We recently welcomed two of our long-term origin partners to London. Don Fabio Solís and his wife Doña Sonia, from Finca Las Nubes in Guatemala, joined us for the Caffé Culture show in mid June. This was their first trip to Europe and we seized the opportunity to ask the couple some questions about life on the farm.
About Las Nubes..
‘Las Nubes’ means ‘The Clouds’, and is so called because its location high in the mountains of southern Guatemala means that it is often draped in clouds. When Fabio gave up his job as a lorry driver and bought the finca 20 years ago there were no roads up to his land, no house and no coffee trees. It took the couple four hours to walk up to the farm, and three hours back. Gradually, they built up the finca, first selling semi-processed coffee on the local market. Their breakthrough came in 2001 when, out of nowhere, Las Nubes won Guatemala’s first Cup of Excellence competition, with a massive score of 96 out of 100. Mercanta began working with Fabio and Sonia that year and has been buying their coffee ever since. We now count them as firm friends as well as partners.
What is the secret to producing such outstanding coffee?
Fabio: I believe that it is the land (tierra) that generates quality. The soil. And the area’s micro-climate. Our responsibility, as farmers, is not to damage this – we must nurture what the land gives us. At Las Nubes we take great care of our coffee from the very beginning of the process, and we never harvest it when it is either too ripe or too green.
Sonia: Because in the mill a single bean can cause major damage. If one bad bean slips through to be washed one day, and by chance that bean ends up in the sample we send you, that cup of coffee will turn out badly. And if that one cup turns out badly, that could lose us the whole shipment. One bean can damage everything.
But we really don’t have a secret. What we want is for everyone to treat coffee the way we treat it. And to let women farm too. We can do a lot more than make tortillas and tidy the house. Because even if Fabio goes away, the finca stays behind, and it needs looking after.
What challenges do you expect to face in the future?
Fabio: We hope to produce a little more coffee without compromising on quality, in order to earn a bit more. And also to allow us some flexibility in years when production is down. Because at the moment, producing the quantity we do, we live practically from one day to the next. And with the weather we’ve had in recent years, production has been falling.
So could farming as you do be described as profitable?
Fabio: Profitable? Yes… Though it depends on how you define profitable! Profitable enough to make us rich? [He laughs]. Perhaps in the future… But the farm produces enough to live on.
The price of coffee is increasing, but so too is the cost of labour – when we started out we paid our pickers 10 Quetzals for every quintal [46kg] harvested, now the price is 50 Quetzals per quintal [The Solís, like many other small farmers, contract seasonal workers to help with the harvest, the majority of whom are locals, with others coming from neighbouring Honduras]. There’s a lot of work on offer around harvest time, so it can be difficult to find reliable workers who stay to get the job done.
The financing we receive from Mercanta is crucial for us. Without it we would have to sell some of our unwashed coffee cherries to the local market to cover our debts. The harvest costs us a lot and workers won’t wait to be paid.
You have been farming at Las Nubes for 20 years, have you noticed the climate changing?
Fabio: Yes, particularly this year we have. It has been too hot, and the winter was too intense. The seasons have become much more extreme. We are now trying to put a bit of shade in, sowing trees. Of course this costs us more – in money and labour. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will produce better coffee. If you overuse shade the coffee plants sometimes get ‘ojo de gallo’ disease [literally ‘cockerel’s eye’], which makes their leaves fall off, until you are left with totally naked trees. It really varies with each plot – I have planted plantain trees in some areas with good results.
The rains have been pretty good this year. But last year we had a lot of rain at harvest time, which turned the coffee cherries black and seriously reduced our total production.
Sonia: The cold isn’t the same as before either. It gets cold, but not like it used to. The climate has definitely changed.
You have been working with Mercanta for almost 10 years now. Has this relationship changed your life in any way? (Be honest!)
Fabio: Significantly. Before you started buying from us I only had one tiny pulper, now we have been able to afford two de-pulping machines, patios, a tornillo [a device for transporting beans during the washing process], tanks for the pulp, oxygenation streams, sedimentation tanks… It has improved our entire way of life.
Sonia: Yes, we’re happy. The thing is that we both like the same thing. We like working at the same thing. And for us it’s not just work, it’s a part of our lives.
Las Nubes won the very first Cup of Excellence competition in Guatemala in 2001. What did this mean for Las Nubes?
Fabio: That was the moment that everything changed for us. If we hadn’t won a prize that year, we wouldn’t still be growing coffee, we would have had to look for different work. It was a very difficult time for coffee growers and a huge number of farms were lost around then, replacing coffee with plantain or pasture for livestock [2001 was the year the global ‘coffee crisis’ hit]. When I won that prize I decided to dedicate myself to improving our farm, our coffee farm.
Sonia: And also our region won. At the time no one believed that Esquipulas produced high quality coffee. It was completely unknown.
Having travelled to Europe and seen the other side of the coffee chain – where your beans are roasted and sold – is there anything you think you will change about how you produce your coffee?
Fabio: This has been a wonderful experience, because now we know where our coffee goes. It has motivated us to keep producing coffee of the same quality, if not better. And to make sure we don’t let the people who buy our coffee down, even when prices are high in the local market. It’s exciting, thrilling, to know that our coffee is going all over the world, to Japan, to Australia, here (the UK), to the US…
We’re also happy to know that our coffee is being well looked after. Because if it is treated badly, the good name of our farm could be lost. That’s what can happen if we sell to the local market – even if we get a good price, our beans are mixed up with lots of others that might be bad.
Las Nubes to London is a long journey. What have been the highs and lows of your first visit to Europe?
Sonia: There have been no lows for us, just highs. I never thought I would visit Europe. I had never so much as mentioned the idea to Fabio – I mean, it’s difficult for us even to get to El Salvador, which is three hours away. Thanks to Mercanta, and thanks to coffee, we are here. It’s a great and wonderful thing.