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Our 2023 Mexico Pre-Harvest Plan builds on last year’s explorations into lesser-known producing regions of Mexico while doubling down on our historical work with supply chains in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. For the first time, we are introducing a quality-incentivized transparent pricing program across the country to encourage early and repeat delivery of parchment from top producers and break out of traditional aggregation models which restrict many producers’ access to the specialty export market.
We first started working in Mexico back in 2013, focusing our efforts in lower-lying areas in Central Mexico along the Pacific coast like Colima and Guerrero—places relatively unknown to specialty buyers in the U.S. Back then, we brought in beautiful dry processed coffees (uncommon in Mexico) from a cooperative called Leyva Mancilla in Guerrero and washed coffees in one of the first lots ever exported from Colima. From there, we began exploring the upper ranges and outer environs of Oaxaca, where the ties of community and operational complexity are as palpable as the potential for quality.
Based on its proximity, it would be easy to assume that of everywhere we work, Mexico should be the easiest. Yet, despite sharing a border and deep connections to the U.S., Mexico remains one of the most complex places we work.
First introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century, coffee in Mexico initially grew on large plantations owned by Europeans and worked by Mexican laborers. Following Mexican independence, wealthy landowners wielded “modernization” as a rationale to abolish communal and corporate land rights, stripping indigenous communities of their lands to form large estates. Agrarian land reforms following the Mexican Revolution began a process of redistribution of land from those larger private estates back to smallholders through the ejido system, which established communal land areas dedicated to agricultural production.
In 1973, to promote coffee production on these newly created lands, the Mexican government established The Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café, or INMECAFE), providing technical assistance, equipment, transportation and credit so that coffee producers could deliver their coffee to the international market. By the end of INMECAFE’s first decade, coffee was the largest agricultural export in Mexico, accounting for 35% of all agricultural exports.
As part of his neoliberal policies, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari abolished INMECAFE in 1989, the same year that the International Coffee Agreement collapsed—exposing smallholders to price volatility and leaving them without access to credit or government assistance—and in 1991 ended ejido land reform policies, again forcing smallholders to abandon lands they’d farmed, dispersing many into remote or mountainous areas.
After the ICA collapsed, so too did prices for coffee; the Coordination of Coffee Grower Organizations estimates that as a result of the ensuing coffee crisis, Mexican coffee growers would have lost 65% of their potential revenues since the start of the crisis. As a result, 71% of coffee growers stopped using fertilizers, 40% reduced pruning, and 75% stopped investing in control of pests, leading to lower qualities, yields and resiliency ahead of the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Latin America in 2012.
In response, many of the coffee growers in Mexico—who today number more than 500,000, 85% of whom are indigenous and with 95% growing coffee on fewer than 3 hectares of land—organized into informal cooperatives or otherwise collaborated to mitigate their risk and attempt to access the best price for their coffee.
Mexico offers unique opportunities for quality with many of its farms planted with decades-old root stock of lower-yielding traditional varieties like Bourbon and Typica and an increased interest domestically in specialty coffee, leading to experimentation and innovation in coffee processing and the planting of exotic cultivars. Today, Mexico is the seventh largest coffee exporter in the world—and the largest exporter of organic coffee.
We don’t operate like coffee hunters or coyotes, picking through warehouses, or buying the best cups that come up on coyote-curated blinded tables in Oaxaca City. To overcome our greatest challenges working in Mexico—aggregation of coffee into lots of exportable size and qualities—we remain committed to working through communities, allowing us to build mutual relationships and networks of trust. This is only possible by overcoming communications challenges—linguistic and topographic—returning year after year to re-engage communities, addressing logistics within and between communities, and cultivating quality through training, idea sharing, proactive communication, and incentive programs.
For the 2023 harvest and import from Mexico, we anticipate that:
Cold and wet conditions across Mexico have delayed harvest and drying by as much as a month compared to previous years, also leading to lower than expected production. However, we have implemented stricter purchasing deadlines to ensure lots are milled and exported earlier in 2023, which will result in earlier and on-time arrivals to the U.S. We will be traveling to Mexico three times prior to the end of harvest and anticipate that booking will be wrapped up by early May.
We introduced a new program that we’re calling Good Coffee Program, designed to create access to and and a pipeline for top lots by appealing to farmers and their communities directly through transparent pricing, immediate payment, and long-term contracts. This farmer-facing program is overseen by our new support team in Mexico, and will deliver higher quality separations and smaller microlots than in previous years.
Domestic prices in Mexico remain high; pricing indicators, particularly across Oaxaca, remain inflated from last year’s peak even though market prices have begun to fall due to competition from commercial buyers. We are maintaining a pricing calculator that we will update every two weeks to transparently translate offer prices from export-ready ‘oro’ in USD / LB, FOB export, to Mexican Pesos / KG in ‘pergamino’ to the farmer. This tool will assist with education and accountability, but most of all, in engaging farmers in a conversation about prices and quality. At the start of harvest, the U.S. Dollar is the weakest it’s been since 2017 against the Mexican Peso, which will buffer export prices even as the market softens; this, along with incentives paid for quality and smaller lot sizes will result in landed prices that are approximately the same or somewhat higher than previous years.
We received the final landings of our 2022 imports late into the year, giving them less time to shine before the next crop comes in. These late arrivals resulted from disruptions within Mexico’s export market related to quality, price, and lot aggregation.
Historically, aggregation of coffees has been our greatest challenge in Mexico, with quality and high prices—or more specifically, a mismatch between quality and price—coming close behind.
Over our time working in Mexico, we’ve developed year-over-year supply chains by working with strong, engaged collaborators who have their own relationship and connection to communities of coffee growers. By working through them, we’re able to gain access to communities—most often indigenous, and always of smallholders—who otherwise would not have access to the specialty market. One challenge, however, is that these informal cooperatives are traditional in their structure and outlook; a central collection point for parchment services the entire community with pricing negotiated on an ongoing basis based on market conditions, and without training or support for agronomy or processing, quality is highly variable.
Without collectors and a way to make inroads with these communities of smallholders, the coffee they grow would likely be destined for sale in the domestic or commercial markets by coyotes, or bought by “Coyote Qs” who buy coffee at low prices from farmers by grading it down at the farm and up at the lab in Oaxaca. Domestic prices in Mexico for specialty quality lots are higher than in other producing countries, and with yields also substantially lower, supply pressures force FOB costs higher and logistical challenges increase.
Last year, for our 2022 import, we hired a partner from our early work in Guerrero as a producer-in-residence to motivate producers to engage in the specialty market by providing processing training and experimentation support. Our short-term aim was to create diversified products through existing partnerships and by paying a premium for these lots, ensure they’d make it to export. In conjunction, we established a “diploma” program inclusive of cupping feedback rewarding producers for going through this training. The coffees were produced, but in the end, they never made it to market: with market prices as high as they were, and with the slow payment cycle of exported coffee—up to 6 weeks from delivery of parchment—many producers ended up selling the coffee they’d produced through the Barista in Residence program to the local market, using the diploma we’d given, for faster payment.
OAXACA: La Canada, Mazoteca C2C Agent is making frequent visits to check on training / lot separation. Communities are invited to participate in GCP microlot program for 3rd party feedback. OAXACA: OAXACA: Support smaller lot separation through Joaquin’s house (which acts as the group’s bodega) through to the mill in Oaxaca. Special processing experimentation. Mazoteca (Puebla, Sierra Negra)
Strategy or Qualities
La Refleja y Red 5 de Diciembre
Utilize the agronomy extension team (Red 5) to train community partners on quality control and lot separation upon initial collections. Explore separations from other high-altitude, hard to reach member groups in Sierra Norte.
La Reflecja (cooperative) hired a new cupper.
Terra Coffeas Mexico
Mixteca (Caballo Rucio)
Mazoteca (San Mateo Yoloxochitlan)
La Pluma (Juquila)
Build small 20-family community groups within indigenous communities who can focus on producing for specialty. Pair these groups with field workers to provide support through the harvest, a top of the line mill / cupping team to recreate the cooperative model from the ground up.
‘22 was the start of this project, ‘23 is building on that success with more individual farmer separations and overall improvements on community-level processing made possible by good prices and advance contracts.
Ramon Ruiz / Joaquin Santana
La Pluma (Chateno)
Support community leaders (in this case, Joaquin Santana) who devote their houses, hearts and time to hold together informal cooperatives composed of indigenous (mostly non-spanish speaking) households who have delivered their coffee to Joaquin for generations.
Continue to reinvest a portion of premiums into supplies (shade nets, drying beds).
Pride of Puebla
Participate in a grassroots-organized quality auction (‘22) to identify the most motivated producers in an off-the-path part of Puebla so that they can have more access to specialty markets in ‘23.
Send a C2C agent to work between NGOS (like Heifer Intl), local agronomists, and community leaders to communicate a clear plan for pricing, quality premiums, and quick cupping feedback through the Good Coffee Program (GCP).
La Canada, Mazoteca
C2C Agent is making frequent visits to check on training / lot separation.
Communities are invited to participate in GCP microlot program for 3rd party feedback.
Support smaller lot separation through Joaquin’s house (which acts as the group’s bodega) through to the mill in Oaxaca.
Special processing experimentation.
Mazoteca (Puebla, Sierra Negra)
For 2023, we’re taking a different approach to our Mexico sourcing strategy based on the lessons we learned from our work over the last few harvests. This year’s strategy focuses on quality discovery, and appeals directly to producers by providing an impartial lab to provide quick feedback while educating producers on their cup score. This exists on top of our normal purchasing strategy, which aims at economic stability through long-term contracts, and building trust and accountability through adoption of a transparent, widely-communicated pricing model for all of our buying in Mexico.
We brought on staff two local agents, Israel Paz and his wife Joz Cortes, both of whom are skilled, calibrated cuppers with deep connections to producer communities in Mexico. Israel and Joz will work together not only to evaluate quality and turn around feedback more rapidly at their own Arc roaster outfitted lab in Puebla, but also help with discovery of new producer relationships through their networks. Israel will oversee our new quality incentive and transparent pricing program, which we’re calling, aptly, Good Coffee Program (GCP). Good Coffee Program runs during harvest, from March 1st to April 26, 2023.
GCP is built on a few foundational principles:
By improving the speed of payment and incentivizing quality, we hope to build collections of high-quality coffees. Taking a page out of our strategy from last year, we will run radio broadcasts to communicate pricing in order to overcome the communication challenges posted by Mexico’s topography. The pricing model is fully transparent with premiums assessed based on quality—and a base price that is recalculated every two weeks corresponding to movement in the local market.
While the coffee trade in Mexico operates with a lack of national structure and is often opaque due to difficulty accessing communities of producers directly, GCP aims to create an environment where smallholders are able to receive feedback on their coffee, receive a transparent offer above the local market, and get paid quickly.
GCP will be utilized across all of our supply chains in Mexico; we anticipate that this will result in smaller, high quality lots and don’t anticipate any lots larger than 50 bags.
One of our longest-standing supply chain partners in Mexico, Ramon Ruiz, and the networks of producers he helps us access through Joaquin Santana in Sierre del Sur and Lachao are one area of focus. The lot separation strategies we’ve implemented in the past have shown some success, and our initial trials of using radio broadcasts to promulgate pricing helped to expedite delivery of coffees from these remote regions. In neighboring La Cañada and Eloxochitlán, we’re eager to engage Coro Cooperative and Red 5 de Diciembre and solicit their participation in GCP. The Red 5 de Diciembre network has been a partner of Crop to Cup since 2020 and is the largest organization of producers in the La Cañada—itself made up by 13 first-level organizations to represent 1,300 small indigenous producers. Over the past six years this group has been working to improve selective harvesting, specialty processing, and marketing of these higher value lots while growing membership.
We will be expanding our work with one of our newer supply-chains in Oaxaca—Terra Coffeas—with whom we worked in 2022. The team at Terra Coffeas includes engineers, agronomists, biologists, chemists, cuppers, artists, and coffee lovers united for the common cause of “agroecológico”—loosely translated to mean “the intentional purposing of international standards for quality, productivity and traceability, towards the advancement of local cultural practices, environmental resources, and economic outcomes”. The field team at Terra Coffeas is young, ethics- and quality-calibrated with Crop to Cup. Rather than relying on conventional cooperatives, Terra Coffeas operates by organizing smallholder coffee producers into informal cooperatives of 25-30 families to aggregate lots into exportable volumes, create market access, cultivate quality, and deliver premiums based on that quality.
In Puebla, where Israel Paz and Joz have their lab, we’ll be returning for 2023 after being the only international buyer to participate in 2022’s Pride of Puebla competition and auction. The coffees from this region remain relatively unknown to specialty buyers outside, and we believe that Puebla holds massive potential for quality as well as producers who will be motivated and positioned well to take advantage of the GCP program.
We we will be actively cupping throughout the season and expect to have samples available by May. To get involved or for more information, contact your trader.
We we will be actively cupping throughout the season and expect to have samples available by May.
’Coffee is a noble crop’, Gildo translated from Mixteca to Spanish. We were in Southern Mexico, Oaxaca State, near a Puebla called Guadalupe Mirimar, an indigenous Mixteca town smaller than my graduating class in high school.
Being from the area Gildo (pronounced Hildo) showed us all that his community had to offer the world of specialty coffee. We were above the cloud-line, something that always makes sunrises special, and walking back from a plot where one farmer had worked – alone – and with love– to replant all 2000 trees.
Gildo was explaining the pride people take in cultivating coffee, something more than all other crops. “Coffee is a noble crop” – a simple phrase, yet the answer to two of my more complicated questions.
The first question was ‘why’? I always ask this when shown best practices in places that only have access to commodity markets. Why put in the extra effort for a crop that kicks your ass by the kilogram? When the weather, currency and the board of trade all have a bigger impact on your income than that extra hour you’re adding to every task. More, every hour you spend reduces your hourly income – so, just, why?
I am touring one of the most model farms I have seen. Yet you can still see signs of recent devastation, and not from the earthquake that hit a week before. This a region (country, hemisphere) rocked by La Roya (a fungal plague). For those unfamiliar, La Roya is the zombie apocalypse for coffee trees. Also known as Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) or Hemileia Vastatrix, this fungus is parasitical in nature. One spore can infect an entire tree within 48 hours, creating rust-like lesions which, starve the plant and, in the end, release up to 400,000 more spores. This epidemic wiped out Indonesia’s coffee production at the turn of the century (the 19th century that is), resulting in rust-resistant hybrids we taste today as part of Sumatra’s singular profile. La Roya didn’t get it’s Spanish name until it spread to Latin America until the 1970s.
|SPREAD OF COFFEE RUST|
|South Africa||Indonesia||Central & East Africa||West Africa||Brazil||Latin America||Worldwide|
While it’s caused havoc before, the most recent roya epidemic has been particularly devastating – imagine if 70% of your annual income was knocked out, for three or more years. That’s what’s happened in Mexico, and across Latin America, in a wave that’s rolled from south to north since 2012. In 2014 it hit Mexico.
When La Roya hits your community it’s endemic, meaning that it’s not just your crop that fails, but everyone you know. In areas where coffee is the cash economy, this causes a depression unlike which we have ever known from Wall Street. Restaurants, schools, hospitals, public services – you name it – La Roya is a curse word to everyone who comes from coffee country.
Some farmers have called it quits, opting instead for crops such as maize, khat or cotton. Or to get out of farming altogether, by sharecropping or selling straight out. Yet most farmers are still going to the fields. Replanting, reinvesting, and reaping less than half the fruit of a full day’s labor.
And what is more, throughout Mexico, farmers are choosing to replant with more than yield in mind.
Farmers in Mexico have the ‘benefit’ of getting hit with La Roya later than neighbors to the South in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil – all of whom have developed different varieties of rust-resistant trees. But the benefit ends there; varieties are customized to a specific climate, and no farmer we spoke with knows which are the most appropriate to their farm. More, no one seems to know of any research done to compare cup qualities of these new varietals.
So while farmers are replanting, they are doing so without clear direction. Many are trying to maintain Bourbon or Typica, but those varietals are what feeds the fungus right now. Rather, they are planting newer, more rust-resistant varietals. Varietals that are unproven in the cup. And this will invariably lead to a shift in the flavor profile for coffees out of Mexico. Veracruz was the first to replant, so we can expect to taste the direction that this is going in coffees from there starting basically now, this 2018 harvest.
But in the communities where we work, in Colima first and now up in La Mixteca (Oaxaca), farmers were planting something different. Geisha. Smaller farms have been slower to react, and in this case that just may give them some benefit.
Farmers have been told that Geisha is roya-resistant, and know of the prices this name can commanded on auction. While this particular coffee lover would love to see a return to Bourbon, with roya that is unreasonable to even dream. And, of the rust-resistant alternatives, Geisha isn’t the worst. Perhaps. This decision does put a lot of emphasis on the cup, however, on that I’m more skeptical. Geisha is a strain known for flavors such as ‘soft jasmine’ and ‘earl grey tea’. In my experience this is just about the opposite of the bright tropicals and juicy mouthfeels that make coffees stand up on a cupping table to take a bow. This is more important because Geisha was not the ideal choice from a yield point of view. While gene stock alone will not make it a great tasting coffee, I’m still encouraged by the general choice to plug Geisha over Catimor, for example. It’s a sign that these farmers are growing for a specialty audience.
But the audience left long ago, so are farmers still playing their part? Why am I seeing raised beds, new shade nets and mini-terraces dug around each and every tree? Why are farmers making home-made worm juice, using Brix to understand ripeness and taking time to learn about more than yield? Quality is within a farmers control, but without the right buyer, pricing is not.
“Coffee is a noble crop” … was one part answer to this question. Farmers who take pride in their coffee can’t just turn it off. Perhaps it’s routine – just how they were taught by their grandparents, as we oftentimes see across Africa. Or maybe it’s a matter of reputation. And not just your own reputation, but that of your region and your country as you put your name on a bag and send it off to compete against farmers from around the world.
Pride and reputation…the segue to my second question, which was one of checks and balances, of trust and verification.
I had learned that farmers were holding on to coffee in their homes, waiting for the third and final cutting to come in; waiting for market to improve. For purposes of sampling this means I would have to rely on every household providing a representative sample from each bag in their bedroom. That’s three samples per bag (top, middle and bottom) times the number of bags per household to equal one sample. Never mind that there are different qualities being mixed together within each household; next year we will be separating 1st, 2nd and 3rd cuttings so that we can taste the impact on quality and separate by time of season. For now, the question is that of risk – the risk of qualities shifting between their initial sampling and the mill.
When I first pointed this out, Gildo had responded that every farmer was used to getting their coffee Q-graded every year, and trusted the numbers that came back. “Every family is accountable to their number”. While I was calibrated with the Q-cupper we agreed on using (Manuela from export mill Galguera Gomez), this just didn’t seem right to me. And even if true, this ‘system’ still leaves too much room for error.
Future conversations proved out that families did, in fact, know their number. If it was low they owned it and were asking for ways to improve. If high they boasted, calling their coffee ‘café chignon’, for example.
You have to know what you are looking for in order to see grace and dignity through the sweat, mud and swearing involved in coffee production. The nobility of coffee is found in the unwritten rules that govern the social side of coffee, and is especially visible in small proud communities with more than just coffee in common…making it straight up ostentatious here in Mirimar.
It’s been my experience that the more a place has formal rules (speeding, for example, enforced by radar guns and cameras), the less likely they are to enforce informal rules (speaking too loud in public, for example). By contrast the more remote a farm, the more likely they are to be guided by a complex web of social mores and expectations. These informal rules take the form approval and disapproval, of hierarchy and respect. They can be tricky to navigate, but can also the best way to navigate problems as they come up.
Quality, for example, can come from a checklist of best practices, or it can be a matter of pride. It just depends on how it is framed. When pride is in play there is power in numbers, in making everything as visible as possible. To everyone.
Here, the proof was going to be in the cup, made visible by a score and backed up by a contract. This could be reinforced by hosting a ‘café’ for farmers where they get their coffee served back to them, and driven home by bringing Manuela up to the farm to judge a competition that recognizes the very best lots by varietal, household and community. But before getting there, I would need to trust enough to contract, because a contract was the only way to get coffee out of farmers’ homes and into a cupping form.
With a contract they would open up their six community bodegas and start aggregating bags for their trip down-mountain to the mill outside Oaxaca City. But there was no way to verify that the samples they send would be like the coffee we receive. We believe that it’s important to trust AND verify, but here we were left with one-hand tied.
In Colima, for example, we have a longer relationship (five versus two years). Much of that relationship has been built around the integrity of one person, Martin Vaca Gordillo.
But even here, with the of the highest integrity, we built in a system for verifying that progress would continue after we leave. Before leaving we hired a young barista, a 23 year-old man interested in coffee and hungry to learn more. His job – come up with one Instagram-ready story per week. Interview farmers, mill workers and ask what they think of all the changes.
In part this will result in some nice insta-ready stories for customers of this coffee. In part it will lead young Jonathan down the path of more exposure and experience in coffee. And in part getting photos will help us to establish a cadence of communication that makes ceremony out of more formal audits, for we will be getting verification little by little each and every week.
But back here in La Mixteca there is no cell service, and even if there was, verification was not being presented as an option. Sure, I was seeing best practices everywhere I looked (everywhere I was shown). But when I asked for more I was asked in return – ‘why do you care, the proof will be in the cup’.
My counterpoints were no match. ‘If options are given to me by cup score instead of community, how will I be able to buy from the same community every year’, I asked, for example. To which they replied, quickly and dismissively, ‘we will separate by household and cup score, only sending you the scores that you want to see’. True – we were not bulking coffees by cup score, only sampling from each household. And true – we do want samples separated by quality. It would be up to me to combine households together to at least meet the five-bag minimum run-size allowed by our export mill. When it came to lot separation, these farmers were not going to be a bottleneck.
‘Okay then’, I tried next. ‘But how will we encourage best practices to spread from those receiving the reward this year, to include others over time’. It’s pretty common practice in other areas we work to form exclusive ‘premium parchment’ or ‘lead farmer’ groups based on best practices; growing this group (and the farmers who receive their premium) is one way of both encouraging and policing the spread of best practices.
Their response to this example was a repeat – not-necessary. Families take pride in their cup score, and would look to improve if they saw their neighbors doing better. But while that may be true in this community, it generally how Mexicans view themselves.
There is a Mexican parable on the topic that I’ve heard told two ways to the same effect. A man is walking down the beach with two buckets of crabs. One has a lid on it, the other does not. A passer-byer asks why this is.
In one story the man explains “you see, this bucket with the lid has Japanese crabs, which will help one another get up and out if don’t stop them…while the other is filled with Mexican crabs who can’t do more than climb on the backs of one another”. In the other telling, the pail with the lid contains Mexico crabs, because ‘these crabs would rather crawl all over one another to get out than to work together in the place they’re in”. In general, throughout Oaxaca, farmers are independent, no matter how small they are they do not generally belong to a coop. Rather, they align with local politics and sell to coyotes who, in turn, sell down mountain to larger buyers.
But this is a cooperative, built on top of a tight community. And I’m being told that seeing a neighbor succeed would only encourage others to succeed as well. Okay. You seem like nice people, I can trust since I have to, but where is my verify?
They take us for breakfast on a model farm. Cooking on the traditional three hearth stove is an indigenous woman, maybe in her late 50’s but going on 85. I wasn’t sure if she spoke Spanish, or her role in the group – other than making us breakfast. When engaged, however, she spoke up quickly, and with clear leadership. Sophia, as was her name, was a force to be reckoned with.
Proud of her coffee, her farm, her family and her community – Sophia was also skeptical. They had seen many buyers come through over the years yet fall short on their promises. She had been inviting to Boston once, for her weaving, and even contributed to a fantastic photo-journal on the topic…but once published, her partners disappeared and she never saw anything come from it. Speaking with her I realized that trust and verify goes both ways, and that we were only in year two of this relationship.
In the end didn’t get my ‘verify’. I got an excellent breakfast, and I did get them to mark samples from farmers who should be recognized for ‘best practices’. So it was still a win. And you can be on the look-out for ‘premium farmers group’ out of Mixteca, a small micro-lot this year that we hope to grow as we spread the example of best practices.
We agreed that other coffees will be bulked by cup score and community, leaving verification to my partners in Oaxaca and my colleagues in NY, whose efforts around the cupping table will have to step in for my failures at the farm. We also talked about going slowly in the replanting of heirloom bourbons and typicas; keeping these as 70% of the crop for now. There is a mutual desire by both farmers and – I believe – roasters – to keep these crops alive, and a very real risk towards changing too much over to unproven varietals. And so, unbeknownst to our cupping team (sorry folks), we also agreed to cup through different varietals they are planting to see if we can advise on which are better suited to specialty.
And so we left with a plan, and a date to come back. As I’m driving down mountain I realize that I have answered most questions but my very first. I am with our agent in Oaxaca, Ramon Ruiz, who doesn’t speak a lick of English. And so, in my sorry Spanish, I ask him the same question I was asking of the farmers. Why? Why coffee, when it is clearly not the easiest path to riches. Any why had he gone independent to work with us after 25 years in the industry with big multi’s? His response fascinated me, and led to a four hour discussion on his hopes for Mexico.
“There are only two ways out of this mess” he started, referring to the cartels. “Specialty coffee and revolution… but if it is to be revolution, the cartel already have the guns…So I work for specialty coffee, a revolution that’s only done by and for farmers themselves.”
To be clear, when Ramon talks about Revolution it is not quite the same as we may think of it here in the US. Ramon is drawing examples of the social and political revolutions that mark Mexico’s history, from the Cristero war to the indigenous movement.
He is also voicing a frustration heard nearly everywhere you go, a deep and angry fatigue for forgotten promises, failed systems, corruption in places of power and in the influence of the cartels. Mexico is a place of plenty, but also with plenty of gun-wielding tube-worms standing between most people and a full belly.
But unlike the hustle of the cities, high-mountains are home-base for cartels. This is where they can go to get away from the federales, growing what they want with a clear eye on the only road up and down. This puts them as neighbors to coffee farmers. More, they rely on legitimate farmers to host and hide them in their community.
So it’s not common to see cartels shaking down coffee farmers. If anything you will find them in the financing behind coyotes, the small to large middle-men that turn small coffee deliveries into truckload quantities that can then get down-mountain. But this is not necessarily common, and in any case, coyotes are usually welcome as well. In some cases there is a family, political or religious alignment that compels a farmer to sell to one coyote or another, but by and large it is a free market; coyotes only exist because they play a role in the value-chain.
“Mira”, Ramon continues, “there is a difference between coyotes and coyotitos (little coyotes). And the difference is in the receipt”. It was here that I actually reached over from the passenger seat and gave Ramon an awkward side-hug. Receipts to farmers is the cornerstone to any supply-chain that seeks to source with dignity. Proper disclosure is the first step towards empowering farmers and running your finca like a business.
Ramon believes that specialty coffee has power because it is an exception. While the business has coyotes, it also has it’s coyotitos, and in the end is the only economy left untouched by the tube-worms. More, coffee is the only cash crop in many indigenous communities, and so is a part of what powers the Puebla, which many in Oaxaca see as the heart of Mexico. But more, specialty is an enterprise that farmers can do by themselves, without relying on others, the government or the cartel.
Coffee is a noble crop. And people who derive their livelihood from it seem to take on some of that nobility in the form of power and grace (credit to Doug Smith of Exo Coffee, who used ‘Power and Grace’ as a tasting note for mezcal).
I’m humbled to be in the service of coffee. My colleague Ben put it well; coffee talks on a special indulgence when you recognize it as liquid labor. But there can be joy in labor, the joy felt when preparing a pour-over you know will make you proud. Of delivering a delicious cup to someone who wasn’t expecting it…or who has been waiting, ‘patiently’. The joy of showing off a freshly cleaned and cropped finca, of seeing your name on a retail bag or in a hard job done well. Being in the service of coffee is a nod to the nobility found everywhere throughout the pursuit of coffee, an acknowledgement of the incredible effort and delicious personalities that go in to every sip.
Our website lists all Forward and Current Offers from Mexico if you are looking for more information on what’s happening now.
(excerpt – full story available here)
When people think of coffee from Mexico, they think of Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca, or Puebla. They rarely think of Guerrero, and they do not think of Zihuatanejo, a town along Mexico’s Costa Grande. The farms in Zihuatanejo that we visited are expansive with 26 members covering 400 hectares and 533,000 trees (~1,300 trees/hectare). These farms average 4300-5000 ft above sea-level and are beautiful, “kissed by the ocean’s salty breath,” in the words of farmer Maria Guadalupe Gomez-Anzo. Most coffee from this region has traditionally gone to middlemen who pay little attention to quality, but farmers are well-versed on good agronomic practices. Farmers here roast, cup, and drink their own coffee. Ceasar Galeana Sortiz was the first to produce coffee in Zijuatanejo, and since he has passed on the coffee growth to two generations below him. These farmers have taken an array of environmental initiatives from locating the proper organic inputs for their coffee, to cataloging local flora, attending regional seminars on environmental management, and preparing for a business to bring eco-tourism to the area.
If you would like more than 8 samples, please contact a trader directly.