Leaf Rust Exchange
By Casey Blanche
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leaf Rust Exchange event held in Marcala Honduras from January 10th though the 14th, 2014. The event was hosted by CoopCoffees and COMSA coffee cooperative. This posting documents the event and my experiences at each portion.
We flew precariously close to the mountains and descended towards one of the world’s most dangerous airports, Tegucigalpa. As we hovered over the city, passengers on the left side of the plane remarked that we were passing up our landing strip. Suddenly the plane jerked to the left. With the wingtip hovering what seemed to be inches above the ground, I closed my eyes for what could be a final prayer. The plane landed with an immediate thud and screeched to a halt at the edge of the runway. Passengers clapped, thankful to still be alive. Welcome to Honduras, murder capital of the world! I passed though customs and saw the friendly face of a fellow roaster from Kentucky. We waited for other attendees to arrive then headed by bus to an American style shopping mall for food. Tegucigalpa appeared to be a developed and clean city, despite its reputation. Police were ever present and armed to the teeth with AK-47s. We boarded the bus again for a wild ride to our hotel in Marcala. We drove up winding roads, through dense fog and darkness, to an altitude of roughly 4,500 feet. We arrived at hotel Finca Rosael, had an incredible meal consisting of a plethora of assorted meats, and went to our rooms to prepare for the next day.
After waking to the sound of roosters crowing, I stumbled to a cold shower, and then followed the smell of breakfast cooking though the hotel grounds. Finca Rosael was amazing. There were turkeys, rabbits, geese, ducks and even some kind of civet cat or badger that kept trying to bite me. COMSA and CoopCoffees gathered all participants together for a formal welcome and introduction to the event. Each producer representative and roaster had their time to introduce themselves to the group. We all boarded busses and headed to Finca La Colmena, a biodynamic farm located at 4,600 feet. The farm was 3 1/2 hectares and contained 2,000 coffee plants consisting of the cultivars catuai, ihcafe 90, and the variety pacas. Farmers gave a demonstration and an overview of their operation. We were told that the farmers grow coffee using biodynamic/organic agricultural methods. The farm also grows cocao, fruit and vegetables. We were then given a fermented beverage to drink, I would late regret this moment immensely, and were led through the farm. A representative stated that they had run into problems with coffee rust but used horsetail plant and a mixture of lime, copper, sulfur and ash to combat rust. The mixture is boiled and then sprayed to the underside of leaves. The representative led us up a hill to a sugarcane press where he stated, with a straight face, that they talked to the plants because they have a life force, just like humans. “Plants can hear us, but they just can’t talk back”, he said. Who knew? We took turns pressing sugarcane, drinking, and then eating a fabulous organic meal together. The group boarded busses and were transported to the COMSA technical station. At the station, demonstrations were given regarding minerals, compost, micro-organisms, and biogas. COMSA began as a group of 50 farmer members in 2001 and has spread to over 800 members today. In 2006 the coop. began experimenting with micro-organisms, in 2010 with minerals and in 2013 with brain power to put together a program to combat coffee rust. The technical station was over 80 hectares in size and included a sarchimor nursery. Scientists demonstrated how to create mixtures of components to combat rust and improve the soil. At this point I realized that the drink I had consumed earlier was in fact fermented compost and minerals! Hey, at least it was aged 11 years; I’m a classy guy after all. The scientist demonstrated two of his secret concoctions; the first was called plant Viagra and consisted of: 10# lime, 20# sulfur, 8# minerals, 8# ash, all boiled together in 60 liters of water for thirty minutes. The mixture was then cooled and stored in an airtight container in the shade. Plant Viagra can be applied by spraying the bottoms of plant leaves twice a year. Another mixture can be applied to the soil every two months: 20% hen manure, 20% parchment, 20% minerals, 5% micro-organisms, 5% honey water from fermentation, and 30% coffee pulp. The scientist also stated that three liters of honey water could be given to each tree three times a month. Scientist fielding questions wore shirts that read: With piss and shit it’s impossible to lose a harvest! Now bear with me because it’s about to get stranger. One scientist stated that every plant has an aura, every aura has a color and if a plant has a sick aura it can be cured by giving it an item of an opposite color. For instance, if a plant is suffering from rust and has an orange aura, you could put something blue in the soil near the plant and it would make it better. The COMSA group also follows the cycles of the moon in application of sprays and fertilizer. I wonder if they have any good spells. It was getting dark, so busses rushed us to our final destination that day, the farm of Oscar Omar. Oscar was a very proud and intense man who purchased his farm in roughly 2008 as an attempt to right his life after an intense drinking spell. He named the farm Qual Bicycle, meaning that one should always be balanced, on track, and moving forward. The farm was located at 4,900 feet. The majority of plants grown were catuai, red and yellow varieties, with a small amount of gesha. Although Oscar’s plants were tightly packed in rows as in Brazil, he has suffered no major damage from rust or Ojo de Gallo, a fungus that attacks the tops of leaves. All of his neighbor’s farms have been destroyed. He attributes his success, apart from hard work, to a spray mixture of tea, kiwi, melon and plantains. Each plant is surrounded by 10# of compost that included coconut husks and a COMSA micro-organism slurry. We enjoyed amazing taco’s at Oscar’s home; I had three servings, and left for our hotel. As soon as we arrived at Finca Rosael the region’s power went out. We enjoyed drinks and reflected about our day over a candle lit beer, then followed a moon lit path to our rooms.
After breakfast as usual, the civet creature was back and feisty as ever, the group gathered for a Leaf Rust Exchange Roundtable discussion. There, farmer representatives discussed their problems and strategies for fighting coffee leaf rust. Some farmers decided to plant hybrid Robusta/Arabica cultivars, others turned to chemical solutions. The solutions to the problem were as diverse as the group. As a result of the meeting, some farmers decided to double down and ride out the epidemic using organic farming methods, others decided to give up coffee completely and switch to other crops. Despite different approaches, everyone was happy to be part of something bigger, a movement to spread organic agriculture and the improvement of producer’s livelihoods. After the discussion we all headed to a local market run by the COMSA group and had lunch. There were dancers and a band that welcomed us. City folk mingled with foreigners with differing results. After lunch we returned to the hotel and prepared ourselves for a tour of the COMSA wet processing plant. The plant was huge, let me tell you. It is capable of processing up to 35,000 pounds of coffee cherries per day. That’s about 20,000 pounds of coffee in parchment. Four eco-pulpers strip beans of their exocarp and mucilage. Coffee in parchment is then diverted to one of at least 12 vats for fermentation. It was explained that fermentation takes up to 48 hours but changes depending on the season and temperature. To speed up fermentation, COMSA’s special M&M mixture can be added. To slow fermentation, water can be added. We headed back to the hotel and I began to take ill. I awoke cold and sweaty and threw on some pants and a winter coat I had brought with me from Wisconsin. There was nothing I could do to stay warm. At this point for me, my participation in the event stopped due to a bad case of Montezuma’s Revenge- should have gone with the 12 year old compost, definitely.
This day was dedicated by the CoopCoffees group to rallying support for the Roya proposal and tying together all parts of the event. They Roya fund involves raising five cents per pound of coffee sold and giving it to farmers suffering from rust fungus. A cupping of rust resistant strains of coffee was also conducted, the findings of which I am eager to hear but not optimistic about. Price of production and green bean costs for roasters was discussed along with quality, proper coffee brewing and marketing trends.
The group departed the amazing Hotel Finca Rosael in Marcala and headed for the airport in Tegucigalpa for their long journeys back home. The majority of roasters traveled together and with a sense of comradery, helped each other through the check in process. Many of us fell to Montezuma on the trip, but I was hit the worst and thanked God that they were there for me. Surely this will have been an event that everyone cherishes and remembers forever, an event that changes the tide in the fight against Roya by arming farmers with the tools they need win the fight. I am honored to have been able to take part in this historic event.