Guatemala Finca el Hato – Back from the brink (A lesson in progressive farming)

This summer we began to work with an exciting new producer in Guatemala as part of our sourcing program for the Market Blend. Choosing a new coffee and producer is often the result of many months of emails, Skype calls which usually culminates in a trip to origin, so off we went to Guatemala in the early part of this year.  

The ball began rolling on this particular project in November last year when Nadine Rasch of Third Wave Coffee Source presented us with some samples that she thought we may be interested in, it turns out we were. The greens were from her own family’s farm Finca el Hato in Barbarena, Fraijanes a little outside of Guatemala City.  

Finca el Hato is a staggeringly beautiful property. 400 hectares of lush green forest, well-manicured paths with an immaculately kept patio and its own wet mill.  What we saw at first glance belies many of the serious issues that this farm has faced (and largely overcome) over the past few years with the Roya epidemic which is sweeping through Central America and showing no signs of letting up.  


‘Finca el Hato is a staggeringly beautiful property. 400 hectares of lush green forest, well-manicured paths with an immaculately kept patio and its own wet mill.’

Christian Rasch, Nadine’s father and owner of the hillside property took the time to host us on his farm, cup with us and to point out first hand where the lots we were buying came from and also to display his work in managing the Roya onslaught. A charismatic and mischievous character, Christian delighted in telling stories of the farm’s crocodile infested swimming holes, wild leopard population and his Grandfather’s historic battles against the Guatemalan Communists in the 1950’s. In amongst this colourful history the story of the farm began to unfold and more importantly how its future is sketched out. 

Historically El Hato has produced mostly commercial grade coffee and production levels began falling lower and lower due to leaf rust.  Christian decided he had to do something radical to avoid financial ruin. In a bid to ensure the future prosperity and growth of the farm he made the risky and financially intensive move into specialty coffee production. Now, with the first crops beginning to produce good, consistent cherry the future is looking to be very promising indeed.  

3 Years ago Roya had all but destroyed the 1.5 million Bourbon trees that were planted at El Hato. Christian could see that the future of the farm and that of Guatemalan coffee was in quite serious jeopardy so enacted a dramatic and to date successful replanting of the property and a move away from the higher end of commercial coffee to specialty production exclusively. 

 

‘A charismatic and mischievous character, Christian delighted in telling stories of the farm’s crocodile infested swimming holes, wild leopard population and his Grandfather’s historic battles against the Guatemalan Communists in the 1950’s.’

 

The replanting has been spearheaded by Christian’s selection of Roya resistant varietals. He has taken his lead from South American producers who have had a degree of success in combatting the disease with hybrid varietals such as Icatu, Colombia, Catuai, Caturra and Castillo and now an intensive replanting of half a million tress per year is underway.  His work as Director of Board for the CQI and his lifetime of agricultural and agronomic experience has certainly paid dividends but the luck of geography was on his side too. 

Access to finance plays a key role in his ability to combat the spread of Roya and he was saddened when talking about other smallholder farmers’ abilities to replant their lower lying properties. It’s a risky business that requires large investment and often heavy long-term loans to make a reality. It is clear how serious the challenge is when the official line from Anacafe, Guatemalas National Coffee Board, is to replant with Robusta or even in cases of farms below 1100 Masl is to change crops entirely.

Finca el Hato is looking likely to weather the storm and the plan is to help and assist local smallholders by providing work for those nearby who are not in a position to finance a replanting project. Currently the farm has around 400 workers at peak season, who operate a system of selective picking. 

 ‘3 Years ago Roya had all but destroyed the 1.5 million Bourbon trees that were planted at El Hato.’ 

Live in Farm Manager Santos, uses a Brix meter to ascertain when the cherry is at its ripest and manages a systematic sweep through designated lots on the property. All cherry from the day’s pick is immediately washed at the onsite wet mill, fermented for 18 hours overnight before being spread onto large concrete patios to dry for 12 days and then rested before dry milling. The onsite dry mill at El Hato is capable of milling up to two containers per day and is a hub for local smallholders who are all able to utelise the mill for their needs. The remaining parchment is used as fuel to power the mill and once upon a time the large mechanical dryer was needed to handle much larger commercial volumes.

Christian and Nadines progressive response to the serious issue of Roya is inspiring to see and may well have saved Finca el Hato. We feel extremely proud to have partnered with the Rasch’s on this project and look forward to future visits and to cup their delicious coffee.


By Sam Langdon