In May of 2018 I traveled to El Salvador as part of a small group of coffee professionals, mostly Q Arabica Graders, under the auspices of the National Cooperative Business Association / Cooperative League of the USA (NCBA CLUSA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). With funding from the USDA, NCBA CLUSA has a long history of supporting agricultural initiatives in developing nations that provide sustainable, profitable export crops that can be marketed to developed nations like the US. NCBA CLUSA provides in-country organization and support to act as a catalyst to build long-lasting trade partnerships that uplift farming communities in developing nations, improving quality of life, and creating a path to long-term economic sustainability.
The premise of the trip was to place experienced coffee professionals from potential buying nations (USA & South Korea) in front of a group of 40+ farm owners who had been preselected for the quality of their coffee. The coffee professionals would cup each farmer’s coffee, evaluate for quality, and provide feedback to each farmer in a group setting. Needless to say, this setting was, at best, intimidating. To be a stranger from a foreign country standing in front of a hardworking farm family, critiquing the product of their back-breaking work, makes one keenly aware of the weight and responsibility involved in evaluating these coffees. Luckily, all of the coffees were quite good - some were even exceptional.
Beyond the initial intimidation, the setting did allow us to get to have meaningful conversations with many of the farm owners, learning their backgrounds, struggles, and their impression of what work still needs to be done in their country to allow them to prosper. El Salvador is a struggling nation. It is one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in this hemisphere, with a mostly failed government, riddled with corruption and run, in large part, by criminal organizations. Because of its dangerous reputation, El Salvador’s tourism industry has mostly disappeared, leaving agriculture, specifically coffee and sugar cane, as the primary source of potential income. The farmers, however, unanimously noted that finding avenues to export their coffee at fair prices has been next to impossible. Because of El Salvador’s small size, the perceived danger, and relative operational difficulty, very few exporters have robust operations in the country. This, combined with a lack of cooperatives concerned with quality over price has left many farmers selling their coffee below cost of production to commodity mills, making their operation unsustainable. Young people end up leaving their family farm operation because it is not profitable, and older farmers end up abandoning their farms because it is more expensive to run them than to simply walk away.
NCBA CLUSA is working diligently to solve these structural problems, but it is a long and difficult process. I found myself wishing I could bring in coffee from every single farmer I met, but the simple truth is, we are a relatively small roaster with a diverse list of farms and origins, and we, alone, can’t fix the problems El Salvador’s coffee agriculture industry faces. Still, we are able to work to create meaningful relationships and work to spread awareness about the struggles El Salvadoran coffee farmers face in their industry, and hopefully begin to push the needle in a positive direction while brining our customers some truly exceptional coffees.
One of the first producers I met in El Salvador was German Zelayandia and his wife Hilda Contreras de Zelayandia. Hilda is the fifth generation in her family to produce coffee on their family estate called Finca Monteverde. She and her husband German were at the NCBA CLUSA cupping event representing their family’s estate with three different coffees, each a different processing method from individual small farms on the estate. Recognizing an opportunity to escape the cycle of growing coffee at a loss, trading on the commodities market, Hilda’s father, Rene Contreras began focusing on growing specialty grade coffee, marketable to US roasters. As neighboring farms folded, Rene decided to invest, increasing his ability to scale, increase production quantities, and continue to improve coffee quality.
German and Hilda immediately approached me after the first coffee cupping session. They were friendly and seemed excited to share more about their coffees, their family, and El Salvador in general. I was already excited about their coffees after tasting them in the previous session, and we seemed to make a quick connection. I learned that German married into the coffee agriculture business - Hilda’s father Rene was the Patron of the estate. Hilda, like her mother, was a medical doctor. They both lived in San Salvador and worked with their parents on the farm part time, with hopes of leaving their city jobs and transitioning to the farm full time, but for the time being, they acted as advocates and promoters for the family’s coffee.
Over the course of the next day and a half of cupping and evaluating coffee, German and Hilda stuck around, introduced us to other producers, supplied my colleagues and I with green coffee samples, and provided some much needed translation. When we reached the end of our third day and began to plan our next day that would include travel to farms we hoped to visit, German and Hilda volunteered to provide us transport and act as guides, along with Ana Maria Lopez, her husband, and daughter, Lushuana of Finca La Fortuna. German and the Lopez family went out of their way to take a group of strangers to their respective farms, as well as their neighbor Mario’s farm, Finca Montenito. Rene Contreras met our cobbled together group of travelers at the entrance to the Monteverde Estate. We made our way through rainforest roads to all of the individual farms accessible by truck. The estate was breathtakingly beautiful, much of the hillsides looking out across the valley where El Salvador meets Guatemala, and a line of nine volcanoes. We visited the Monteverde eco-mill that uses minimal water to process washed coffees, as well as the drying and sorting stations where honey and natural process coffees are finished. German pointed out the water capture system the Contreras family installed at the highest point of the estate to capture and hold rainwater which is gravity fed through underground piping to the village of Monteverde at the base of the mountain, giving the families of farm workers running water they otherwise wouldn’t have. It was clear there was a great deal of pride held by all the producers, much deserved pride. Their hospitality throughout the day was overwhelming, and by the end of the day we all felt we had become like family.
In the end, we were lucky in that Monteverde had an existing relationship with a US export company with which we already had a working relationship. This allowed us to purchase this coffee with very little trouble. At the same time, we ran into major hurdles trying to find avenues to bring coffees from La Fortuna and Montenito, further illustrating the challenges facing El Salvador and its coffee industry. I wish there was a simple solution and we could make a few phone calls, pull together cooperatives and exporters, and give El Salvadoran coffee the exposure to the US market it deserves, but we simply don’t have that power. We do, however, have the power to continue to tell honest, meaningful stories about the gracious, hardworking, and overwhelmingly generous people we’ve met in our travels, not only in El Salvador, but in all the struggling growing regions that produce the coffee we all love. We’re proud to bring you these coffees and tell our friends’ stories, and we look forward to a long, prosperous relationship with our new partners in El Salvador and beyond.