As the truck traverses through the rugged roads of Guatemala City, out towards the mountains – Victor Calderon tells me the story of Finca El Tambor, named “The Drum” due to the sound the mountain made as the underground water reservoirs dried out, the final destination of our journey and his beloved coffee farm situated behind layers of Guatemalan mountains.
The ride is long, and as we gain elevation, the air grows foggier, small tiendas advertise the sale of fresh fruit and soda as Victor points out different aspects of our drive and essentially tells me his life story. His family is in the coffee business, he relays, but growing Robusta further south near the Honduran border. He yearned to purchase an Arabica coffee farm and heard Finca El Tambor was for sale. He did not hesitate and made an offer. Sadly, the offer was too low, and the previous owner casually mentioned how much she liked Victor’s car. He included the car and the payment and was soon the owner of Finca El Tambor. This was in the early 2000s – nearly twenty years ago – much has changed, especially this past year, as Victor and I speak through our masks, carefully sanitizing our way through the farm visit.
Eventually, the truck reaches Palencia, a dusty town just outside of the busy capital city. Victor asks me if I am aware of Coffee Leaf Rust, or La Roya as it is known in Central America. And I mention to him that it is quite well-known in the coffee world as a deadly fungus impacting producers throughout Mesoamerica. He notes that the spore was discovered in El Tambor and it became his mission to defeat the dreaded disease.
Now, Victor is an excellent storyteller, full of vibrant recounts of past experiences, knowledge, and plenty of anecdotes. He reverts back to the history of El Tambor when its previous owner sold some of the land rights to a mining company. This led to the excavation of some of the mountains and the emergence of…clay. The splattered earthy material left spots on his car as he drove through the mud and he began to ponder about how it could help with the spread of La Roya on his farm. He tried everything to reduce the spread of the disease but realized that the spore thrived on the underbelly of individual leaves, where it respired, and when conditions were moist and warm.
The clay, he realized, would not completely wash away in the rain, and would help suffocate the spore without depleting the plant of water and nutrients. Thus, Victor’s grand clay plan was born. He now has a special solution that his employees regularly spray on the coffee to reduce the transmission of La Roya. The result? Healthy and lush trees with beautiful, waxy green leaves.
Eventually, after snacking on a packed lunch and some freshly squeezed juice – we reach the gates of El Tambor. Victor offers me numerous mints as we continue to climb through his forest of coffee and pine trees. We get out, take in the view, and look at all of the work Victor has achieved. Half of his land has been reforested with pine trees that help with water conservation, which has helped support the creation of two water reservoirs. This is essential, given the dry season occurring in Guatemala whereby coffee grows thirsty for water. The coffee is intercropped with native tree species with the occasional cinnamon and yuca tree to prevent erosion and ensure nutrients within the soil are maintained.
Victor entices me to try one of his beloved coffee cherries – sprouting from a healthy tree with no missing leaves. We examine a number of the leaves to see how La Roya has died away or is non-existent.
Something else special about El Tambor is the work Victor has achieved for his staff. He has successfully built homes for his employees and grants them permission to utilize the resources on the land such as wood and soil to grow fruits and vegetables. We stumble across some of his workers carrying large bundles of branches on their backs. The women shyly turn away from us on the road – everyone wearing masks and social distancing.
We reach the processing area where the aroma of coffee pulp weighs heavily in the air. I meet one of Victor’s main employees who oversees much of the operations on Finca El Tambor. We drink, or I drink as it has grown quite late, some of Victor’s coffee, carefully brewed by the wife of one of his employees. I gently sip the warm beverage as chickens bock about and dogs play in the dirt. Victor collects unique antiques and has placed them throughout the farm. He is also excited to show me his new house that is being built atop a hill overlooking all of El Tambor.
The ride back is filled with bewilderment at the magic of clay, the beating drum of El Tambor, and the passionate and eccentric Victor who continues to tell me stories until I reach Guatemala City to rest off the day’s travels.