First climate change and now COVID-19; We deal with these crises and coffee farmers do too. Our job as coffee merchants is to tell the story of the grower, and this brief account of the life of a coffee farmer in Honduras is straight from the source …
Born in a small village called ‘Subirana’ in the Yoro region of Honduras, fifth generation producer; Cindy Dubon, was raised into an established family tradition of coffee farming for subsistence. Cindy is now 32-years-old, a beautiful mother with three young children, and probably one of the youngest cooperative managers in the region. You could say that she is doing comparatively well; as a producer, a professional, and an active contributor in her community.
To communicate with the outside world, she uses her personal cell phone as well as the cooperative’s office computer, and she was more than happy to help paint this picture of what daily life is like for the people who make our cups of coffee possible.
The Daily Routine
Morning or “Mañana”
Aside from the constant jungle hum of insects and amphibians, not a sound is heard. Not even a rooster pierces the chilly silence, and yet Cindy and the other women of her family; her sister and mother, rise to make breakfast. It’s 3:30am and the food must be ready by 4:30am; at which time the entire family, now including Cindy’s dad and brother, all sit down together to eat.
On the menu: rice and beans, and of course … coffee. This is breakfast every day. If it can be afforded, there may be a side of banana. After all, Honduras is the original Banana Republic and both bananas and coffee have become staples of life for Hondurans. They drink the same coffee they grow, but only the lower quality stuff. Making ends meet always involves sacrifice, and they’ve been reserving the best beans for export for as long as anyone can remember.
Work on the farm starts promptly at 5:00am in order to take advantage of the maximum amount of daylight hours. Cindy makes note that the air temperature can be quite cold at this time (17°C) and the homes lack fully enclosed walls so, contrary to what most people may think, part of the morning routine involves everyone layering on as many clothes as possible to stay warm. If it happens to be raining, they’ll be lucky if there are enough garbage bags to go around. Ensuring they have suitable PPE masks and/or mask material during the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t even a thought. “Not possible” says Cindy, “social distancing is our best and only option in most cases.”
Afternoon or “Tarde”
Women of the household spend most of the day cleaning, planning, cooking, picking fruit, and taking care of any small children. In her case, halfway through the day Cindy and her female family-members meet the men in the farm with a lunch of fresh fruit and more (you guessed it!) … rice and beans. Meat is rarely consumed because it’s difficult to get and it’s too expensive for them to raise animals.
The sun is blazing hot by now (it’s well above 30°C), but an air of coolness permeates from being at such a high elevation (+1000m above sea level). After filling their stomaches, the women return to the housework and the men continue working outside in the farm until the sun goes down.
“Especially during the harvest season”, Cindy says. “During harvest, the pickers often work until 6pm (13-hour days) and sometimes electric lights are even used to pick at nighttime”. The pressure is real: They must pick quickly or risk the ripe fruit falling from the tree and spoiling. And the work doesn’t end there. The collected fruit needs to be de-pulped (cherry removed from the seeds) as soon as possible after picking to avoid spoilage. All family members (including children) are needed on the farm at this time, and hired hands (i.e. seasonal workers) from surrounding towns and communities are often temporarily employed.
When COVID-19 struck there was a shortage of labour in the region, explains Cindy, and some producers lost part of their harvest because the fruit fell from the tree. “Many were also late in their post-harvest planning and fertilizing,” she says.
Evening or “Noche”
By the end of the work day, which is usually around 5pm, it’s time for dinner. “La Cena”. A typical plate of beans, “these can never be missing from the plate”, says Cindy; plus eggs from their own hens; butter and/or cheese; and, finally, bananas picked from their own farm. This is the typical dinner and it’s proven to be both delicious and sustaining. Once or twice a year a family might find themselves enjoying a meal of Honduran-style “pupusas” (grilled corn bread stuffed with beans, cheese and salsa) at the one and only local restaurant in the village.
Parents wash up and settle in quickly after eating since the sun sets between 5:30pm-6:15pm depending on the season. There are no streetlights in Subirana and not every home has electricity, so children can be found outside playing soccer near the patios until sundown; all the while keeping an eye on any drying coffee. The absence of sun gives way to complete darkness and the hum of insects grows louder as the nighttime jungle comes alive.
Here and there, a glow of electric light can be seen through the open walls of cement homes. “Sometimes parents will spend the evenings telling stories of their ancestors, and other times they just relax and watch soap operas until going to bed between 8pm-9pm”, says Cindy. “In the parent’s case, they have to get up early to work; and the children usually have to wake up early to embark on a long walk to school.”
Coffee is grown in tropical regions close to the equator, in what is known as the coffee “bean belt”. Each growing region’s season is slightly different in timing, depending on the general habitat and variations in climactic conditions, such as temperature and rainfall. Nevertheless, the season, and therefore the “routine”, involved in coffee production has many similarities across the world.
Planned calendars are created month-to-month, Cindy explains, in which her family maps out the weekly intervals of tasks; like fertilizing, pruning, cleaning, sprouting new seedlings, and so on. Each farm is an average of three hectares in size (about 2.4 acres), and farmers have to be very careful about how they plan maintenance so as not to harm any trees.
Many growers are responsible for finding a buyer for their own coffee, so market instability is a major concern. During COVID-19 the world’s attention was necessarily occupied and it forced individuals’ attention inwards. This only worked to intensify concerns of market instability for coffee producers.
April signals the start of the growing season for Cindy’s coffee from Honduras. As the trees prepare for new growth, producers spend their time cleaning and maintaining the farm after the big harvest.
This includes brush cleaning the trees; removing old and broken branches; applying organic fertilizer; removing foliage so the tree has more strength when developing fruit; and making seedbeds for future coffee farms.
Beginning in August and continuing to September, the coffee plants go into bloom producing a plethora of delicate, white flowers. The air is filled with the scent of jasmine, and birds and insects can be found hard at work pollinating.
Farmers take this time to rest and prepare for the harvest season. It’s not all rest, though. This is the time when the trees are actively getting ready to bear the next four months’ worth of fruit harvest and finding a buyer for the coffee becomes critical in these months. As the trees fill with flowers, producers are working to estimate the size of their harvest and cooperate with their neighbours to seek and secure a buyer at a decent price.
This is the coffee fruiting season and by far the busiest season in Subirana. Flowers yield to berries (called “coffee cherries”) that turn from green, to yellow, to red, indicating peak ripeness. But this ripening process doesn’t happen all at once. Fruiting, and thus harvesting, begins in September and continues steadily all the way through to March.
The intensive tasks of both picking each and every ripe cherry by hand, and the multiple stages of processing needed throughout these four months requires a sudden mass amount of labour. Social distancing during harvesting has proven to be more difficult for producers, most of whom cannot afford to take time off for quarantine. Coffee is their livelihood and it needs to come off the trees and be sold.
Coffee Farming in Today’s Context
The Bad News
Climate change and COVID-19 have made coffee farming more risky due to market instability and this is affecting all coffee farmers across the world. Extreme weather events (i.e. droughts, prolonged rainy seasons, hurricanes, etc.) and longer-term habitat changes (i.e. riverbeds drying up, species biodiversity loss, etc.) due to climate change also threaten coffee farmers livelihoods.
Both climate change and COVID-19 are revealing how important it is for the world to work together; which means they are providing even more reason for consumers to think about and establish a deeper connection with the people who grow their coffee.
If you already drink Cafe Solar coffee … amazing!
If you haven’t yet tried Cindy’s coffee, what are you waiting for?