Farm: Café Sierra Azul
Varietal: Typica, Bourbon, Mundo Novo
Processing: Fully washed & dried on patios
Altitude: 1,000 to 1,900 metres above sea level
Owner: 200+ smallholder farmer members of Café Sierra Azul
Town / City: El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, Ejido Capitan Luis A. Vidal
Region: Siltepec, Chiapas
Sierra Azul Organic - Mexico
Café Sierra Azul is a relatively small cooperative that brings together just over 200 small holder farmers living within Southern Mexico’s El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. Named for the bluish hue of the tree covered mountains of the Reserve (the sierra azul, in Spanish), the organisation’s members are unified not only in improving the livelihoods of communities across the municipality of Siltepec and beyond but also in their aim of producing the region’s best speciality coffee.
Sierra Azul is relatively new – formed only in 2010 – but it has quickly grown and achieved great things during its short life. Starting with just 37 producers, the group has now grown to 227 farmer members, has achieved a wide array of organic certifications (including EU and NOP) and Fair Trade certification, and has begun exporting their coffee around the world. Sierra Azul, first and foremost, was developed in order to help small producers reach speciality coffee and more direct markets for their coffee, enabling them to escape the cycle of selling coffee to local coyotes for very low prices. Today, producer members within the 14 communities currently working with the group have benefitted from not only being able to sell their coffee at a higher price than previously, they’ve also benefited from a wide variety of social programs.
Siltepec, Chiapas has all the makings of an excellent coffee origin, with plentiful water, fertile soil and high altitudes. Sierra Azul has made every effort to make sure that the natural potential of the landscape finds a perfect pairing on each producer’s farm. Each small holder member processes and dries his/her own coffee, so it is of the utmost importance that the greatest care is taken in providing farmer training in all aspects of coffee production. The result of the organisation’s intervention has been some of the highest yields in the region (10-12 quintals per hectare, compared to the national average of 8 quintals per hectare).
Shade and sanitary pruning are conducted between the months of March to May, just after the harvest season. Once the rainy season starts in May/June, members begin renovation activities. The vast majority of producers have their own nursery, or share one with a neighbour or family member. Seedlings are grown using the very best cherries from each harvest, which are reserved and set aside to ensure the next generation. Renovation activities are of crucial importance to long term sustainability, and each producer is encouraged by Sierra Azul to maintain a nursery according to their capacity.
As a cooperative, Sierra Azul continues betting on traditional varieties like Typica, Mundo Novo and Bourbon. In every aspect of their work with producers, the message of quality is consistent, with the end aim of quality in the cup being made clear as the motivation at each juncture of agricultural work. As such, the cooperative also has a centralised nursery where they trial new varieties (such as Geisha), conduct trainings and where they investigate solutions to the problem of coffee leaf rust. Their long term goal is to first recover the 15 quintals per hectare yields on average that they were seeing before the rust epidemic of 2012-14 and to slowly work towards achieving an average production of 30 quintals per hectare - but through continuing to use the region’s traditional varieties. Identifying local mutations that are high-yielding, rust-resistant and that produce high cup quality is key to their experimentation. The group is working with local banks to ensure long-term loans for plot renovation, and they hope to continue with more financing so that, within 4 years, 90% of the membership’s coffee plots have seen renovation.
In July through October, as a result of the rains, weeds begin to grow. Since all plots are managed organically, producers do weeding by hand, using a machete. For this laborious work, some farmers hire temporary labourers, but the majority rely on family.
Finally, from July through October members apply organic fertilisers provided by the cooperative. In addition to compost, these fertilisers are applied every 25 days during the non-harvest months.
The harvest season runs from December through April, depending on the attitude of the farm. During this time, coffee is selectively harvested by hand, and producers have been taught to only pick the most perfectly red cherries. Many producers use outside labour during this period, as well, so it is important that the cooperative stresses the importance of good harvest techniques so that these are maintained.
Each producer has her/his own wet mill, for which she/he alone is responsible. The small mills usually lie 30 minutes to 3 hours from the actual coffee plantation, since many parcelas (coffee plots) are very remote and take a long time to reach, since there often isn't even a rood to facilitate access. Despite these distances, coffee is always pulped on the same day that it is picked and is then fermented in cement tanks for about 24 hours. The day after, the coffee is fully washed to remove all traces of mucilage. All water used in the pulping and processing is filtered so as to prevent water contamination, and all the remaining pulp is used as compost. Drying patios are usually small but are well-maintained.
Café Azul’s mission goes beyond great coffee. Some 60% of the organisation’s members are young men, many of whom earned the money they used to start their farms by working illegally in the United States. This method of earning a living has long been the standard in rural regions of Chiapas, but it highly precarious and is potentially damaging to families and communities. By making it possible to actually make a living off of a small farm (the group average is 3 hectares) the organisation is keeping families together and helping communities to thrive.
The area in which Sierra Azul operates is highly marginalized with limited access to health, education, information technology, among others. Therefore, the cooperative plays a very important role as facilitator of knowledge and access to relevant information. Some of the social activities run by Sierra Azul include a Community School (E-Café or Escuela de Cafe) where courses on a variety of topics are given, mainly, to members and their children. Subjects covered include organic coffee production, beekeeping, poultry production and worm composting, among others. The organisation also monitors birds and local wildlife to encourage awareness and care for biodiversity – particularly of species at risk of extinction. The plan is to include monitoring of mammals in the near future.