¡Hola mis amigos! My name is Abby Chapin and I am going to be a 5th-year senior in ME here at UofM. This summer, four other U-M engineering honors students and I participated in a two-week volunteer abroad trip to Guatemala. All of us (Erich Shan, CS; Utsav Lathia, CS; Marissa Martinelli, BME; Marina Engstrom, ME) were working together on coffee plantations learning about the process and taking a look into the daily lives of the farmers. We were partnered with De La Gente, (DLG), an organization that assists 5 co-op’s of farmers from all over Guatemala to give them the support and sustainability education they need to keep their businesses running and lucrative. We worked with the farmers of the San Miguel Escobar co-op. DLG wants to show that the farmers’ work is just as valuable as anyone else’s, and wants the farmers to be able to do more than just survive. DLG knows they can’t change the system that has been in Guatemala for 500 years, but at least the farmers they support know that there are people willing to do something about it. Being a farmer is not synonymous with being poor! No one in the world would be able to live without farmers! Since there is still a large dependency on coffee, people still want to be coffee farmers, but with more fair opportunities. No one wants to necessarily move away from coffee farming, but they just want the option to pursue other avenues. Over the years, coffee dependence has moved from a national to a local dependence, but these farmers do not want to stop farming. Their children are still learning about and participate in the process, but they also go to school. They aren’t leaving the farms or abandoning this family practice, they just want their hard work to be valued for what it is which would allow them to provide for their families.
We had a chance to work with multiple farmers and learn from them. Angel is a 3rd generation coffee farmer but the first generation to export his coffee globally to the US, Canada, Belize, and Europe. We practiced our Spanish while Angel practiced his English and shared with us his love of Adam Sandler movies, horror films, country music, and brain teasers. Contrary to Angel, Manuel’s English was much more limited and he was a fast talker. As we worked picking the “cherry beans” (the coffee fruits), we inquired about each other’s families, favorite activities, and learned more about the ins and outs of being a coffee farmer. Manuel is the current reigning champ of De La Gente’s annual coffee quality competition for the second year in a row. This means that DLG buys more of his product and, of course, he gets the bragging rights. Alfonzo is the son of Freddy who was a part of the original San Miguel Escobar coffee co-op back when it started 13 years ago and was called “As Green As It Gets”. Alfonzo works as a tour guide for DLG and takes tourists and volunteers on plantation tours and shares a bit of his family farming story with them. His young nephews enjoyed chatting with us, and we learned that even the littlest ones – like Marco, 3 years old – drink multiple cups of coffee every day! Miguel and his family were carrot farmers before transitioning to coffee. Carrot farming was common in the San Miguel Escobar area (“Carrots everywhere!” he exclaimed) rather than coffee farming because a) you needed an expensive permit to grow coffee and b) it was being sold for very cheap and wasn’t worth the amount of effort necessary. Timoteo is the Technical Assistance Coordinator at DLG and offers his many years of farming experience to DLG and shares his best practices with the partner co-ops. He has also been a part of the San Miguel Escobar co-op since its foundation. Estela is Alfonzo’s youngest sibling and only sister. She shared with us some of the interesting differences between American and Guatemalan dating culture. The overprotective father/brothers trope is very much a thing, and especially so in Estela’s case since she is the only girl and the youngest. She helps out on her father’s farm just as much as any of her brothers. Eduardo and Francisca were a baker and a meat vendor, respectively, before inheriting some land and transitioning to coffee farming. They also grow maize (go blue!!!) for personal consumption and are the nicest people on the planet. I am pretty sure Francisca became everyone’s abuelita on that day. Gregorio helped us sort more beans introduced us to his sons and his wife. They have a homemade soccer field on the blacktop in their backyard that Gregorio made – what a great dad.
Coffee farming is an intense process with a lot of steps. In May and June, the primary objective is to sort the dried beans from good and bad quality, but the whole year is busy. It takes about 3-5 years for a coffee plant to start producing cherry beans, and care for the baby plants is very time-intensive. They are super picky about how much sun and water they get all throughout their lives, which is why regional climate change does not have a positive effect on the farms. The main harvest for cherry beans is October through March and comes in waves. Since not all the fruits are ripe at the same time, the farmers go out for second and third harvest waves after the bumper crop. We were able to help out Manuel in his fields during the third harvest. Next, the beans must be dried. This can happen one of two ways depending on the type of coffee you are producing. The outer fruit, cascara (also makes great tea!), can either be removed prior to drying to create the washed variety of coffee, or be dried with the bean inside and removed afterward for the natural variety that is usually a bit sweeter. Once the beans have been dried, the café oro (golden beans) need to be sorted to remove the defective beans. The defects can bring down the quality of the coffee and, in some cases, make the coffee not meet certain aesthetic standards put in place by some buyers. There are professional coffee sorters hired by some farmers that can sort out 100 pounds of good beans per person in one 8 hour workday! Collectively, the 5 of us were only able to sort a maximum of 6 or 7 pounds after four hours. Those are some fast sorting ladies. Sorting was the majority of our volunteering time since April and May are when the coffee gets sorted, packaged, and shipped. Bean sorting is always very informative and personal since we are inside the farmer’s home interacting with their family and often get to share a coffee break together. After the beans have been sorted, the good ones are put into 100-pound bags and are ready to be packaged. Loading up the bags to take to the sorting facility is tough work but the 5 of us were able to get it done in no time. Though our daily impact may be small, it’s like building a house as one of our wise group members pointed out. We may, for example, only get through digging the foundation during our time as volunteers, but those who come after us and build on our work are able to make forward progress towards the end goal of a finished house. It’s all about looking at the bigger picture.
The beans that De La Gente sells to coffee shops in other countries get shipped out as “green coffee”, or unroasted. Then, each distributor or shop roasts it onsite for maximum freshness. De La Gente also sells coffee through their website (dlgcoffee.org) as roasted and ground in smaller batches for individual consumers. The San Miguel Escobar co-op has a rented space where they package and store their beans prior to exporting. There, the bags get weighed, filled, and stacked. Renting space in Guatemala is pretty expensive, so currently the San Miguel Escobar co-op is working on applying for a grant to be able to buy their own building. Some farmers, like Manuel, have formed relationships with exporters outside of De La Gente’s exporting operation, and with DLG’s help and guidance have been able to create their own self sustaining business. The bag pictured here is a partnership between Manuel and Coffeebar out on the West Coast. We got a chance to roast some of the beans we sorted at Miguel’s house the old fashioned way in a large flat metal plate/pan over a fire. They are then ground by hand before brewed into a cup of smooth deliciousness. After harvesting, the job is not over. The plants need to be watched and meticulously cared for to ensure another harvest the next year. The farmers monitor for pests, remove debris like leaves and plastic from around the base of the plant to deposit fertilizer and vitamin water, and clear away the shade trees to ensure maximum photosynthesis. We had the opportunity to try out the machetes for clearing trees and had a blast – the power kind of went to our heads. Safety first, as always, and everyone had on some kind of eye protection thanks to the safety goggles us ME’s have in our backpacks at all times.
After our time spent on the coffee farms we then went to enjoy some of the beautiful sights of Antigua! Everywhere is SO colorful, smells of amazing food, and is full of friendly people and cheap ice cream. Antigua was the original capital of Guatemala but after being virtually destroyed in 1773 by an earthquake, the capital was moved to Guatemala City. Since Antigua is regarded as a historical location, there are strict guidelines to how the buildings look that residents need to follow if they want to make any changes. In Central Park, there is a large beautiful fountain that many residents and vendors hang out near to relax or sell goods. Each street has beautifully colored buildings and unique cobblestone roads. The famous landmark of Antigua is the Santa Catalina Arch near the center of town. The view of the city from Cerro de la Cruz, and a short walking path near where we were living. On this day of exploring, there was a Mother’s Day fundraiser for new holiday robes for the Mary statue that resides in the church. There was a marimba band, mannequin dancers, and food vendors as far as the eye could see. For a few days, our trip coincided with the United Buddy Bears tour. There are 144 bears, one for each country in the UN, and the piece promotes tolerance and understanding among nations, cultures, and religions. The project began in 2002 in Berlin and has traveled across the globe; 32 exhibitions on 5 continents. Each bear was decorated to represent each country, can you guess which one this is?
I thought I would end this with all the fun new friends we made along the way. Surprisingly, the majority of our hostel was made of Michigan residents and even a few U-M nursing students! We all went on the Pacaya Volcano hike together and got to roast marshmallows in cavities where hot air escapes. It really worked and set them on fire if you left your marshmallow in there too long. At our Lake Atitlan excursion one weekend, we met up with the students on SHPE Abroad and spent time exploring Panajachel and enjoying the beach together. I’m grateful for all the experiences and opportunities I had while in Guatemala to enjoy the culture and learn about coffee farming, I hope you enjoyed taking a look into the adventure! ¡Hasta luego!