I once had a farm in Nicaragua

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OkcEspresso

#1: Post by OkcEspresso »

Not really, but I do have a story to tell.

Over the holiday season of 2004/2005 my wife and I traveled to Nicaragua to spend Christmas and new years with friends. My best friend, along with a couple of business acquaintances, had recently purchased a small nearly abandoned coffee plantation in the carved out crater on the southeast side of the Mombacho Volcano outside of Granada and adjacent to Lake Nicaragua. It is my understanding that they saw the land as a potential eco-lodge or other tourist type location. After many trips and much exploration, they decided that logistically it would be much too difficult to create anything more than rudimentary accommodations for campers. But even a campground would be out of the question in the near term.

So they decided to try to get the farm going again. They found a local farmer and installed him as manager in the "house". There is no electricity or running water (in the sense that most of us think of running water) and it is a long way from any kind of supplies. But none of that mattered when it came time to grow and harvest coffee and that is what they did.

So now here we are a few years later and the farm is operational and even growing. They are trying to get certified as organic and also trying to restore some of the production capabilities that are now provided by the people who buy their beans (in berry form). They have also renewed efforts to get some kind of camping facilities going, but I still think it will be a few years before anyone would ever find them.

I am going again in July for a couple of weeks and will spend some time with the new manager listening to everything he is willing to tell me about their plants and processes. I know nothing about coffee farms so this will be a real treat. One of the things I would like to do is bring back some green beans to send as samples to a few of the receptive roasters who may be able to offer any suggestions or advice. This may not be useful to anyone this year, but perhaps in the coming years it could interesting.

Here are some pictures from the trip:

This is the volcano from the south side. The mound in this picture is all "the volcano". The near-left area that is appears to be a lower elevation is the part of the volcano that blew out a-la-Mount Saint Helens.




To call the approach road a road is really a stretch, but it is the only way to get there. From the highway south of Granada, it takes about 2 hours of slow travel in a capable 4WD vehicle. We took a few detours to explore some trails and visit the lake at the end of road, but it was pretty grueling otherwise. The final portion of the road up to the farm is a cobblestone lined path of about 18% to 22%:



We slept in tents on the grounds in front of the rancho between the old pulper and the drying patio. The wind howls viciously day and night up there. It made for pleasant sleeping, but sometimes poor hiking. We hiked and climbed up through the coffee trees and the surrounding jungle about halfway to the rim.



This is basically the diametrical view from the volcano view above. This is looking out toward Lake Nicaragua. They believe many of the tiny islands that are ubiquitous in that lake were formed when the rim was blown off the top of this volcano. If we crested this hill just a few more meters, we would see the "road". All of the coffee is inside the crater but the farm extends below the lower rim for a quite a ways:



This is the "house". It contains a kitchen and a single bedroom. The other accommodations that one would normally require in a house are in much smaller building nearby which is quite breezy all the time:



And here is the kitchen. There is not much else to say other than to acknowledge that the woman pictured is one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing:



I believe this is some machinery used to remove the fruit from the ripe coffee berry (please correct me if I am wrong). In the foreground is the area they used to dry the beans once the pulp was removed. Our tents are just to the right of this photo:



About a 1.5 hour hike up from our camp is the genesis of all running water in the small valley below this farm. This amazing contraption is connected via galvanized pipes to close to one hundred rural homes below:



One of the pickers at work. They start early to beat the heat. He is nearing the end of his workday:



The pickers work up and down a row of plants with that basket and pick the ripe berries. When they get to the end of each row back at the road, they dump the contents of the basket into one of these sacks, We would see them in various stages of being filled up and down the roads:



We all know what this is:



The shade trees for the coffee plants mixed in with the darker coffee trees. That pipe is the same as the aforementioned plumbing pipe:



At the end of the workday, they bring the sacks back to the rancho to figure out how much was picked. I didn't catch all the details, but basically this box is the accepted unit of measure of the amount of berries that were picked:



Then the boxes are poured into other bags for transport to another location where they will be pulped and dried:



The crew.



On the next trip, I will take a whole new round of pictures and post a few here. Maybe a few less than the above.


Chris

PeterG

#2: Post by PeterG »

Hey Chris-

What a cool post, thanks for sharing all that. Really a cool experience.

I went up Mombacho for the first time this year, and visited a few coffee farms there. It is a relatively unknown region of Nicaragua... your project should be quite an adventure!

Best of luck, if I can be of any assistance let me know...

Peter G
counter culture coffee

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HB
Admin

#3: Post by HB »

Wow, great story and I love the pictures. It's easy to forget that many people in remote locales sweat everyday to bring coffee to us. Thanks for the reminder of the difficult journey.
Dan Kehn

alsterlingcafe

#4: Post by alsterlingcafe »

OKC........

I found this a fascinating post, and wonder if OKC is still here or now on his return trip?

You mentioned bringing some green back for US opinion. Being in somewhat a similar position, and just returning from the Sul de Minas, Brasil, most of my interests are being handled by family and friends very near the coffee fazendas.

In short, I spoke with the cooperatives and neighboring producers/fazenda owners. Then I asked for input from stateside roasters and industry people. I've been investing time in espresso and any phase of the business where I can get exposure. What I've learned about green importing can be summed up in few words; "High risk, minimal return....gotta' have a passion for coffee." While I certainly has a naive passion at this time, I'm gunshy of the risk issues. And there are many.

For Brasilian, and from what I was told by an industry leader, unless the quality of green can compare to Fazenda Daterra, in the Carmo de Minas area, it's (and I paraphrase) just better to sell to the coop at the going rate. Coop's will have grading and cupping labs to evaluate producer's offerings. That's part of their service. I wonder if and/or what the coop situation is within your farm's market area? I'd want to know how my lot stands up to the quality of the region.

The small amount of green that my neighbor brings home from his fazenda in the Carmo region is at the hobby level. I've yet to find a way to safely "piggy back" less than container lots into the West coast. While I'm still open to suggestions, most of the importers and brokers have many years invested. As a business person, I see that as giving them the ability to cover their bad times when disaster can hit a shipment; either there, in transit or when it's being cupped here stateside. I was told, numerous times, that there are just no guarantees that even a contract will absolutely be closed. There's right of refusal "after the beans arrive." Scary, huh?

Does that mean absolutely NO to importing? Absolutely not. There may still be a way to do it profitably. I had even thought of extending the "home roaster buying coop's" to jointly sharing in the cost of importing. This would be for great beans, but beans that may not be available the following year. That's another issue. Such an arrangement would have to be done with a heck of alot of trust between all the members and my ability to show how we could all get the beans here safe and sound. For taking far less for my trouble, I would then pass on that margin into reducing the cost of the shipment.

If you're out of the country, please contact me when you return. I'd like to hear what happened.

Click on link to see cupping at coop lab in Sul de Minas http://www.zippyvideos.com/883495925551 ... n_minas_3/

HasBean

#5: Post by HasBean »

Big thanks for this post really cool.

Steve

OkcEspresso

#6: Post by OkcEspresso »

alsterlingcafe wrote:OKC........

I found this a fascinating post, and wonder if OKC is still here or now on his return trip?

-- snipped for brevity --
I am still in Nicaragua. Back on the 15th...

A couple of things to note:

1. This is actually not my farm and I will not be doing any direct importing. I just want to help my friend any way that I can. This seems to serve two purposes in that I will also be learning more about the whole coffee process as well as the business side.

2. They currently produce about 1 container load of green coffee per season. Their production is low for the quantity of coffee plants they currently farm - around 45 manzanas (roughly 1.7 acres per manzana).

3. As the farm was abandoned for so long, their processing capabilities are not operational right now. However, with the help of some very eco-friendly farms in Nica, they are rebuilding their capabilities to handle nearly all the steps in the the process right up to setting up a cupping lab. Watching this slowly develop is really exciting and quite interesting.

I am going up to the farm this Wednesday to spend time with the manager. I should have some pictures and more information when I get back this weekend.

Thanks for the replies to this post.

Chris

OkcEspresso

#7: Post by OkcEspresso »

These photos are from a trip I took in July of this summer. I really need to add several to the thread I started on the farm (or maybe start a new thread) with the updates.

Since my first trip, there is a new sheriff in town. Jorge was hired from the Matagalpa area and brought in to implement a full spectrum of sustainable processes to the farm. He immediately began planting forest tree saplings and cleaning up the existing coffee trees. There is a lot of work to do and progress is arduous as they struggle through 25 years of neglect.

The following photo shows a neglected tree of the bourbon variety. You can see where the tree was last capped and what you can't see are the height of the trunk Jorge is holding - close to 14 feet. As you can imagine, the ideal way to pick coffee usually doesn't involve a bucket truck.



In Nicaragua, the average yield of a well managed farm using conventional farming methods (chemicals) is approximately 1200 lbs per acre of green beans. A well run organic farm averages about 50% of that yield. There are some additional economic factors that include a higher labor cost for organic farming but lower raw material costs.

The following is a method commonly used to prevent berry boring beetle infestation. First, some crushed green coffee berries are mixed with a local white rum-type liquor and allowed to ferment for a couple of days. This solution is loaded into small plastic bags and tiny holes are poked in the bags. The liquid slowly drains into the bottle and the beetles are attracted to its aroma (who wouldn't be?). Shockingly, the stench of dead beetles and old booze is enough to keep more beetles from boring into the berries.



In addition to organic pesticides, organic fertilizer also needs to be distributed throughout a healthy farm. As most composters know, worms aid in composting organic waste which accelerates the fertilizer production process. The following is a common composting/worm farming implementation. I think I recognize some politicians in that muck?



Finally, here we are again with that thing we all love so much.


jdstaford

#8: Post by jdstaford »

I would like to do what your friend and investors have done. How much did they pay, round about, for the farm? Did they have any title issues or problems closing on the property since they, i am assuming, are not Nicaraguan citizens? Basically, how much and how hard was it to close the transaction and how secure the ownership?

OkcEspresso

#9: Post by OkcEspresso »

My friend and his partners on this farm are all Nicaraguan. He has an American partner in some other properties (which include a farm).

I dont know what they paid for the farm but I know it was shockingly low. I have been trying to buy a farm in Nica for a long time but without spending several months down there, finding those kinds of deal is difficult. Each time we have made an offer, the price of the farm has gone up considerably once our identity is disclosed. Shady but still worth it in my opinion.

I dont know how big you are looking for but keep in mind that you will have to make numerous trips annually to keep everything moving in the right direction. The farm must be large enough to at least support our travel so it needs to be considerable. A farm this size could employ several hundred people during harvest and maybe 30 to 45 off harvest.

PM me if you have more questions. I can put you in touch with my friend.

C.