Posted by Keara Farrelly
The farming community of La Suiza is located in Guatemala’s warmest and wettest coffee growing region: San Marcos. Due to its humid climate, early rainfalls, and warm temperatures, the coffee farmers in this proud community face challenges that farmers in other regions don’t have to worry about.
Even the story of how La Suiza came to be is unique. La Suiza is an old German coffee plantation that was sold under a government land loan program as part of the Peace Accords that ended the 36-year long civil war in Guatemala. 116 families banded together, from all over the country, to purchase this farm and build a new life as smallholder coffee producers. Now, each family farms approximately 5 acres of coffee growing land.
La Suiza can be found about 45 minutes from the closest pueblo, Nuevo Progreso. Heading north on a bumpy dirt road, on the edge of a steep and lush mountainside, the road ends in La Suiza. There, undoubtedly, you will find children playing soccer on their new soccer court and a few older men watching them play and chatting the afternoon away.
That was the backdrop as De La Gente, in collaboration with the Cooperativa Nahuala, arrived in La Suiza to implement and train six (actually seven) individuals from La Suiza in running a “bio-fabrica”, or organic fertilizer factory.
The goal of the bio-fabrica in La Suiza would be to train participants so that they can learn to produce, use, and sell organic fertilizers specifically tailored to the needs and diseases that are prevalent in La Suiza. The products will be available to all community members and even farmers from other communities at a very affordable cost, just high enough so the producers can ensure they will be able to buy the next round of ingredients needed for the next batch of products.
Our three-day training period was the culmination of months of hard work and coordination. We partnered with a coffee-farming cooperative located in Sololá, called Cooperativa Nahuala, to help us implement the bio-fabrica. Pascuala Carolina, a young female farmer from Nahuala and a bio-fabrica expert in her own right, has been working as the bio-fabrica manager for the Nahuala cooperative for over two years now. Coming from a long line of coffee farmers, she can spot which disease or deficiency a coffee plant has just by looking at it. Using her own practical knowledge and experience, and skills learned from having participated in several trainings, she has crafted and created a successful bio-fabrica for the Nahuala community, producing and selling almost 1,000 liters of product per year.
We first visited La Suiza in mid-February to meet the six participants, to introduce them to one of the products that Cooperativa Nahuala has created, and to begin encouraging and motivating them on what a successful bio-fabrica could look like for their community. After a first very quick visit, we returned in mid-March with seven 220 liter barrels, Borax, Copper Sulfate, Zinc, Potassium, Magnesium, Manganese, Iron, molasses, glasses, and gloves, among a truck-load full of other materials. Our goal? Teach the six participants to make eight organic fertilizers.
And we did! The seven participants created the following products:
Liquid Micro Organism & Solid Micro Organism – to enhance the soil and plants with natural microorganisms that come from the most untouched spots in the mountains surrounding La Suiza, referred to as la montaña virgen
Enlargement Foliar – a liquid fertilizer that increases the size of the coffee beans
Bio-Fertilizer – a liquid fertilizer that promotes general health and wellbeing of the plants
Bio-Iron – Pascuala noticed a lot of iron deficiency in La Suiza, meaning the leaves of the coffee plants turned yellow. This liquid fertilizer will help combat that deficiency
Caldo Viscosa - used as treatment against Roya (coffee leaf rust) and Ojo de Gallo which is an airborne fungus affecting the coffee beans
Pasto Fermentado - this is a substitute for organic manure and provides a lot of nitrogen to the plants
Extracto – a “home-made” concoction to kill the ants and bugs like the cochineal
The extracto was the most exciting and labor-intensive product. The six participants had gone to the mountain to collect one large burlap sack of chichicaste, a poisonous and prickly plant that leaves you with a dead arm if you happen to brush up against it.We chopped the chichicaste into very small pieces, along with 8 lbs of red onion and 15 bunches of garlic. Luckily, the kids were on a soccer break when we were peeling the garlic, so we had lots of helpers.
Then, since La Suiza has limited electricity and only in the evenings, we walked to the nearest town where a friendly neighbor let us use his blender! Blending these ingredients together with seven farmers who had never used a blender before was a real adventure. After blending everything together, we walked it back to La Suiza where we created a tea-bag effect. We put all these ingredients in a large permeable sack and dunked in a barrel full of water. There, it will steep for 30 days and the farmers can begin to use this seriously strong-smelling mixture on their plants. No way any ants are going near this!
In addition to doing this hands-on training where the participants learned to make each product, we also spent a lot of time studying the prices of each material needed to make the products and how much additional inputs cost, such as labor expenses, water, travel time, etc. We are proud that 7 out of the 8 products came in under Q10 per liter ($1.35/liter)! Only the extracto, due to its labor-intensive process, came in at about Q35 per liter.
Making manageably priced and locally-sourced products that will improve the quality of La Suiza’s coffee was the goal. But working alongside these talented and hardworking coffee farmers, learning from them, their past, their hardships, their goals, and their families was an important step in De La Gente’s partnership and relationship with La Suiza.
The welcoming atmosphere is a uniquely beautiful characteristic in La Suiza. As you may have noticed earlier, I mentioned there were six or seven participants. There were supposed to be only six. Due to the intensive nature of this training, we wanted to keep the group small and focused. Don Abundio, a soft-spoken older man with cowboy boots and cowboy hat, was determined to participate and learn how to make these products he was so sure would improve his coffee plants. At the end of the three days, the original six participants invited him back to be one of the first members of the community to try the products on his coffee plants and participate with them as they make the next round of products.
This hard-working community, banded together by coffee and the overwhelming desire to improve their lives, is determined to use the materials provided by donors like True Stone Coffee Roasters in St. Paul, Minnesota and several other individual donors to make a positive change in the quantity and quality of their coffee production.