Guatemala Harvest Update (Post-harvest 2020)

Evaluating several cups of coffee through cup testing and inspecting the physical quality of the roasted coffee beans.
Evaluating several cups of coffee through cup testing and inspecting the physical quality of the roasted coffee beans.

A final trip for Dan before the Covid-19 Pandemic hit, and travel restrictions came into effect.

When I returned from my Guatemala trip in early March, I had no idea it would be my last origin trip for the foreseeable future. The parting words of the woman who rented me the apartment in Antigua were, “be careful back home”, and I recall thinking, “why”? COVID-19 was in the news, but hadn’t really hit the states yet, or so we thought. We were a few weeks away from finding out just how widespread the virus really was, and a lockdown seemed unfathomable.

Thankfully for Guatemalan coffee farmers, the crisis didn’t hit the country until near the end of the harvest. Most of the coffee was already picked by the time curfews and social distancing regulations went into effect, movement around the country wasn’t so limited. Now you need a permit to be on the road, and like many other countries, the movement of goods inside and outside of Guatemala has become a bit trickier, but thankfully, not impossible.

Parchment coffee
Coffee parchment drying on raised beds at Rosma, wet-processing
Our Guatemala Harvest Update

Our one and only Guatemala trip this year yielded a couple containers of coffee (1 container=approx. 40k lbs) – a little less than half our annual volume. The rest of our selections had to be handled by sharing samples through the mail, which turned out to be really quite efficient. There’s certainly a benefit to cupping samples at origin, especially in Guatemala, where coffee lab employees churn out table after table of coffee with relative ease. Even so, our Guatemala coffee relationships are some of our oldest, and a well-understood project on both sides makes working around any kinks in the normal process surprisingly easy.

Villatoro family
Aler and others near their drying parchment coffee not far from the town of El Injerto, Huehuetenango

Yesterday, I caught up with the two exporters who help make our Huehuetenango and Antigua buying projects so successful. They updated me on how the new regulations in response to the Pandemic have changed their day-to-day and are impacting the start of pre-harvest preparation. Both are very positive about how things are moving along at the moment, but are also understandably cautious about what the uncertain future may bring.

In Huehuetenango, most small-holders we buy from were able to finish out the harvest and deliver their final pickings. The mill in Huehue town is operating on limited hours, but has managed to turn around coffee in a timely manner while maintaining full milling capacity.

Fredy Morales shows us honey process coffee in his greenhouse near Huehuetenango town.

Our volume is more heavily weighted in “Proyecto Xinabajul” coffees this year, a goal we set at the beginning of the harvest season and able to achieve without issue. Deliveries from the rural highland areas were only slightly delayed by sporadic road closures. Despite the delays, we are receiving Huehuetenango coffees before Antigua for the first time this year, and a full month earlier than any Guatemala in 2019.

In Antigua, there are tight restrictions around who can be on the road. Since coffee exporters are deemed “essential”, most coffee exporters have permits to travel locally. The one we work with are providing their own bus service to and from the farms and mill for workers. Worksite safety measures include mandatory distancing, age limits on who can work, daily temperature checks, setting up sanitation stations on the farms and at the mill, operating with a lower number of employees and limiting work hours to 6am – 3pm Monday through Friday only. Through it all, the mill continues to operate, albeit at a somewhat slower clip.

Just because the harvest is over, doesn’t mean the work is complete. Now it’s time to prepare for the next season. This means a lot of pruning, planting new coffee shrubs and stumping others, enriching the soil with fertilizer and much, much more. None of this work is mechanized and a lot of manual labor is needed.

jabez burns 3 barrel sample roaster near guatemala city

Small farmers in the rural areas like Huehuetenango use family and local community for most of this work, rather than outside, migrant workers. A similar story rings true in Antigua as well, and in fact, they’ve managed to keep every single one of their employees. A reliance on a local workforce means they are spared the strains of a migrant worker shortage that many neighboring coffee-producing countries are facing with borders being closed across Central America.

From a buying perspective, this year went off without much of a hitch considering the situation with COVID-19 and stay at home order. Much of this success can be linked to the timing of the lockdown in Guatemala. Sure, it prevented us from making multiple trips to the region to visit with the farmers and intermediaries we work with. But we still managed to assess more individual samples than most any other country we buy from thanks to our incredibly well-organized Guatemalan partners.

Be on the lookout for our first new arrivals from Huehuetenango by the end of June.

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