As organic farmers know, it’s much more important over the long term to feed the soil than to feed a plant.  Using nutrients that a plant needs only in the moment (essentially what chemical fertilizers provide) would be like eating nothing but a bag of potato chips every time you felt faint, but never sitting down to hearty meal.  Organic farmers, and certifiers, know that the best way to nourish a plant is to feed the soil, with fertilizers that not only contain the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that the chemical fertilizers contain, but also organic matter and micro-nutrients that a plant needs in much smaller amounts and that ultimately improve the texture, drainage, and composition of the soil.

Small farmers remove the coffee cherry pulp with a hand-cranked mill.

On one hand organic coffee farmers have excellent materials to make organic fertilizers but on the other hand they can be limited by the restrictions placed on them by certification bodies.  The first and most widely used ingredient for organic fertilizer on a coffee farm is the fruit from the coffee cherries.  On small farms, the cherries are often de-pulped on the farm and then seeds, or coffee beans, are dried and transported to a processing plant owned by the cooperative or a private company.  The fruit of the cherries contains phosphorus and adds organic matter to the soil, but farmers add manure, either chicken or cattle, to the compost to create a nitrogen rich fertilizer that both boosts the plants growth short-term and gradually improves the quality of the soil over seasons.

A farmer who dedicates time and labor to producing fertilizer for high quality coffee feels as proud of his compost as he is of the end product!

While recycling the cherry fruits and any manure you have around the farm into your soil is something that every farmer should do (and many coffee farmers do), in Nicaragua conventional coffee farmers are at an advantage over organic farmers in that they have the possibility of augmenting their fruit with purchased fertilizers.  Because there are no commercially available certified organic fertilizers here, the smallest farmers who are certified organic struggle to feed their soils.  Unless they have enough land to dedicate several acres to cattle and harvest their own manure, they are prohibited by the certification bodies of adding the manure from any neighboring farms, unless the neighboring farm’s cattle production is certified organic (virtually unheard of here).

Central small-farmer Cooperatives are now dedicating time and resources to improving the fertilizers available to small farmers, often hand in hand with small roasters from abroad who purchase the coffee and are very supportive of the cooperative in maintaining the highest quality coffee and yields possible.  Bocashi is a japanese method of making compost which actively supports the growth of micro-organisms which help to break down nutrients in the soil and make them available to the plants.  Farmers can make bocashi using rice husks, dried coffee cherries, a starch, and unrefined sugar; all ingredients that are readily available to the rural areas.  Another powerful fertilizer is bio-ferment, an excellent way for small farmers to stretch the small amount of cow manure they produce over several acres of coffee plant.  Bio-ferment is a foliar fertilizer, which mixes cow manure, milk, sugar and mineral salts into a nutrient-rich spray that is absorbed directly into the leaves of the plant.

Having a commercially available certified organic fertilizer will help some small farmers maintain their certifications.

Some cooperatives are able to invest in more direct support for their farmers.  The SOPPEXCCA cooperative in Jinotega has built a fertilizer plant, and they are currently producing certified organic fertilizer for their own cooperative members.  This is just one great example of how a well run cooperative can provide much more to its members than a guaranteed market.

To be successful, an organic farmer needs to be able to produce the necessary ingredients and labor to make fertilizers on-farm or has to have a commercially available product that is affordable.  Etico has been focusing recently on helping cooperatives with both of these strategies, that will ultimately lead to better coffee and a healthier environment.