coffee.”They have to take each one and make sure that it is the right time to be collected. Our quality control really depends on the people that work with me.” He depends on his workers to not only harvest the beans but also wet process them and patio dry them.   Another person that has worked with his family for many years is his roaster.  “Don Juanito is my main roaster, as he has roasted our coffee for the past 50+ years and he is soon to retire, while teaching younger generation of workers the art of roasting our coffee.” The coffee that Carlos produces and has roasted he calls Cafe Entre Montañas or Between the Mountains.

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Although he was given a good start by having all the pieces he needed it has been an uphill battle to restore Las Victorias to it’s previous status. Now there are new and more dangerous challenges that he is facing. Described as the “most economically important coffee disease in the world” by the American Phytopathological Society, Coffee Rust has been devastating Latin American crops in recent years. Unfortunately Las Victorias has not escaped the fungal attack and this season they will only be exporting half of what they did last year. “The only reason that we had any kind of harvest is that my grandpa about 25 years ago planted about 60% Lempira “ Lempira is a higher yielding rust resistant variety of coffee plant. Even though Carlos does what he can to prevent the disease from spreading (cutting out and burning the infected plants) the fungus still prevails. “We take measures to fight against it, but if your neighbors, the plantation next to us, don’t take care of it then it is still gonna be around. You really have to work together in the region to eliminate the coffee rust.” Many farms in his area have already gone bankrupt which hits the workers and communities hard. “You have to look at it also from the perspective of the workers, because if there is no coffee to collect then they don’t get paid. Its a pretty bad chain of events. It’s very saddening because there are already people in unfavorable economic conditions, and then the rust comes in and eliminates the coffee plantations. “

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Not only does Carlos face harm to his crops but to himself as well. “Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world,” he warns. “Gangsters threaten us with being kidnapped or [that] someone in our family will be murdered.” Just recently he received a call at 2 A.M. informing him that one of his holding areas for green coffee beans was being broken into. He had to decide whether to jump in his truck and race over to try and stop them or wait until the light of morning and see what damage had been done. His wife encouraged him to stay home because sometimes the thieves carry military grade weapons. “Even though I lost product I think I made the right choice by staying at home.” Sometimes the police are not much help and are the source of the problem as well. “We talk with the police and they say they will help us out, but when the time comes it turns out that it is them doing it. You can’t trust the local police or military.”

Even though these obstacles are very disheartening to Carlos he continues doing what he loves and not only that he also tries helping those around him. During difficult times he gives product to neighboring farmers to sell so they can provide for their families and puts some of the money he makes back into the community. “If it happened to me I would hope that someone would help me like I helped them.”  He is also planning to construct a small dam that will provide green energy both for his farm and the families that live there.

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“I’m proud of what my family and especially my grandpa has done over the years,” Carlos tells me when I ask him to describe his coffee. “I still get excited after roasting fresh coffee. The acidic levels are very low. We look for chocolate-y and a hint of cinnamon taste.” He is looking to move more into the US market now but with very few resources for marketing he is finding it difficult. Still, he hopes that the people that do get to drink the product of his hard work enjoy it and try to learn more. “I would encourage for them to learn more about the entire process about coffee. From cultivating, to depulping it, to roasting it, to packing, it’s a very difficult and long process,” he says. “It is 4 or 5 months of very very very hard work. Once they learn more about the entire process, I hope that they appreciate more brewing their coffee. It has been worked by a lot of people. We are proud of the coffee that we are making. I wish more people knew about the difficult process of creating coffee.”

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You could say that Carlos’ passion for coffee started when he was young.  “My grandpa used to have a small ranch style home close to the city,” he reminisces to me about his very first taste. “As a kid my grandmother and mother wouldn’t let me drink coffee because ‘it’s a grown ups drink.’ I’d seen my grandpa drink it every morning and I was curious how the ‘black water’ tasted. My grandpa poured me the perfect amount, and told me first of all before you drink it smell it. I got a good sniff of the coffee and I loved it. But my grandfather loved his coffee so hot that you could boil a chicken in there. When i got the courage to taste it I drank it slowly. I got my first sip and it must be in my DNA, I loved it. My grandmother noticed later because I was bouncing off the walls. She was yelling at my grandpa, so he took me for a walk. We walked for hours until my energy levels came down a bit and my grandma was calmed down too.” Coffee is in his DNA, his history and his life.

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