Farm: Finca Don Joaquin
Varietal: 100% Catuaí
Processing: Fully washed
Altitude: 1,200 metres above sea level
Owner: Mildred Esperanza Urrea
Town / City: Monte de la Virgen, Lempiras
Finca Don Joaquin - Honduras
Finca Don Joaquin is located in the town of Monte de la Virgen, Lempira - around 15 km from the centre of Corquín in Honduras’s Copan region. The farm, with its average altitude of 1,200 metres above sea level is small but well-situated in a region that is ideal for quality coffee production. The region’s cool temperatures, soil quality and rainfall patterns all combine to make perfect growing conditions for the farm’s Catuaí coffee trees.
The owner of Joaquin is the inimitable Doña Mildred Esperanza Urrea, who inherited the farm from her father, Don Dimas Villeda in 2013. The farm is only around 10 years old and is planted entirely in Catuaí.
Doña Mildred is highly involved in the local coffee industry, as are her husband and three of her four children. She is a leader in the community and contributes greatly to her cooperative’s growing reputation as a producer of high quality coffee.
Her husband, Wilfredo, is also a coffee producer and two of her daughters (Ana and Ofelia) are part of the team at the Asociativa Campesina de Producción ARUCO (ARUCO), a coffee cooperative established in Coban in 2006 where Doña Mildred is a member (see below). Starting with just 14 producers from the local surrounds, the cooperative has today grown to serve around 170 producers from across Coban. The cooperative is committed to creating new market opportunities for their producer members, and several years ago they instigated a micro-lot program which separated out the cooperative’s highest quality lots to be sold on higher value speciality markets.
Ana Cecilia, the older daughter, is the head cupper of ARUCO’s laboratory and is currently preparing to become a Q-grader. Ana helps identify and prepare microlots for the specialty market around the world. Ophelia, the middle daughter, is one of the agricultural technicians in charge of ARUCO’s microlot program. She is currently at university, but she plans to stay in her community and dedicate her life to coffee production. Wilmer, Doña Mildred’s only son, has already begun preparing a plot of land for his own coffee farm. The youngest daughter, Deysi, is in her third year in high school – but no doubt she’ll devote herself to coffee too.
The name of the farm was given in memory of Doña Mildred’s father-in-law, Don Joaquin Estevez, who was well-known person throughout Corquín and who was respected by his family and community for his values and work ethic. Technically, the farm is actually called Don Joaquín 3: the 3 was given because Ana and Wilmer (Doña Mildred’s children) have given the same name to their farms.
All work performed on Finca Don Joaquín is overseen by the immediate family, and Doña Mildred relies on her husband and children to help with each stage of production and processing. They complete most of the day-to-day work on the farm themselves. As her husband owns several properties, overall they provide regular employment for 12 people who work on all the family’s farms, and some of these individuals are occasionally hired for specific tasks on the farm.
The first post-harvest activity performed is the pepena, which involves collecting the final coffee cherries which have failed to ripen on the tree or fallen on the ground. This activity is also performed as a pre-harvest activity to ensure even maturation, but post-harvest it is an essential practice to reduce the incidence of broca (coffee borer beetle) in the plantations over the coming year.
Shortly after the harvest ends, the coffee trees are pruned to eliminate unproductive trees and those that became damaged during the previous harvest. Shade is managed at the same time to ensure the perfect balance of sunlight, protection and temperature control. The pruning schedule rotates with hand-managed weed control, completed with machetes or hoes in order to minimise erosion.
Fertiliser – both soil and foliar – are regularly applied so as to optimally provide nutrition for growing plants and to ensure the best for the harvest to come!
The Harvest & Processing
When November arrives, Doña Mildred moves from her home in Corquín up to the community of Monte de la Virgen, where the farm is, so that she can be on hand during the harvest. She is the director of all harvest activities, though her son and husband also help transport the coffee from the finca to the wet mill. The family will hire up to 50 people per day to help with all harvest and processing activities during the months from November through the end of March.
In most years, the harvest begins at the end of November and continues through the beginning of March, though microlots such as this one are picked at the peak of the harvest – usually in January and February. All coffee on the farm is selectively hand harvested and only the most mature cherries are selected at each ‘pass’. After picking, the coffee is delivered on the same day to the nearby community of Vereda – around 18 km from Monte de la Virgen – where the family wet mill is located. The coffee is then pre-sorted, removing all underripe and damaged beans. It is then carefully pulped to avoid breakage of beans and then delivered to tile-lined fermentation tanks, where it is fermented.
Coffee is spread to an even depth of around 50 cm in order to ensure even fermentation over the 10 to 12 hours that it remains in the tanks. After a perfect state of fermentation is achieved, the beans are washed in clean water no fewer than three times. Waste water is delivered to purification pools, where it is treated with microorganisms to accelerate the purification process.
Once completely clean of mucilage, the parchment coffee is moved by gravity and water through sorting channels, with the densest and best quality beans being separated out as microlots. The coffee is rested for between 1 and 3 hours to remove excess water and is then delivered to the drying patios.
After excess moisture has run off the parchment, the coffee is delivered to clean, cement patios to ensure no excess humidity lingers during the important primary drying process. The patios have restricted access (rare in the area), preventing animals and unauthorised individuals from entering. Pre-drying only occurs during the coolest hours of the day (usually mornings and evenings when temperatures do not exceed 20°C) to ensure that the coffee dries slowly and evenly.
After predrying, the coffee is moved to screens of metal and wood where it is regularly turned and protected from variations in temperature and humidity. The coffee dries very slowly under these conditions – usually taking around 15 days to reach its final humidity of 12%.
The work day during the harvest usually starts at 4 am and continues until all the processing is finished – sometimes until 9 pm!
Once the coffee is ready, it is moved to ARUCO’s facilities for storage. The coop ensures very strict monitoring, quality control and secure storage and prepares the coffee for export under the strictest safety and traceability standards.
ARUCO’s relatively new microlot program is small, but it is growing. In 2011-12, when the program first started, only 4 or 5 producers participated. For 2016, 25 producers were able to access better prices for their coffee through the program. This growth can be attributed to the transparency with which ARUCO runs the program and the successes that participating producers have experienced.
ARUCO provides a very wide range of services to their producer members and have instigated numerous programs aimed at improving quality of life in Coban and helping producers combat the many challenges they face. You can read more about them on their excellent website and on our blog post detailing the work of some of the women involved with the group.
For Doña Mildred, having this small piece of land all to herself and being able to cultivate coffee according to her own rules has been transformative. It has given her self-confidence in her own abilities and given her an opportunity to make a difference in her community. She, along with her family, are excited to begin establishing a reputation for quality coffee in Honduras.
The family, together, are working for a better future together and are pursuing that dream by converting a portion of their farm into housing and activities for tourists, as they are located along a prime eco-tourism route. They have begun building huts and hiking trails and have laid out spaces for traditional games for visitors to play. Above all, they are developing interactive installations showing process of growing, harvesting and processing of coffee so that visitors can leave with a better understanding of the labour that goes into a working coffee farm.