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Travelling to COMSA in Honduras

In February of 2014 I had the opportunity to visit the small-scale coffee farmers that collectively own Café Orgánico Marcala (COMSA), a producer association in central Honduras.  We had purchased a large quantity of COMSA coffee during the 2013 harvest and were sufficiently impressed with it to warrant a visit at the tail end of the 2014 harvest.  The aim was to learn more about the coop and to fully explore the potential for unique, high quality coffee in Marcala.  In just a few days with the group we discovered a torrent of producer-driven development activities, the culmination of which can be described as socially and economically revolutionary for the community.

The landscape of Marcala, Honduras with El Salvador in the distance.The landscape of Marcala, Honduras with El Salvador in the distance

A typical visit to a coffee cooperative will involve a review of the member-service projects either previously implemented or planned for the future -- a new computer lab, a nursery for young coffee plants or perhaps collaboration based improvements to health and educational services in the community.  All of these are important services and they are generally the signs of successful "small holder aggregation" -- the organization of small coffee producers into cooperatives or unions to take advantage of their collective ability to accomplish much more than they could independently.  The basic idea of the small producer cooperative is sound and has been shown to afford meaningful benefits to small producers the world over.   The people of Marcala have taken this basic recipe for rural development and added their own special blend of industriousness, entrepreneurship,  creativity, smarts and collaboration along with considerable respect for each other,  the land and future generations in order to put on a master class in rural community development.  What follows is just a glimpse of what they are up to, starting this week with their achievements in organic farming.

COMSA agronomist and member Neri on his farm

Legends of Organic Coffee Farming: Oscar Omar Alonzo and Dilcia Bautista.

Coffee is conventionally produced neither with regard for the long term health of the environment nor for the taste of the end product.  This was the case not too long ago in Marcala - the object was to yield as much coffee as possible and sell it as a generic commodity at the prevailing international price.  Toxic chemicals were commonplace and expensive fertilizers had to be purchased, making producers vulnerable to price fluctuations and the availability of credit, not to mention the associated health hazards. Part of COMSA's mission has been the conversion of Marcala's farming to organic.  This involves a complete shift in focus for the farmer – careful shade tree selection and pruning,  pest and disease control by way of harnessing biodiversity, and the maintenance of soil fertility through the application of natural fertilizers. Oscar Omar Alonzo is now an all-star organic coffee grower with extraordinary yields and sought after quality.  He transitioned to organic coffee a number of years ago and was almost destroyed by the effort.  Yields always drop in the transition to organic before rebounding and often exceeding conventional yields.  Oscar Omar's yields dropped dramatically (reportedly by 90%) and left him in a grave situation.  One morning,  the story goes, he woke up and thought "¡Cual bicicleta!" ("Which bicycle?" -- an expression roughly translated as "what the heck!", I'm told).  He set to work,  fully applying himself to his coffee.  Along with support from COMSA, he now has the highest yields in the coop and Finca Cual Bicicleta coffee is now found as close as the local Marcala cafe owned by COMSA associate Nancy Hernandez to as far afield as roasteries in the United States and Germany. 

Oscar Omar Alonzo

Dilcia Bautista is another celebrated farmer in COMSA community.  She operates a ‘model farm’ set up for visitors both from Marcala and from cooperatives elsewhere in the world to visit to learn about the techniques used to get the most out of an organic coffee farm. 

One of the most interesting and effective techniques being deployed across Marcala is the use of ‘mountain microorganisms’ – the collection of beneficial soil microorganisms from around the farm and the cultivation of them in an organic medium composed of molasses, coffee pulp and various minerals found in the area.  These “MM’s” are cultured in large barrels and are use to inoculate the soil around coffee trees, greatly improving the nutrition available to the plants.  This technique, developed in Japan in the 1980s, is slowly being adopted by cooperatives in Latin America but I have never seen it used so prolifically.  Every small farm has several barrels of MM’s on the go.

M&Ms at the “Corner of Knowledge” on Dilcia’s farm 

The advantages of the MM’s reach beyond adding tremendously to soil nutrition.  A surprise during this visit was the recipes have been developed for MM’s for human consumption – what is good for the soil is also good for us!  Many of the farmers put a ‘shot’ of microorganisms into a glass of sugar cane juice (also made on the farm) three times a day.  Consistent with the theory that a healthy gut means a healthy mind and body, the farmers all reported significant improvements in health and wellbeing after they started drinking MM’s. 

The giant “1 horsepower” sugar cane juicer on Dilcia’s farm

Other projects on display at Dilcia’s farm include earthworm farms (for soil fertility), honey bee colonies (for pollination, food and for sale) and the raising of pigs, cattle and chicken (for food, sale and most importantly for manure).  The combined impact of these efforts has been increases in yields and reductions in costs as all of the resources are found and made on the farm.  They have also helped the community be more resilient to the recent outbreak of ‘Roya’ fungus that has wreaked havoc on certain susceptible varieties of coffee throughout Central America.  The operating theory in Marcala is that healthy, robust coffee trees will resist the Roya and survive the outbreak.  While the fungus has still been a major problem, some farms have managed to avoid devastation through the clever and industrious application of organic techniques.

Healthy coffee trees (left) and a Roya damaged tree (right)

In the next post I’ll tell the story of how the members of COMSA are thriving even as the Roya outbreak wreaks havoc on their farms through impressive crop diversification and gender equality programming.

- Ian Clark, Director of Coffee for Bridgehead

Posted in: Coffee & Roasting

February 21, 2014

  • Great story! Thanks for taking us there.

    Posted by Marty Mellway on February 22, 2014

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