My wife, Mayra Orellana-Powell, is a coffee professional. That means she earns a regular paycheck working in the coffee industry. But what it really means is that Mayra’s relationship to coffee has been a constant throughout her entire life. Her ambitions go far beyond that paycheck.
She was born and raised in a rural community where families living in perpetual poverty have struggled for generations to cultivate coffee for a living. But she has also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where her community’s coffee is now served in some of the world’s finest cafés.
The contrast between these two places has shaped Mayra’s professional journey. She knows there are inequities, but envisions an industry committed to transforming poverty into prosperity for small coffee farmers.
Here’s how her experiences have turned her into a coffee professional – and what that really means.
Mayra cups coffee with coworkers in Emeryville, California. Credit: Sarah Gerber
Growing Up With Coffee
Santa Elena, Honduras is a sparsely populated mountainous region in the most southern corner of La Paz on the border of El Salvador. It’s where Mayra was born and raised, and it’s where I met her as a Peace Corps volunteer.
When Mayra was a small child, Santa Elena’s population doubled instantly. The reason? The arrival of international military personnel. They were there to observe the Salvadoran Civil War unfolding just a few miles away. While people in Santa Elena didn’t suffer like the population of El Salvador, the proximity to extreme violence left scars. Being startled from bed by the percussion of bombs was common. People in Santa Elena rarely share their own accounts of these times with outsiders; the trauma is still felt.
Despite these traumas, Mayra also has fond memories of waking up early every morning to start the wood-fired stove, boil water, prepare coffee, and take a cup to her grandfather. During the coffee harvest, her entire extended family would relocate to the farms, moving from one family plot to the next to pick the cherries. Mayra picked coffee shoulder-to-shoulder with her cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The work bonded them; their common goal was to earn a livelihood.
Cultivating Coffee in Santa Elena
Even if you have strong family bonds, like Mayra, there are many obstacles to earning a livelihood through cultivating coffee in Santa Elena.
Having land in an optimal growing climate is essential. Fortunately, most of Santa Elena has the perfect elevation (between 1,300 and 1,800 meters), fertile and mineral-rich soil, and mild year-round temperatures. These conditions allow the cherries to develop slowly. In turn, this means the coffee beans are dense and full of flavor characteristics influenced by the terroir.
Most small farmers in Santa Elena only have a few hectares of land to cultivate coffee. This is typically because the land has been split and passed on through inheritance. Mayra and most of her cousins have small inherited parcels that their grandparents originally planted nearly 100 years ago.
The Challenges Coffee Farmers Must Overcome
However, finding these legacy coffee plants (usually the Typica varietal) has become rare in the last few years. The fungal disease leaf rust (la Roya) easily attacks and kills these older heirloom plants.
Even if you are lucky enough to have a small parcel of the land, with plants free of leaf rust, there are financial obstacles. Coffee plants are at their most productive for about 20 years, but newly planted coffee trees take three or four years of development before producing cherries. There’s also the annual cost of maintaining the farm. And then there’s the cost associated with harvesting and exporting the coffee.
Many small farmers in Santa Elena do not have the money to plant new coffee, or fertilize the coffee, or pay for labor to pick the coffee, or build the wet mill to depulp and ferment the coffee, or build patios and tables to dry the coffee, or pay for dehulling and sorting the coffee for export.
Instead, most small farmers in Santa Elena have to pick a small quantity of cherries from old, uncared for plants and sell it as fast as they can to the guy who has a truck. They do so for whatever price he offers; they have no other choice. Santa Elena is far from most of the cooperatives that can offer financing, fair trade prices for the cherry, and access to processing equipment.
Selling coffee in the international market also has many obstacles. Coffee’s international commodity market (the C market) fluctuates unpredictably, often valuing coffee below the cost of production. And there’s also a complex array of logistics involved in transporting coffee to the importers or roasters.
Santa Elena. Credit: Fredy Caballero
Producer to Exporter to Importer
Mayra doesn’t just know these facts. She’s lived them. That leaves her determined to help her family and friends overcome these obstacles. And so after we married and moved to California, she started a company called Catracha Coffee (catracha is Spanish slang for Honduran woman).
Mayra learned fast that the coffee supply chain has many indispensable players. Catracha Coffee could not have overcome all of these obstacles without commitments from a kind-hearted coffee roaster in Oakland, California, willing to pay premium prices for coffee; a big Bay Area coffee importer not too big to help small coffee farmers; and an established coffee cooperative in Honduras willing to mill and export the coffee.
With the help of all these players and a community of small coffee farmers who believed in Mayra, Catracha Coffee has exported coffee to the United States for the last five years. This coffee has been served in some of the finest cafés in California and beyond. And Santa Elena farmers have earned significantly better prices for their coffee. This contributes to the long-term possibility of a more prosperous livelihood.
Mayra created Catracha Coffee to open a door for small farmers in Santa Elena, and then Catracha Coffee opened a door for Mayra. That big importer not too big to help Catracha Coffee hired her to be its marketing and outreach director.
This importer has been building relationships with farmers from around the world for nearly four decades. Now Mayra’s job is to increase connections between all of these coffee farmers and roasters in the same way that she connected the farmers in Santa Elena with roasters.
Catracha Producer meeting in Santa Elena. Credit: Eva Vasquez
Small Farms, International Issues
Mayra knows that many small farmers around the world share the same struggles. The kind of devastation suffered in El Salvador during that decade-long civil war has also unfolded in other coffee-growing regions. But today, in many of these places, you can see the process of recovery through coffee.
In Sumatra, Indonesia, one coffee cooperative consists mostly of widows. They lost their husbands during violent conflict with the central government. However, these women are well-organized and use their earnings from successful coffee exports to invest robustly in education and healthcare.
In Colombia, decades of armed conflict displaced many families from their farms. Now historically violent regions of Colombia like Tolima are hosting their own cupping competitions – and attracting coffee buyers from around the world.
In Burundi, one family relocated from the United States several years ago. Now they help build flourishing coffee export relationships for small farmers. But still, growing political unrest threatens those farmers’ security.
What It Really Means to Be a Coffee Professional
Coffee professionals like Mayra know the details of all these examples – and many other similar ones. They know more stories like these emerge every single day. Using their positions to spread awareness helps ensure future prosperity across the entire supply chain. These are the stories that roasters and baristas can share with consumers like me and you.
Being married to a coffee professional has made me realize what their job entails. It has led to me understanding the realities of coffee farming. And it has enriched my love for coffee in ways that go far beyond taste.
We can’t all be married to a coffee professional. However, you can certainly find a café where the folks are willing to share their wonderful knowledge with you. And you’ll know that your tasty cup of coffee has the potential to change the world.
Perfect Daily Grind
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