Finca Filidelfia- Coffee Farming in Guatemala

January 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finca Filidelfia was an unexpected highlight to me and my sweetie pie’s honeymoon to Antigua, Guatemala last summer. My favorite part, actually. So I figured, what better way to celebrate such an essential part of my creative process (coffee) than to share with you what I learned from this amazing place. Brace yourself, because this is a big, long post.

Finca Filidelphia has been a coffee plantation since 1874, part of a plan to bring the region out of economic hardship at the time. I think before then it was avocados. It sits about 20 minutes outside of Antigua.

Just Birds of Paradise… as a foundation plant…. no biggie.

One thing that surprised me is this whole ta-do about ‘shade grown.’ Turns out it doesn’t mean anything important. Arabica coffee plants (except new engineered varieties) need shade to optimize production. So any farmer wanting to produce the most coffee berries is going to grow their coffee in some shade. How that shade is achieved is where farms differ. And there’s really no ‘shade grown’ certification or stamp of approval to determine which is which.

Some smaller or family run farms can plant coffee into existing forests, preserving the native trees, understory, and multitude of other plants and epiphytes living there. The benefit of this is that it is low-cost for the producer, habitat is most preserved, water use and pesticide needs are minimized, and erosion is minimized because trees aren’t removed. Coffee grown in these situations can be certified ‘Bird Friendly’  The downside is that coffee berry yields are lower because the shade is too dense. Production oriented larger farms clear out the existing forest, and plant trees that can be managed easily to give the coffee plants the optimal light levels. The bummer here is that part of the forest is clear-cut which would lead to erosion. Non-native trees are brought in, and there is the potential for more water use and possibly pesticides/ fungicides. Once matured, these plantations can provide some habitat. The non-shade grown use no trees and is typically high in water and pesticide use, low in habitat viability. These are usually robusta trees instead of arabica bushes.

Filidelfia includes coffee fields in dense forests on the accessible-by-foot hillsides, and managed non-native canopy coffee fields in the more accessible valleys. The trees are from Australia and can take a heavy pruning to achieve the optimum canopy cover percentage. The wood from the trees are sold as firewood and the clippings and branches cover the coffee fields in a rich, thick layer of duff- an excellent mulch. With this much thick duff on the ground. Filidelfia only has to water for a very short period in the hottest months, and doesn’t use pesticides/fungicides. Yay.

And you thought this post wasn’t flower related. Here’s a coffee flower.

That ONE coffee berry is almost ready for picking. Coffee picking is CR-AZY. All arabica plants are hand-picked. As if that weren’t difficult enough, the berries aren’t mature at the same time and each individual berry has to be carefully removed from its tiny petiole, the little branch attaching the berry to the main branch. If this little guy isn’t still attached to the branch once the berry is removed, it will no longer produce berries. Ever. So imagine a coffee berry picker wants to fill their baskets fast (they are paid by weight) and strips all the berries off in one swipe… dead coffee bush. For this reason, the same berry pickers are typically hired year after year. Here they are mainly women since the fellas go off to harvest sugar cane near the coast. The ladies bring their kids, the kids learn to correctly harvest the berries, and they often take over for their parents.

Here’s the inside of a coffee berry. Apparently I had a freak berry (figures) that had three beans. Usually they have two.

The protective casing or parchment of the bean is sweet.

Arabica bushes are finicky and susceptible to rot. Here is where they graft arabica beans onto hardier robusta root stock to make for some stronger plants.

This process is amazingly low tech. I thought grafting necessitated lab coats and furrowed eyebrows…

…but the process only involves a deft, razor-wielding woman and wax.

Here are the arabica bushes with the severely hacked Australian canopy tree. Guatemala is especially well suited to grow good coffee given its elevation, climate, and super rich, volcanic soil. This wood is piled by the road and carted off by truck, or on foot to be sold.

Tillandsia!

Avocados! Did you know there are over 20 different varieties of avocado?

Here’s where the beans go to dry.

Grey beans ready to roast.

Here are three sizes of beans. Before roasting, the beans are sorted. The middle bean is just right, and the other beans are either tossed, or sold cheap. Remember the three beans that were in my berry? Only the one bigger one would have been allowed into this farm’s cup of coffee. If the beans are all about the same size, that ensures that they will all roast consistently, so some won’t impart an over or under-roasted flavor.

This is where beans go to roast.

My Americano. Muy rico.

And here’s a window with a wheel in it. Neato.

And a happy canna. One that probably doesn’t turn to black smoosh in the winter like it does up here.

So in summary, shade-grown schmade grown and go to Antigua, Guatemala.

Here’s some more info on shade grown coffee from Wikipedia

Shade-grown coffee – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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