In January 2015, I had the extraordinary privilege of joining an Equal Exchange/PCUSA delegation to Nicaragua. These delegations connect supporters of Fair Trade, and Equal Exchange employees like me, with the people and places that make our products possible. Traveling to this new country, meeting farmers and seeing the co-ops firsthand brought everything I knew about Fair Trade to life. Here’s a look into our week of learning and exploring. Our Nicaraguan coffees are on sale for a limited time, too!
Bienvenidos a PRODECOOP
We arrived in Estelí in the afternoon after a long bus ride from the capital city, Managua. Green volcanic mountains lined the horizon and expansive coffee drying beds spread out ahead of the warehouses of PRODECOOP. It was sunny, hot and lush — a big change from the northeastern winter I’d left behind.
PRODECOOP was Equal Exchange’s first trading partner back in 1986, and now is made up of 38 primary, village-level co-ops, totaling almost 1,000 small-scale farmers. PRODECOOP purchases coffee from each of these primary co-ops, processes it here at the headquarters in Esteli, and then sells 100% of it on the Fair Trade market. Needless to say, it’s a busy place.
We were welcomed warmly by Adilia Hernández, one of the co-op managers, and Luis Diego Calderón Masís, a gregarious visiting agronomist. The two of them led us on the tour of the premises, giving us a look into the everyday happenings of a busy coffee co-operative.
Drying, sifting and sorting
First, we walked through the drying beds, which were hot and overwhelmingly bright, raked continuously by men and women covered head-to-toe to protect them from the sun. We learned that many of the workers are university students working here part-time during school breaks.
Adilia told us that coffee beans take nearly a week to dry out completely, and the raking helps them dry evenly and prevents the growth of mildew. And when it rains? Workers rush to cover the beds with tarps, a process we watched unfold with practiced grace when a sun shower passed through.
Once the beans are dry, they are run through a series of machines that sort defects by size, shape and color— it was actually surprising just how many phases they went through. At the end of it, the reject pile was substantial: full of misshapen, broken or discolored beans that would mean bad-tasting coffee.
Finally, the beans are ready to be bagged, stored in the warehouse until they reach around 18% humidity and then sold on the Fair Trade market. Before it even reaches the roaster, your coffee goes through a lot. The beans that wind up in the bag are really the best of the best.
Roasting, cupping and quality control
With their commitment to quality, it makes sense that PRODECOOP has their own small-scale roasting operation. Historically, coffee producers have simply grown their crop, sold it and not been concerned with roasting or brewing. By roasting and testing their own beans, members of PRODECOOP gain more knowledge about, and thus control over, their product. And they get pretty amazing coffee out of it, too.
We got to try some of this coffee in their quality control lab with Agueda Emilce Ruiz Avila, who led us in a typical coffee cupping, or tasting. Cuppings are crucial for quality control and cuppers like Agueda are incredibly skilled in identifying nuances in aroma and flavor and understanding their relationship to quality. Agueda walked us through the cupping process and described the way to smell and taste each sample. At the end, we had a unanimous favorite.
Agueda told us that she developed an interest in quality control after working in the drying beds for a few years, but that the taste of coffee took a while to grow on her. Now though? “I love it,” she said. “I drink it all day.”
Manure, microorganisms and compost
Diego and Adilia led us back behind the drying beds and warehouses, to a shady area where the scent of manure wafted through the warm air. A herd of sheep peered at us through a gate. “This is where we make organic fertilizer,” Adilia told us. Manure, of course, is a key ingredient. Black tarps covered mounds of compost nearby, decomposing into fertilizer in the warm sun.
Healthy farms start with good soil, so the co-op puts a lot of energy into finding ways to maximize soil health. It’s a complex science with many components, from manure to earthworms to microorganisms, not all of which are readily available to the average coffee farmer. However, the co-operative’s investment in organic methods helps make these things more accessible to more farmers. There are many members who need resources, so it’s not always easy to meet the demand, but it’s clear that the effort is being made to share knowledge and resources.
Local coffee and the continuing journey
After the tour, we returned to the patio where I made a beeline for the freshly brewed coffee waiting for us. Despite being 85 degrees outside, the hot coffee was exactly what I wanted. Looking out at the mountains, the palm trees and the tropical plants, I realized what an amazing thing it was to be drinking local coffee. When could I ever say that back home?
Soon, we’d be leaving PRODECOOP behind and driving north to the farms of Dipilto, where the journey of our coffee truly begins.