Mexico’s coffee industry is struggling. Consumption is starting to exceed production, exacerbated by the impact of coffee leaf rust (la roya). Low coffee prices are endemic throughout coffee industry, making farming even less attractive.
Can these trends be reversed? I spoke to some of the biggest names in the Mexican coffee industry about this at Cafés Especiales: Compartiendo experiencias e información (“Specialty coffee: Sharing experiences and information”). (See our Events Calendar for more events like this.) And while there’s no easy solution, the concept that came up again and again was quality. Improving this will lead to better prices and stronger plants. Improving this will incentivise farmers to continue working in coffee.
Fortunately, specialty coffee production is increasing in Mexico. The new Mexican Coffee Institute will help to further that. So too do influencers who encourage producers to try specialty production methods. I spoke to two of them, Jesús Salazar and Carlos Avendaño. Here’s what they had to say.
A coffee picker on Finca Nuevo México, Chiapas. Credit: Café de México
Tradition vs Innovation
Many coffee producers use traditional methods passed down through generations. Carlos Avendaño, a farmer from Veracruz, tells me, “Sometimes [these producers] know a lot! They know about their lands, what works, how to take care of them, etc.”
But modern innovations in farming practices can be harder to learn about – especially ones that relate to the recent trend of specialty coffee. Take raised drying beds. They originated in East Africa but are now recommended in specialty coffee production all round the world.
Jesús Salazar, researcher and founder of Cafeólogo, has a similar experience. He tells me that often producers know how to work their lands and how to produce coffee in high quantities – something has traditionally been the goal in coffee production. Yet he says that not all farmers know what the best methods for producing high-quality coffees. How to combat coffee leaf rust, aka la roya, the fungus that devastated Latin American crops in 2012, is one example he gives of this.
“Sometimes [producers] have been working in this industry for years, and maybe their parents and grandparents did too. This, sometimes, can make the teaching-learning process a little difficult,” Carlos adds. “They are used to do things their way and don’t want somebody else, maybe someone younger than them, to tell them how to do their job.”
Coffee cherries ripening at different rates.Credit: Jesús Salazar, Cafeólogo ®
Seeing Is Believing
Carlos works to persuade his farmers and other producers to adopt best practices for high-quality coffee. But he tells them to try the methods first before committing. His message, he tells me, is “‘Don’t do it because I say you should. Try it first on a small piece of land, process the coffee, and sell it. You’ll see if it works and if it makes sense to you.’”
He tells me about the first time he honey processed his coffee, six or seven years ago. Honey processing means removing only part of the coffee cherry, and then drying the beans (the coffee cherry seeds) with the sticky mucilage still attached. Currently popular, it’s known for a sweet cup profile.
Honey processed coffee from Caffè Pecora. Credit: Caffè Pecora
The farmers near him, he tells me, thought he was crazy back when he first started. But now many of them have also adopted honey processing.
He explains that once they realise that these different methods work, they become more involved in the process. They see how much of an an impact it has on the coffee, and they see the increment in their income. Most of them still aren’t interested in trying this ‘odd’ coffee themselves – but he believes that some of them are becoming curious about it. When they open the bags of parchment coffee, which have been closed for months, they smell citrus and go “Wow! That smells like orange!” Then they start asking questions.
Coffee producers check beans for quality. Credit: Jesús Salazar, Cafeólogo ®
Thinking From Seed to Cup
Jesús also wants to persuade producers to see their coffee differently. And to do this, he works not just with the coffee producers but with their families. He provides jobs for their children in different parts of the coffee chain to teach them about the whole seed-to-cup process. He wants to get producers “close to the cup”, he tells me, so that they see where their coffee ends.
It can energise producers, seeing consumers enjoy their coffee or bags being sold with their name on the label. And Jesús also says that when producers get information from others close to them, like relatives or people they know well, they start seeing things differently.
When producers are leaders and influencers, when they love what they do, they can generate change within their community. They can introduce new methods, encourage innovation, and collaborate on experiments.
Carlos and Jesús both emphasised the importance of considering location, land, and climatic conditions. Producers should also create a long-term plan, they advised. And it’s important to know that there’s no one recipe for improved quality. But working together with your community, sharing knowledge and ideas, breeds success.
Juan Luis, a coffee producer, trying his own coffee as an espresso. Credit: Jesús Salazar, Cafeólogo ®
Will Quality Lead to Quantity?
Quality is not enough alone; Mexico also needs to increase the quantity of its coffee. But for Jesús and Carlos, better quality coffee means more profitable businesses. And that will mean more coffee farmers investing in production and expanding their farms.
Motivation, passion, and education – all three are important to achieve this. And it seems that community influencers, like Jesús and Carlos, are key to spreading all three.
Written by Ana Valencia.
Perfect Daily Grind
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