Alfredo Portillo holds up a bright red coffee fruit pod between his fingers. “Delicious, organic, shade-grown coffee,” the 44-year old coffee farmer announces proudly. “Sixteen years ago I started growing coffee strictly organic. I never have had any regrets. It’s a lot more work, but it produces a better bean. And,” he adds, “right now I also make more money with it.” Such is the beginning story of organic coffee.
We are strolling over Portillo’s property, a 30-acre organic coffee farm near La Paz del Tuma, a hamlet in Jinotega a department in the north central region of Nicaragua. Coffee is this nation’s main export and Portillo and his family live smack in the middle of coffee country, where the harvest is now in full swing.
At first glance, Portillo’s farm looks just like a continuation of the jungle that envelops it. The low coffee trees, with their leather like green leaves, grow on steep slopes and are surrounded by bananas and other, much higher trees. The soil around the coffee trees is covered with thick layer of dead leaves, branches and weeds.
“Good Arabica coffee needs to grow in the shade,” Portillo explains. “As the coffee fruits receive less sunlight, they grow slower. This produces a much better tasting bean, a higher quality coffee. All those dead leaves and branches create a fertile soil for the coffee.”
Alfredo points at a huge spider web in one of his trees. “That spider can live here because my farm has a very healthy and diverse ecosystem. Conventional farmers use pesticides and insecticides that kill everything including the spiders.”
Growing organically, however, creates serious obstacles in the farmer’s constant fight against diseases. Portillo turns around a leaf of a coffee tree. The backside of that leaf is covered with brownish-yellowish spots. “Coffee rust,” he says. His face betrays concern.
Coffee rust – the Nicaraguans called it roya – is the scourge for the growers of Central America. “Two years ago, the fungus decimated my harvest,” says Portillo. Since he produces certified organic coffee, Portillo cannot use chemicals to fight the disease. “We have to inspect each and every tree and check for coffee rust. If it’s there, we have to remove the leaves before the fungus takes over the whole plant.”
In front of Portillo’s house, six men are busy turning golden coffee beans that are drying in the sun. Once they have dried, Portillo will take the coffee to Soppexcca, a coffee cooperation in the city of Jinotega. Soppexcca has 650 members. This coop sells its organic coffee to roasters and Fair Trade partners in the U.S. and Europe.
“Fair Trade organizations pay us a premium of 30 cents per pound of organic coffee,” says Irwin Montenegro, an agronomist of Soppexcca. This money is used for projects that are supposed to benefit all the members. “We train, for example, children of the members to become coffee inspectors,” says Montenegro. “We also teach our members the principles of sustainable agriculture and how to improve their income.”
Soppexcca’s key strategy for improving income is diversification. “It’s very risky to be completely dependent on coffee,” says Montenegro. “Some years the harvest is bad because of coffee rust and in other years the prize of coffee on the world market crashes. That’s why we urge our members to grow other crops beside coffee. It’s a survival strategy.”
Nobody in Nicaragua will easily forget the coffee crisis at the beginning of this century. As Vietnam and Brazil flooded the world market with cheap coffee, thousands of Nicaraguan coffee farmers, big and small, went broke. Tens of thousands hungry Nicaraguans marched on the capital of Managua to demand government support for their survival.
Portillo most certainly has gotten the message of diversification. “Several years ago, I began planting achiote trees in between the coffee and they give me a good income now.” These trees now tower high above the coffee providing shade and annatto, an orange-red powder used as a condiment and for food coloring.
Portillo’s latest project for diversification? Chocolate. He cuts a reddish-brown pod from a tree that grows right beside and above a coffee tree and cuts it in half with his machete. He shows me the white gooey stuff that surrounds the fat cacao beans. “Four years ago, I planted these cacao trees. This year I have the first cacao harvest.”
‘Climate change is also a driver for diversification,’ says Irwin Montenegro. ‘Temperatures are getting higher. This means that the lower areas, say below 3,000 feet, become less suitable for coffee, but they become better suited to the needs of cacao.” Montenegro goes on to point out that coffee is originally from Ethiopia, but that cacao is native to Latin America.
Thanks to its exuberant growth of trees and flowers, its permanent concert of colorful birds and the smells of fruits and organic coffee, Portillo’s farm seems a small piece of paradise. The owner is keenly aware of this. He points to a little secluded area beside a cascading stream. “I’m thinking about building some cabins there for tourists,” Portillo says. Indeed, even more diversification wouldn’t be a bad idea.
This story was originally published January 3, 2017.