Guatemala: Proyecto Xinabajul

For years we have thought about working in a more direct way with small-scale farmers in Guatemala, and in the 2013 harvest year this effort came to fruition.

We're calling this "Proyecto Xinabajul" (pronounced She-nah-bah-hool), named for the ancient Mayan name for the Huehuetenango region. In this project, we have cupped many hundreds of samples to identify small producers who are producing quality coffee in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountains.

Many of these coffee farmers are situated atop the high ridges and steep slopes of this dramatic landscape, but in the past they sold their coffee to the large coffee processors down in the valleys. The big farms had the prime flat lands, easy to harvest their crops, and staked out on the waterways that allowed for easy processing of the coffee. Buying these higher-altitude coffees from the surrounding small farms improved the quality of their coffee, and increased the amount they could sell to exporters.

The Widows Farm
View of the Cuchumatanes terrain where the small farms are located.

But it didn't return great prices to the smallholder farms since they were now selling a raw product, coffee cherry or partially processed parchment coffee, rather than selling a more finished product direct to an exporter or buyer. When the highest grown coffees, upward from 1700 meters to near 2000 meters, were blended in bulk processing with the lower grown coffees from the valley floor, the result tended toward the lowest common denominator.

We saw this situation as a possible win-win opportunity; for us to get better coffees with distinct cup characteristics from small farms, and for the farmer to get a consistently better price for their coffee from a buyer they knew on a first-name basis. The benefit is that we will be there in person every year, and we will consistently pay a premium for dried parchment coffee, no matter what the market basis in New York is.

The conditions on the ground in Northern Guatemala and amongst the coffee farmer communities might come as some surprise to readers. Part of this is the result of the way coffee companies talk about their "direct trade" relationships, and the way we have discussed them in the past. As a form of marketing language and a kind of "response" to fair trade sourcing, direct trade has focused the discussion on traceability of coffee, but left many of the details vague. In some cases, the activity of the buyer doesn't really fulfill what the language of direct trade might suggest. One or two trips in a harvest season is a transient presence. In some cases the intention is to obscure that fact that direct trade involves more reliance on middle people, not less as the name suggests. In many cases, the buyer doesn't speak the language, understand the culture, or is really able to participate in a meaningful way due to time restrictions. After all, running a roasting shop takes so much focus and effort, adding more responsibilities is just not feasible.

While these limitations of direct trade exist, the benefits of a program like Xinabajul is that we do have direct input.  We are setting parchment prices ourselves, cupping each sample down to 40 kgs (less than half a bag of coffee), mapping all the farms, and developing a hands-on understanding of the variables in quality. On that point, we are not only able to build bonds with farmers that have the best coffee deliveries, but also troubleshoot picking and processing problems with those that have potential but whose problems are showing up on our cupping table.

Discussing the current crop
Bringing in coffee cherry in Michicoy sub-region.

All this has involved a level of commitment on our behalf as well as those we are relying on to represent us each and every day in the area. The work in tracking and logging samples through the process, building lots for regional blends (called Michicoy, Chichimes, Canahuetes, etc) or farm-distinct micro-lots, is quite staggering. At times we are dedicating all of our lab, 3 full time cuppers, to logging, roasting and cupping for this project. We aren't done with the harvest yet, but we have clocked over 600 samples from the project here in the Oakland lab. When you consider that a specialty importer is generally looking at a few purchase options when they buy a container of coffee, each sample representing a full 300 bag delivery, you can see the substantial difference of the work we are doing to source this coffee on the cupping table alone.

The fact that might surprise the observer, and even some well-traveled coffee buyers, is how these small farmers from a zone well-known for quality coffee, and not so off the beaten path (Finca El Injerto is 25 minutes away) have never been offered a better price for better quality coffee. They didn't even know it mattered. There was no incentive to pay great attention to picking only ripe coffee cherry, or to processing coffee with care. The coffee was sold for ready cash to "coyotes" who drive the road in trucks buying for local collectors. Or the coffee went to the larger farms in the area, blended in to increase their volumes. In each case, if a farmer picked and processed with great care, the coffee could be tossed in with a neighbor that picked half-ripe fruit, and over-fermented the coffee for 4 days. And they would be paid the same price. So there was no incentive to do better; there was neither no better price and no recognition of the effort.

Crop discussion in Michicoy
Discussion about the current harvest with farmers from my January trip.

This area is famously difficult for the small coffee farmer, in particular those who experience the chaotic weather patterns atop these high ridges of the Cuchumatanes. The wind and rain are noticeably more severe than the farms in the low valleys, even those within a short distance or directly below the small farms perched up on the steep slopes. There is high variability in temperature which makes for ever-changing fermentation times to break down the mucilage from the parchment layer of the coffee. Warmth and sunshine for drying are unpredictable. To manage these factors, the small farmer must be diligent, and leverage their knowledge of coffee and the local climate to obtain good results. Even some of the best farmers in the Proyecto have had bad results because of factors outside their control. In particular, unseasonable rains and cold temperatures introduced some great challenges early in the harvest this year.

Los Jorges
Los Dos Jorges. The younger Jorge's coffee lots we refer to as "The Mechanic"

In our first year of actively working the project, it is apparent that the prices we are paying for quality, and our presence and consistency in buying, has made an impact. Farmers that started out with some hesitancy because we were unknown in the zone are now delivering all of their coffee. Beyond price, we are also paying on a sliding scale based on cup quality. So once a farmer has proved they can score in the top ranks (showing not only the native potential of plant material, soil, altitude etc, but also the consistent hard work of pulping, fermenting and drying coffee according to the best methods) then they are incentivized to work with us in the future as well.

We are terribly proud of the work we put into Proyecto Xinabajul, the work of our partners in Guatemala and the trust the farmers have shown in us. There are many fine coffees from Guatemala, but with these lots we are giving farmers access to the high specialty market to farmers who have never had it before. And for us we get to offer fantastic coffees from unique sources. It's a rewarding project, and we look forward to growing and improving it for the benefit of all.

The wife of one of the Xinabajul farmers in Michicoy town
Wife of one of the projects main farmers in Chichimes sub-region