Producers, baristas, roasters, consumers – whoever we are, we all want coffee farmers to be able to produce better quality coffee and receive better prices. But for producers, it’s not as easy as simply wanting to achieve this.
Ever Leonel Díaz Perez is the owner of Finca Milady in El Tunel La Palma, Chalatenango, in El Salvador. In 2015, his coffees sold for $2/lb – but now, they’re selling for over $10/lb through Project Origin: Best of El Salvador. He’s won this auction and awards ceremony two years in a row.
I wanted to ask him how he managed to see such a great increase in quality and income – and the answer is that it has been the hard work of 15 years.
Ever Leonel Díaz Perez’s coffee placed first in the Project Origin auction, Washed Category, two years in a row. Credits: Project Origin
Barriers to Producing Specialty Coffee
Ever started producing 15 years ago, and he’s always wanted to produce good-quality coffee – but it wasn’t until recently that his efforts paid off.
Many coffee producers have the persistence and commitment to produce specialty coffee, but they don’t always have the resources or know-how. Let’s look at coffee processing, for example. This is the removal of the coffee cherry fruit from the seeds (green coffee beans) and drying of those seeds.
There are several ways to process coffee: dry/natural, washed/wet, honey, pulped natural… They all have their own pros and cons. Many producers choose to washed process, however, because it tends to create consistently clean coffees. They often have high acidity, and highlight the quality of the beans.
However, washed processing requires more equipment than natural/dry processing, because it involves fermenting the cherries in tanks (huge concrete basins). Ever tells me that it wasn’t until last year that he built his first fermentation tank.
Now, Ever’s producing high-quality coffee and receiving good prices for it. But it took years of hard work. He tells me that you need to always look for expert opinions on your coffee to help you understand it. Even when you think you know enough, you should keep getting feedback.
“Sometimes, buyers tell you that your coffee scores 84 or 85, but you have to keep looking for opinions and asking experts to cup your coffee.” (Translated from Spanish to English by Angie Molina Ospina.)
Let’s take a look at how Ever continued to improve his coffee quality.
Ever Leonel Díaz Perez with Sasa Sestic (left) and Habib Maarbani (right) of Project Origin, as he is announced the winner of the Washed Category. Credit: Project Origin
Fair Payment and Stringent Processes
Ever knows that, as a farmer, producing good-quality coffee starts with picking and ends with transporting. And throughout this process, it’s the small details that really count.
If unripe or overly ripe coffee cherries are picked, it will affect the taste of the final cup. For this reason, Ever invests time and effort into teaching his workers about coffee cherry ripeness.
What’s more, he has found the drying phase to be key to ensuring quality in the final cup. He tells me that a slow and even drying of the coffee beans is important – something that is usually achieved by staff turning the beans as they dry. Ever adds that he has built raised beds; these keep cherries off potentially dirty patios and allow wind to circulate for a more even drying.
With good-quality labour key to farming success, labour shortages are a growing issue for producers. Ever tells me that, during the harvest, it is one of the biggest issues facing smallholder farmers. For this reason, he describes fair wages as crucial.
Throughout the year, he employs five people on his farm. Most of these are family members. He pays them US $8/day; according to Wage Indicator Foundation, the legal minimum wage for agricultural workers in El Salvador is US $3.94.
He also hires 15 coffee pickers during the harvest. The legal minimum wage for coffee pickers is US $4.30, but like the majority of farmers, Ever pays by the weight of cherries collected. (Read more about how this affects coffee pickers here.) It’s measured in arroba, with one arroba equal to 25lb in El Salvador.
Ever’s base rate is US $1.50/arroba, but he tells me that he paid US $2/arroba for his Pacamara crop this year. He later entered the crop in Project Origin: Best of El Salvador, where it was scored at 89.6 and bought for US $10.40/lb.
It’s important to control and preserve quality from the picking to the transporting and storage of the coffee. Credit: Project Origin
Auctions Provide Feedback & Marketing
In 2015, Ever’s coffee was being sold for US $2/lb. In 2016, through the Project Origin: Best of El Salvador auction, it sold for US $9.60. And in 2017, it has seen an increase again. In both these auctions, he won first place in the Washed Category.
Ever tells me that competing is the best way to get regular feedback from experts. He also assists in trainings offered by El Instituto Salvadoreño del Café for this reason.
A lack of communication with consumers and buyers can be a huge barrier for producers. Understanding the interest in their coffee is valuable. As well as providing feedback that is useful for improving, it is rewarding to learn of the people who are excited to drink – quite literally – the fruits of their labour.
Sasa Sestic of Project Origin adds that this goes both ways: to him, it is important for buyers to know about producers’ quality of life and the challenges they face in producing good coffee. Auctions and other events can make this dialogue possible.
Ever adds that Chalatenango, the region of El Salvador he is from, hasn’t always been known for producing quality coffee. He tells me that events have made a difference to this.
High-quality coffees on the cupping table at Project Origin: Best of El Salvador. Credit: Project Origin
The Future Holds New Opportunities
One of the great things about coffee is that there are always ways to further improve. When I ask Ever about this, he tells me that he is currently looking for new coffee varieties to grow. Different varieties offer different flavour profiles; they can also be suited to different altitudes and maybe even different processing methods.
To prepare, Ever explains that he is investing in land at higher altitudes – something normally associated with even better coffee quality.
In the past two years, Ever has seen a phenomenal increase in prices for his coffee. And his coffees have been cupped at 89.6 – an indicator of exceptional quality.
This didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took Ever 15 years to achieve these results. But he tells me that he now believes in the importance of being detailed-orientated, of getting feedback, and of having good processing practices for producing quality coffee. And he’s looking to continue it over the long term.
Please note: Project Origin is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind and was consulted in the creation of this article. They have received a courtesy copy of the article prior to publication but have exerted no editorial control over the final copy.
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