Fresh picked El Salvadorian organic coffee

In December I had the opportunity to represent the Social Business Network on a trip to northern El Salvador to piece together the puzzle of helping a small coffee cooperative export their coffee directly to a coffee roaster in the US.  If you spend any significant amount of time working with social or community development you understand that organizations and movements work along sine curves.  At any given time they have better participation or worse communication; garner support from the greater community and put extra time into initiatives, or view their past struggles with a cynical eye and degree of despondence.  The cooperative we were headed to meet with has a long history of working successfully together but have slumped into a current low, resigning themselves to making ends meet through efforts necessary to keep the coffee farm running.  Our hope was that our presence would act as an injection of adrenaline, and grease the squeaky cogs of self-directed community development that have been working there in the past back into motion.

The cooperative  – of only 19 farmers – received their land in the Agrarian Reformation in El Salvador.  My understanding of El Salvadoran history is extremely limited, and their story of receiving their land was very moving.  The cooperative movement has evolved over the history of Nicaragua, but has remained a persistent force in the development of the country during the last three decades, and most recently has garnered incredible support from the government as well as private and non-profit sectors.  During the violent Nicaraguan revolution and contra-revolution, cooperatives were used as a social and political tool to protect the land in the hands of campesinos.  Although most cooperatives today function primarily as a business model, the movement still tends to embrace the Sandinista political agenda and retain it’s identity as a revolutionary model of society.  I admit that I was naïve to the particular context that agricultural cooperatives have played in El Salvador, and was very struck by the story of how the community struggled to gain legal possession of land given to them peacefully through legislation, but still faced potential violence and intimidation.  The cooperative movement in El Salvador has not been blessed with the same strong support that the movement in Nicaragua has received, and they have struggled with changing legislation and political environments.


Most important item on the business agenda – home cooked lunch with tortillas.

We spent two full, productive days with members of the small cooperative, a larger cooperative with a processing plant, a local NGO designed to bring together individual organic coffee farmers in the region, and representatives from the export company and coffee roaster interested in purchasing the coffee.  We each shared our visions, histories, took a short hike around the coffee land, shared a home cooked meal, and were surprised to find how well we understood each other.  If a feel-good energy building event to bring together the farmers and motivate them to improve quality and production was all that we had planned, the whole visit would have been a breeze.  Since the goal was actually to settle on a price and quantity to purchase, there was some tougher negotiation included, but in the end an agreement was met.  In the end the 11 hour drive from Nicaragua, crossing two country borders (with minimal hassle!) was entirely worth it.  The level of trust, understanding, and value of our shared experiences among so many links of the coffee chain would have been entirely impossible to achieve over skype.

Several things about the farmers’ situation in El Salvador struck me – often in the light of my previous experiences and knowledge of coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua.

Centralized processing has pros and cons - such as the cost of returning that mountain of coffee cherry pulp to the fields as compost.

Centralized processing has pros and cons – such as the cost of returning that mountain of coffee cherry pulp to the fields as compost.

The difference that on-farm processing can make on production management.  In Nicaragua, many small farms have their own de-pulping machines (either hand cranked or electric), and in general, the wet processing (taking the fruit off of the coffee bean,  allowing for a controlled fermentation and washing them) takes place either on farm or at a centralized location accessible to each farmer in the cooperative.  This in part ensures a higher quality of coffee (allowing freshly picked coffee cherries to ferment in their fruit is the first mistake in the processing chain that will result in lower quality coffee), but also allows farmers to maximize the re-circulation of nutrients onto their farm.  Every coffee farmer I have visited here – whether organic or conventional – composts and reapplies the coffee fruit to their fields as compost in some form or another, and some have developed systems to treat the water used in washing and return it to the land as well.  In this case, the particular group of farmers we are interested in helping improve their organic production methods sell their coffee in cherry form, meaning that they lose both control of the washing process and have to pay additional resources to transport their own composting materials from the processing plant.  As a rule, gaining control of as many steps in the process chain helps organized producer groups of any product gain control, raise quality, and benefit from increased margins.

The importance of clear communication, leadership, and education.  One of the farmers more involved in the technical farming aspect of the cooperative told me that an organic certifier had told them using fresh cow manure in any kind of fertilizer (even fermented), violated the certification and so they are now purchasing chicken manure from a distance to use in a type of compost called bokashi.  This is probably a misunderstanding or miscommunication that we can easily look into and clarify with the cooperative, but it reveals the potential setbacks of a regulatory system that is entirely for the benefit of the intermediary and consumer and not designed to empower or address individual needs at the production level.


View of the nearby community.

Shade grown coffee can have a drastic impact on the local environment.  Besides coffee, corn is the main crop planted in the northern region of El Salvador where we were.  The surrounding mountains were strikingly beautiful, and from various points on our hike through the coffee fields, strolls through the small town nearby, and roads to the processing plant we enjoyed vistas overlooking verdant green – nearly entirely deforested – mountains.  As we travelled around the region it became clear – if you look across the valley and see trees, it is because of coffee.  Thank you, drinkers of shade grown organic coffee.  The wildlife and topsoil in coffee growing regions thank you too.