Origin Update: Honduras and Farm Visits
Words by 49th Green Coffee Buyer, David Pohl
As many of our customers know, Honduras is a core origin for us, with coffees from this Central American country featuring prominently on our menu throughout the year. We have been buying outstanding coffees from Honduras, and specifically from the Santa Barbara region of Honduras, through our supplier Beneficio San Vicente (BSV), for well over 10 years, and feel a strong sense of commitment to our partners there. The past year and a half have made visits to Honduras impossible, breaking a cycle of frequent face to face, on the ground, interactions. Luckily we have finally made our way back and have a number of important updates about Honduras, our friends and partners there.
While 49th has been traveling to Santa Barbara for years, this was personally my first trip there, and my first trip in many year to Honduras. Honduras has always held a special place for me. When I was first getting into coffee, I spent a week in Honduras, picked coffee with farmers displaced by hurricane Mitch, and was so deeply connected with what I experienced that I decided to make a career out of it. And ever since I have been driven by a desire to create shared value for coffee producers and roasters through excellent quality coffee, thinking back to the people I met on that formative journey. This trip was very much a return to my roots in coffee.
Beneficio San Vicente – Catalyst
BSV, which is run by Benjamin Paz, a young man in his 30s, and his family, is a catalyst for change in the entire Santa Barbara region. On the surface, it is just another coffee mill and exporter, but digging a little deeper, it is much more than that. Benjamin works with 400 farming families in and around Pena Blanca, an attractive town on the shores of Lake Yojoa, connecting them directly with clients around the world. Benjamin knows everyone – in the four days I was there we would beep our horn and wave or stop the car every few minutes to greet a friend, family member or co-worker; and even on remote roads or on foot we would run into people, stop for introductions, and hear each other's stories. It was incredible to experience the engagement with which Benjamin operates 24/7!
Ben does not just know everyone, he is involved in his community in a very meaningful way, helping to organize projects to expand a forest reserve that protects the water resources for the region, create a community tree nursery and establish a municipal waste collection facility. Last year after Hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated the region, Ben organized a fundraiser to help families in the area rebuild - he raised enough money for hundreds of homes!
With Ben as my enthusiastic guide, we visited all the farmers that we work with directly, spending half a day with each one, sharing stories and sometimes meals together. We sat down with Juan Evangelista Fernandez, “an angel fallen from heaven” according to Benjamin, on day one, where I learned that this truly kind and generous man has been working in coffee for 69 of his 83 years. Since 2011 he has been working the land on a farm he calls “La Maravilla,” located in the village of La Flores at around 1500 meters.
Together with his family, Juan produces excellent quality Parainema variety coffee for 49th Parallel. Right before the pandemic, through purchases made by 49th, Juan was able to build a second wet mill at the top of his farm, which him and his adult children showed to me. This mill has allowed the Fernandez family to process their coffee closer to where it is picked, saving the time and trouble of hauling it down the hill. They would like to bring electricity to the new mill and hope to be able to accomplish this in coming years.
In the afternoon we visited “La Colmena,” another long time 49th favorite, producing excellent Pacas and Catuai, which we learned had just been sold by Arturo Paz to Benjamin Paz and his cousin David. The new owners (hey it’s all in the family!) are making much needed improvements to the farm and while there is sadly no production this year, they hope to have it fully back online in two years' time - including with some Geisha variety coffee. We look forward to tasting these coffees!
On day two we cupped 30 lots of coffee first thing in the morning, some from the just completed Cup of Excellence (as a calibration table) and the rest late harvest deliveries from our producer partners. These coffees will be included in a second shipment from BSV to 49th. Quality was excellent overall, with some farmers, such as Elio Diaz, showing outstanding quality – the best of the best.
In the afternoon we visited Natividad Benitez, our first relationship in Honduras way back when, and a celebrity of sorts, having won 1st Place in the Cup of Excellence in 2005. “Nati” as he is known, has been working in coffee since 1978, and has had his legendary farm “El Ocotillo” since 1992. From Natividad we heard about some of the challenges that he and other farmers have faced during the pandemic. Perhaps most importantly, costs have gone way up for farmers in Honduras, due to mass migration to the north, and a resulting shortage of farm laborers. This seems to be impacting all of the farmers in the area. It was really striking to hear of how many people had decided to leave for the US, pushed by the pandemic and the devastating blow of the hurricanes last fall. It seemed clear that often the only thing keeping families, along with their children and grandchildren, from migrating was a direct connection to the market through relationships such as those established by BSV with 49th Parallel and other specialty coffee companies.
Heading over to Las Vegas on day three, we visited with Kelvin Pineda, a young and energetic producer, married to the daughter of Elio diaz, longtime partner of 49th. Kelvin and I have kept in frequent communication this past year and a half, as I interviewed him for another blog post about his award winning La Araianita last year. I felt as if I already knew him, but seeing the man in the flesh just proved what I already suspected – he is passionate about coffee and building a sustainable business for himself and his family. Finca La Arianita is at 1700 meters, and is planted with bourbon and pacas; there are lots of limestone formations at the top of the farm that had this rock climber seeking out potential routes (gave up as I didn’t have my climbing shoes). The day we visited, Kelvin had several workers clearing the weeds from the farm, and I have to say the farm was impeccable. The enthusiasm and dedication of this young man, the next generation of coffee farmers, is truly inspirational and we at 49th are honored to be working to help make his dreams a reality.
Heading out of Kelvin's farm we stepped on a bee hive and the next thing we knew, we were swatting and yelping as hundreds angry bees attacked us. Benjamin took the brunt of it, being the last person in the group to cross the hive just as they were getting ready to let us have it, but even he after a fewminutes was ready to carry on. . . and so we did to Carlos Damian's farm “Bella Vista,” a 15 minute walk through lush hills.
Carlos Damian used to grow vegetables but saw the promise in specialty coffee and founded his farm in 2011. We have been buying from him ever since his first harvest, and in recent years he has been able to take the proceeds from our purchases to invest in everything from a new and more adequate house for him and his family, to all the processing facilities needed to produce excellent quality coffee. Carlos Damian is a quiet man and lives simply, but it is obvious how intentionally he has built out his farming operation. His Pacas and Bourbons are always terrific, and we are happy that the relationship has been beneficial to all parties.
My last day in Santa Barbara was spent on the farms of Ramon Rodriguez and Elio Diaz in the village of El Cedral. Ramon has a large farm called La Bendicion, well known to 49th customers as we have been offering his coffee since 2011. At 7.5 manzanas (or 5 hectares) it extends as far as the eye can see and is planted with coffee and more recently avocado trees. Ramon has a beautiful and well cared for house overlooking his farm and is building a garage for the truck he just purchased. This vehicle represents a major purchase for him and will help him get his coffee to market more easily. Ramon is married to Elio’s sister, Anabel, again showing how tight knit and interconnected this community really is. Ramon is well versed in the needs of his farm, discussing with ease the fertilization regimen and recent soil analysis. We spent quite a while discussing how best to improve the quality of his already exceptionally good coffee. Leaving his main house and farm we toured his other parcel, called Finca Anabel, which is in front of Elio Diaz’ house and farm. A beautiful flat piece of land near the main road, this farm is just coming online. Thus far we have blended this coffee with the other La Bendicion lots, but perhaps in future harvests we will separate Finca Anabel as a seperate offering.
Wrapping up my visits we stopped by Elio Diaz’ house, and I felt like I was meeting a legend. His coffees this year have been simply outstanding, so differentiated and good that I was eager to meet the master. Elio is a quietly charismatic and affable man, his presence felt with few words exchanged, a slight grin on his face most of the time. I was able to get enough of his story to know why his coffee is so great. His father started in coffee in the 1960s and Elio grew up surrounded by it, starting his own farm in 1985. He currently has 6 manzanas of land, with a thirty year old “Bourbonera” - Bourbon varietal plot – and two Pacas lots – one older and another just planted. The Borbonera appears overgrown, and it is, but inside it is like a cathedral, a quiet and sacred space. Elio loves this plot, and we love the coffees it produces. His new Pacas plot is just coming into production, while his older Pacas plot, planted in 2014 with the help of our then coffee buyer, is already producing incredible quality. We have been working with Elio since 2015, and due to health issues that Elio has faced in recent years, most of the farm management is conducted by Kelvin Pineda. I believe that the historic nature of Elio’s plots, along with the energetic presence of Kelvin, taking cues from Elio, are what make this a truly legendary coffee farm.
What an honor to be able to visit with Benjamin Paz, BSV and producer partners who grow coffee for 49th Parallel. The transformative work Benjamin is doing could not be more obvious, and it is clear that he carries this responsibility with joy and humility. We at 49th share his dedication to the coffee growers of Santa Barbara and look forward to continuing to strengthen the relationship.