Omar and the vision (Part 8)
The general manager of Copacus Jose “Omar” Rodriguez wasn’t able to meet with us the previous evening but made up for his omission in spades today. He is as I discovered a devout Christian and I nearly found myself in a church that evening, not something that happens very often if at all on these origin trips.
Omar is a man of action and got us out on the road bright and early. I had no idea what he had planned for the day, we were given some generic information about a tour of the farms not thinking that this would be a totally immersive experience.
He started with the scenery bit as he pointed out Cerro las Minas (2,870m) the highest mountain in Honduras. We then climbed further and pulled into a small farm with a solar drier in front of the house and a pulping machine outback. One of his aims is to get the farmer to do more of this processing work whilst Copacus got on and sold coffee, monitored quality and trained Baristas.
An elderly man approached us gesticulating and speaking in Spanish. Omar and the farm owner spoke back but the man insisted on coming in to look at the coffee with us. Afterwards I asked Lorenzo who this individual was, thinking him to be a relative. It transpired that he was the local “eccentric”, but it was interesting how rather than reject him they simply accepted him for who he was, a harmless individual who as they say was a card short of a full deck.
We then moved on to the next farm where we should have spotted that a manual coffee pulping machine was being unloaded and what that implied for us! Anyway what was pointed out to us was a compact weather station. This, it transpired, is one of a network that monitors the weather conditions around various farms. The information it provides is tracked and then used to help the farmer manage things like disease. For instance, a major disease in coffee is leaf rust, when conditions are right the coffee bush can be particularly susceptible. By better understanding, the conditions on the ground information can be relayed to the farmer to spray their coffee bushes with an organic compound to prevent this disease from overwhelming the coffee and thus save the harvest.
Now onto the action of the day as each member of the team had a small bucket strapped to them and was given instruction on how to pick coffee correctly, minimizing waste and not damaging the bush. It is hot, laborious work and it seemed to take an age to collect even a handful of coffee. This though is how all coffee is picked in the area, there is no mechanisation and the pickers get paid by the weight of coffee they’ve collected. They need to be quick and accurate. Thankfully I only got to do the job for half an hour, I would have gone stark staring bonkers if it had been all day and I would probably have been in an asylum by the end of the week, but for thousands of people, this is their livelihood, their only source of income.
With my barely quarter full bucket I and the rest of the team walked over to a plastic sheet that had been placed on the ground and poured out the contents of said buckets. Next, we sorted what we had just picked; that is any coffee cherries that looked a little too green or had some bug damage was removed and would be used for lower grade coffee. It’s so easy to let a few dodgy beans through when you’re tired, hot and levels of concentration are waning. The reality is that it costs you money if you do a bad job.
Next, we put the cherries through a pulping machine. This separates the coffee bean from its exterior pulp. The waste goes one side, the sticky bean the other. Coffee in this state is called parchment. Thankfully this is one job that with a little mechanisation can be done a lot quicker. The farmer has choices. They can sell the whole cherry to the processing factory, they can pulp the coffee and stop there or they can wash and dry the parchment. The more of these jobs they do the more money they get from the processing factory.
We bagged up our parchment coffee and then headed back to the previous farm. Here the wet parchment was spread out on a mesh bed ready to be dried. We still needed to sort the coffee to remove any bits or damaged coffee. That’s the third decision that has had to be taken within a very short time. The process we have selected is “honey”. We’ve kept the mucilage on the parchment coffee and then left it to dry. A note was made and who knows maybe one day I’ll see it in Jersey.
We washed ourselves of the sticky mucilage, thanked our hosts and headed back down towards the Copacus restaurant where we dropped in for lunch before heading back to the factory for some more cupping. Whilst we were tasting the coffee and unbeknown to us the staff of the factory had swept a shape into the coffee drying on the patio. The Wakefield logo and 50 years appeared as if by magic and was a wonderful touch for the London based company who had brought me here.
Up next was the last excursion of the day. We visited a large enclosure full of coffee being solar dried. It’s quite a complex thing as ensuring that each layer dries evenly is vital to the final cup of coffee. We were then taken to a small greenhouse where Julisa an unassuming lady was working with a US University trialing different soil combinations and pot sizes in order to optimise production. The pot size was I thought particularly interesting. It enabled them to delay the planting out of the bush by up to a year without losing a years’ production time. This could be because weather conditions weren’t right or world coffee market prices weren’t conducive to planting more coffee.
Trying to grow great coffee in the face of so much volatility is a huge challenge and you have to admire people like Omar who to some extent appear to be able to see the wood in the trees. Next stop a huge indoor composting site, the second of our travels and affirmation that maintaining a healthy soil structure is vital to the resilience of the coffee bush. It all sounds so obvious yet for decades it’s the giant agrochemical businesses that have been getting farmers hooked on chemicals. It made my trip to Araku valley in India a few years earlier seem very pioneering.
It is a real battle to change hearts and minds. Omar is out there selling hope and he’s relying on his team to deliver. Believing that locals who have grown up in the surrounding villages can give you a product that might be better than that sold by global chemical companies with “science” and multi-million dollar advertising budgets is a real leap of faith. One false step from Omar and he’s lost everything.
Finally, we reached a large pond full of fish, another diversification idea they had which hadn’t quite worked out as initially planned, so the fish remained largely untroubled for the time being.
Omar sat wearily down on the steps leading into the pond. Was it because of the long day or the burden of being responsible for the future of so many people I wondered? We headed back towards the cars marveling at the extraordinary hanging nests of a noisy flock of Oropendola. Nature does come up with some crazy ideas oh and of course a honey processing plant.
It was our last evening with Copacus and Omar was off to church, no doubt to share his burden with the Almighty. The next day we were headed for La Entrada, the gateway from coastal Honduras to the mountainous Western highlands and where we would meet the final link in the chain, the coffee exporters.