From Honduras To Utah: Coffee's Journey To Your Cup Pt 1

Mar 20, 2019

Soil samples for educating farmers to become more efficient producers
Credit Emily Karol / iDE

In the United States, most people enjoy the luxury of going to the grocery store or a restaurant and not breaking the bank. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average American makes around $850 a week. That means we get to spend that money on things like coffee grown in Honduras. 

UPR’s agriculture reporter Bronson Teichert traveled to central America to see how coffee makes it to your cup and how that process impacts the Honduran economy.

You walk into a coffee shop in northern Utah and smell the rich aromas that fill the café and drifts out to the sidewalk in front of the building as you open the door. You might come here to buy coffee because you like the taste, you might take the effort to buy coffee that is labeled environmentally friendly and fair-trade or you’re here because you are one of the Americans who can’t start the day without a little nudge. If you’re one of those people, you’re not alone.

Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day according to the Coffee Statistics report. That’s 146 billion cups of coffee per year, making the United States the leading consumer of coffee in the world.

Where are we getting $4 billion worth of coffee every year and how is it getting into your cup? 

It starts in countries like Honduras where one of the main exports is coffee. It’s spring and workers are harvesting coffee beans that look more like small, dark, red cherries from bushes up to six feet tall. With handmade baskets of reed tied around their waists, the workers harvest 100 to 200 pounds of coffee in a day. 

Here, the terrain is rugged and pine trees cover the steep mountains and hills. During the four and half months of rainy season, everything is green. Driving up and down the switchbacks you can smell the aromas in the air. 

Roberto Nolasco is a technician for COMSA, a coffee cooperation made up of local farmers around the town of Marcala in the southwest region of Honduras. Nolasco said coffee is life for people in this area, even though they only make around one limpre for 20 pounds of coffee. 100 limpre is equal to about four U.S. dollars. So even if a farmer harvests 200 pounds of coffee in a day, that’s only 40 cents for all that work. 

I tried harvesting the coffee beans for about 15 minutes and had like 40 beans in my basket. I would starve. That’s why Nolasco said COMSA was started around eight years ago.

“This is a center for organic production where we try different techniques that can be applied. They try to focus on other plants and animal production,” Nolasco said. “The idea is not only to produce but to train other farmers.”

COMSA partners with non-governmental organizations like International Developmental Enterprises, known as iDE based in the U.S. to train local farmers how to be more efficient producers. Outside of the coffee processing activities at the co-op, the grounds are used like an outdoor university. In fact, farmers come from the Marcala area and all over Honduras. Nolasco said people even come from other countries like Peru for the week-long course. 

“For us it is really a pleasure to share this knowledge to the people who really need it,” Nolasco said. “We are quite proud to know that farmers are replicating the knowledge they are gaining here.”

Farmers in the area around Marcala are using the training and becoming more efficient according to Nolasco. Many farmers used to grow coffee plants in the open to get more sun. Coffee does grow faster, but the plant has a shorter lifespan and the quality of the coffee bean is low. 

Nolasco said overpopulation and not enough food is one of the biggest problems Hondurans have been facing in the last 20 years. People thought the solution was to cut down more trees to grow more food. So how do you grow crops for people to eat and make a profit while maintaining the land?

Now it’s almost impossible to see coffee farms unless you drive right next to one because farmers are growing the plants in between the trees. If there weren’t any trees before, farmers have planted orange, lemon, banana and plantain trees to grow alongside the coffee. With more roots holding the soil together, farmers are preventing erosion and water stays in the soil longer. Yes, the coffee beans do take longer to grow, but the plants have longer life spans and the beans are higher quality, which means better prices for farmers. 

If higher quality and better prices are to continue, Nolasco said Hondurans need to preserve what they already have. He introduces me to Julio Cesar Calix who works in a brand new recycling plant at COMSA.

“This is new not only for Marcala but also in Honduras,” Julio said. “This is the first facility in the country to have a complete recycling program that also makes compost from organic matter and also burns things that cannot be used for energy.”

Julio said the facility is brand new, so right now they are working on collecting paper, glass and metal to transform into new products.

“The idea is to make Marcala a clean city and remove the landfill at the entry of the city and train the population about recycling,” Julio said.

Quality is the magic word when it comes to coffee and it all starts with location, soil and water. Nolasco said identifying what a farmer’s soil needs could decide coffee quality and ultimately how much money comes in after a harvest. He teaches the farmers what he calls the five Ms: microorganisms, organic matter or compost, minerals, living molecules and fifth is grey matter or knowledge.

“They are developing this aspect even with children to help them to observe, analyze, invent and think,” Nolasco said.

At the end of each day during the harvest, coffee farmers bring thousands of bags filled with bright red beans to be weighed at the COMSA co-op. Right now the sun is down and people are lined up on a skinny dirt road in everything from rusty old pick-up trucks to small semi’s all filled with bags of coffee. 

Each farmer gets a receipt with the weight of that day’s harvest and goes home to rest before another day of harvesting.