Post by David Wilson
‘Two of us, working together, can rise.’ Saying that, Timoteo Minas raised the end of the string he was holding and encouraged his brother Gabriel to do the same. The two of them were at the base of the web we had formed by tossing a ball of string back and forth and around the circle of people. ‘Better though,’ Timo says, ‘if we all work together and rise together,’ and the rest of the group raised the web to the level of the two.
That’s paraphrased from Spanish, I know, but the sentiment is the same. It was the afternoon of the second day of the 4th Annual De la Gente Congreso and we had reunited members from four of our partner cooperatives to promote discussion and sharing of knowledge between the different communities. Additionally, we had designed a series of presentations and workshops, each with the goal of improving production and quality for all cooperatives.
The focus of this year’s Congreso was ‘Investment in Agricultural Inputs and Methods for Improving Yield.’ This topic was one pushed by Timoteo, president of the cooperative in San Miguel Escobar and field trainer for De la Gente. During the course of a series of site visits he and I made this spring and summer, we began to notice a trend of lower production yield across the less-developed cooperatives. Timo, over the course of years of trial and error, has developed a very strict regimen of product application and maintenance, and so immediately had concerns. We decided there were enough concerns about the specific knowledge in these communities of what inputs to use and when to apply them, and also best practices for investment, that it would be a useful focus for all involved.
And so we structured our main day of activities around this theme. The morning, following breakfast, coffee, and words of welcome, saw us walking up to a newer plot of Timo’s. After an hour’s walk up the volcano, reaching nearly 2,000 meters above sea level, we gathered amongst the rows of 3-4 year old coffee trees, already laden with fruit. With his immaculate fields surrounding him, Timo presented about the value of investment in inputs in order to produce healthy, high-yielding coffee plants. The presentation may have been curtailed a touch due to rain rolling in (the dangers of Guatemala in the rainy season), but the point was well-taken, and served us well as we began the afternoon workshop, putting in mind a goal for producers who have thus far been unable to obtain similar yield levels.
The afternoon session, following the introductory activity that connected us all in a web representing each step of the industry, was a workshop designed to bring together producers from different regions to share their knowledge about agronomy practices. We hoped as well to create a dialogue with the goal of working towards creating plans for best practices for each specific producer. Presentations followed, with occasionally lively discussions about what to change and improve with each separate plan. And after that, beers followed, with occasionally lively discussions about, well, everything.
Of course, the Congreso is about more than just lectures and a workshop about agricultural inputs. It is about fostering community, and promoting experiences. Which is why I should admit here that the De la Gente Congreso is scheduled to piggyback on the National Congreso held annually for the past 28 years by the government organization for coffee, ANACAFÉ, in Guatemala City. This event brings in producers from across the country, ranging from small-producers to larger finca owners, as well as other industry professionals and product manufacturers. This year, De la Gente was able to provide transportation for 15 producers representing four partner cooperatives to join us in the City for the first day of the National Congreso. A series of lectures covered topics from microbiology to costs of production to harvest yield levels across Latin American countries. Additional activities included tours of ANACAFÉ facilities and a tasting of the top ten coffees from this year’s Guatemalan Cup of Excellence competition. A sales floor provided further learning opportunities as products ranging from agricultural inputs to processing equipment to roasting machines were represented. The ability to see these products and learn about them all in one place is invaluable for producers living in isolated communities, who in general have limited access to an already limited number of products.
How to qualify this in words? Over the course of three days of working together – sharing meals, experiences, knowledge and coffee – you learn about much more than simply whether one fertilizer is better than another, or which month is better to apply it in. You learn about what these producers are hoping to take back to their communities. What they’re hoping to change. You see their passion for their work, and excitement to improve the product they produce. And it changes your own perception of the industry.
But that’s just my takeaway. There were twenty other participants in the event, each of whom has their own thoughts and feelings about the experience. And while I can’t speak for those feelings, I can say that after all the events had wrapped up, I took the bus to Antigua with three producers from the remote community of La Suiza. We hopped off at the Alameda and walked through the Central Plaza to Fat Cat, the most well-known specialty coffee shop in town, where I was able to join them as they tried their first espresso. As they experienced the other side of the supply chain for the first time. And we chatted for an hour there, about the potential for their community, about their plans and goals to improve, and about how the experience of this Congreso and other ongoing De la Gente projects can help them get there.
And then we went our separate ways, with one of my favorite thoughts for the future: ‘Quedamos en contacto.’ ‘We’ll stay in touch.’
Thanks to the many generous donors who helped us raise over $2,000 for the Annual Congreso. Your support led to many great discussions, ideas, and inspiration for the future of our coffee farmers. Thank you!