Sergio Fresh Cup

Experiments with Tradition

Jimmy Sherfey

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It’s an eighty-mile, two-hour journey from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to Finca Los Planes on the border of Honduras, and along the whole drive Sergio and Isabel Ticas and Jeff Taylor have been exchanging stories and laughing. The banter and mirth make it hard to believe this is essentially an international business meeting, though one held in an extended-cab pickup truck. Sergio occasionally weighs in from the driver’s seat, while his wife drives the conversation from the cab. Isabel is an ebullient, blonde, blue-eyed woman of German descent who grew up in this small Central American nation. She’s a keen translator for her quiet, yet resolute husband, a seasoned veteran of specialty coffee. For the past decade the good-humored Jeff Taylor, a co-founder of PT’s Coffee Roasting in Topeka, has traveled from his home on the Kansas plains to mountainous farms across Central and South America to source coffee and build the kind of relationships many now recognize as a hallmark of the third wave. Jeff has bought green beans from Sergio and Isabel, who own Finca Los Planes, after successfully bidding on their first Cup of Excellence lot in 2006.

In the slow ascent up to the northwestern plateau shared by El Salvador and Honduras, beds of fallen pine needles blanket the road’s shoulder. Before we cross over the river where Sergio first learned to swim some fifty years ago, he stops to purchase some queso fresco. Approaching the farm, the truck passes a local clinic and school, both of which received donations from Jeff and PT’s.

El Salvador
Yesenia carrying fifty pounds of coffee cherries to the wet mill. (Photos: Nate Robinson.)

Within moments of reaching the finca we are touring Sergio’s Secret Garden, a steeply graded microlot of red bourbon and yellow caturra, ensconced in wind-blocking cordons made of twelve-foot-tall barrier trees. The smaller coffee trees line up in rows separated by narrow passageways, the plants so close their branches cross into one another. A handful of trees look bare, hanging onto damaged leaves, signaling exhausted or rust-stricken limbs. Norma, a wizened harvester who for thirty-five years has worked in the coffee fields surrounding the village of Los Planes, applies herself to one tree at a time. Her fingers nimbly comb through each cluster, only picking the cherries of proper ripeness. She is flanked by Yesenia and Lupe, each at their own tree carrying baskets that hold twenty-five pounds of cherries. These baskets are the unit of measure when it is time to tally the day’s earnings.

After peeking in for just an hour to observe and ask questions, we head to the plantation’s cabin for dinner while the harvesters bring the day’s yield up the hill for de-pulping. Yesenia and Lupe, neither much more than a 100 pounds, yoke several bags to their backs and haul them up grades as steep as thirty degrees. The farm’s wet mill was constructed using the funds gained from the Cup of Excellence lot in 2006, which sold for $17 a pound, approximately fourteen times the world price at the time.

At the cabin’s dinner table, a group that had been very talkative on the ride from the city is now silenced by hot pupusas filled with the super-fresh cheese and served with warm tomato sauce. It’s a delicious reminder that we are on the El Salvador side of the border. The brass-hued lights of Ocotepeque on the Honduran side brighten under twilight in the valley. Once dinner has been heartily eaten, all compliments are paid to cook Nena Hernandez, a shy young woman whose only ostentation is the highlights in her hair. Perhaps it takes a quiet, measured, task-driven person to construct such a well-executed meal from scratch. Those same qualities might be why Isabel says Nena is an able manager of the finca’s newest lot, El Pimiento.

Isabel Ticas with El Pimiento's manager Nena Hernandez.
Isabel Ticas with El Pimiento’s manager Nena Hernandez.

In 2010, Sergio gave the forest-covered tract of land to Monika Larde, Isabel’s German-born mother, to design several acres of coffee production. In years prior, Monika attended several seminars offered by the Salvadoran Coffee Council and agricultural think tank PROCAFE. Drafting plans for the new lot, she collaborated closely with Nena and the farm workers. Though designs for El Pimiento predate the coffee leaf rust epidemic currently wracking the region, the small lot could very well become a proving ground for the creative brand of agricultural practices needed to overcome the ongoing crisis.

The next morning over breakfast, we discuss the state of specialty coffee in El Salvador. The Salvadoran Coffee Council reported that December 2013 exports dropped forty-four percent compared to December 2012. The decline is on pace to surpass the council’s summer prediction of a thirty-six percent decrease for the entire 2013–2014 season. On par with the rest of Central America, rust is reducing the Salvadoran specialty crop by half, says Sergio. Specialty farmers are debating the use of chemicals to combat the leaf fungus. Some world-renowned growers in El Salvador are eschewing organic certification in the interest of survival.

“In the beginning,” Nena recalls, “the men would say, ‘No, Nena cannot do it.’ I told them, ‘No, I can do it.’”

Leaf rust, here called la roya, is a capricious beast and its spread has been attributed to everything from wind to lack of pruning and even the clothes of workers. Finca Los Planes grows coffee at 5,000–5,500 feet, an altitude thought to be impervious to rust, considering its high and dry air. That perception changed through the recent seasons of extended rain and higher temperatures. Isabel recalls the recent infection of Cerro Los Tamales, the farm’s highest lot. “One week the trees were healthy, and the next there was roya,” she says in a nonplussed tone.

Small producers find scant help from a government in which they wield little power. By November of 2012, the Coffee Farmer’s Association of El Salvador’s shares in the national bank slipped below two percent, a major fall from its role as the primary shareholder for much of the twentieth century. Sergio is the association’s newly elected president and tasked with giving his colleagues a stronger voice at the national level. He began this year accompanying a government official to the San Miguel region to survey farms damaged by the late December eruption of Chaparrastique, a volcano in the east. While most of the crop had been harvested, considering the rise of rust fungus, it is another natural disaster that will only further exacerbate the nation’s production woes.

“In the beginning,” Nena recalls, “the men would say, ‘No, Nena cannot do it.’ I told them, ‘No, I can do it.’”

Sergio’s own farm grows pacamara, bourbon, and yellow caturra, all of which can produce as much as 500 pounds per acre, according to PROCAFE. (That rate of yield assumes perfect growing conditions, healthy trees, and proper grooming.) Currently, the rust problem has El Salvador looking at 165 pounds per acre. Los Planes expects just 4,000 pounds across thirty-five acres. This does not count the possible contribution from the fledgling El Pimiento, from which Nena aims to collect some 500 pounds before the harvest is finished.

Nena has no financial ownership of the experimental lot; however, her income, along with that of her crew, will increase with the yield produced every harvest. From the outset Monika insisted El Pimiento be a job for women so that they may gain this economic advantage. Additionally, she viewed the micro-lot as a “garden requiring attention to detail.” Set aside whether or not women are more meticulous than men, Nena’s crew is proving its coffee-growing mettle several times over.

Only three years old, the cypress-shaded forest lot is coming to fruition, and it has indeed taken special attention to reach this point. The land itself is no cakewalk. Much of Finca Los Planes is on clay soil, and El Pimiento’s area is riddled with stones. To accommodate the seedlings and make sufficient rooting space, the women had to dig out two-foot cubes of earth for each tree, replacing it with black soil and compost.

El Pimiento uses a unique growing method originating in Guatemala and disseminated throughout Central America. Nena and her crew tie the tops of two-year-old coffee trees to stakes anchored in the ground so the stalks pitch at forty-five degrees, spawning skyward shoots that will fruit for two seasons apiece. The base of each plant is no closer than nine feet to another, affording room to stretch out. Approaching maturity the trees grow near parallel to the ground, reminiscent of grapevines. The look provides its name: agobia parras, burdened vines. The result is more cherries and more nutrients left in the soil.

Coffee trees tied down in the agobio parra style.
Coffee trees tied down in the agobio parra style.

“Our parents and grandparents used this parra system because it gave good harvests,” Sergio says. He’s fond of this sort of received wisdom passed down through generations. For instance, Finca Los Planes has a meter to ensure the coffee reaches the desired moisture level, but Sergio can give an equally accurate reading by cracking a bean between his molars, a trick he delights to show. At the same time, Finca Los Planes has benefited from the global exchange of agricultural knowledge. Isabel says they plan to construct more of the raised drying beds made popular in Africa. Facing the most present danger in years, a synthesis of this kind of ancestral ingenuity with all the best practices devised across the industry could be the key to survival for El Salvador’s relatively young specialty crop. Nena and her crew are even running their own experiments. Currently, the women are pruning all shoots save the three strongest, bending one towards the ground. “Right now it seems OK,” Nena says. “We will have to see in the future.”

Weaving through the lot, Jeff notices El Pimiento’s resemblance to land farmed by another Salvadoran contact. Abnormally dense shading, conventionally regarded as an obstacle to growth, has done well to circumvent the rust problem in the highly affected Santa Ana region sixty miles to the west. Nena hopes for a similar effect.

Sergio was the first grower in his region to strive for a distinction from conventional coffee. His labor practices are progressive as well. Harvesters earn a minimum $7.50 per day throughout the season with the opportunity to earn $10 on days of heavy picking. On average, the wage works out to be double that of most workers in the region. With decent compensation to a skilled labor force, Sergio looks to improve performance, staving off fungus with careful monitoring and preventative practices. A handful of staff is employed year-round to prune trees and prepare for next
season’s harvest.

Jeff Taylor from PT's Coffee Roasting gets close to a dry processed coffee at Finca Los Planes.
Jeff Taylor from PT’s Coffee Roasting gets close to a dry processed coffee at Finca Los Planes.

Back at the drying patio, Jeff and Isabel are jazzed about the idea of next year cupping with field workers like Nena and Yesenia. Including managers and farm owners has become a standard practice of direct trade. In the same way a culture of precision materialized among baristas on the consumer end, bringing in the harvesters may be the next logical progression towards a well-educated supply chain.

When we return to the cabin for dinner, Jeff thumbs through his phone and relays regards to Nena from his wife Maritza. In past visits, Maritza, a Colombian and former Q Grader, had imparted to the young Salvadoreña some basic quality coffee wisdom. Recalling their impromptu training sessions, Nena says she wants to keep learning beyond what she knows in the fields. “I like the whole process of coffee,” she says as the beginnings of smile emerge from an otherwise stoic face.

In the event El Pimiento’s lot produces ample coffee for export, Jeff urges Nena to re-invest the money into the land in a similar fashion to Sergio’s allocation of Cup of Excellence profits. Nena agrees this is a good idea, hoping to “continue with the legacy.” Someday she hopes to have her own land and give her son a quality education, one with computers, a convenience not readily accessible in her own youth.

The last morning of our stay, Nena makes one more perfect meal. Sergio and Isabel are kind enough to take us down to the border where we will catch a bus to San Pedro Sula. Jeff is on his way to Guatemala, but before he goes he lays claim to the five bags expected from El Pimiento this season. It is a modest purchase, perhaps not worth the trouble for a direct-trade buyer who sources from more than fifteen mid-sized farms in Central and South America. But it feels like a vote of confidence in El Pimiento, a little plot poised to carry more than its own weight through a tumultuous time.

Jimmy Sherfey is a freelance journalist based in Orlando. He writes about Central Florida coffee at Abeja de Café.

—Photographs by Nate Robinson. See his photographs at By The Robinsons.