Visiting an Organic Coffee Plantation in Nicaragua

Visiting an Organic Coffee Plantation in Nicaragua

By Matthew Kadey

A boy in Nicaragua picking coffee - photos by Matthew Kadey
A boy in Nicaragua picking coffee – photos by Matthew Kadey

“It was something good to do after I got better.” Slumped back in his white plastic chair perched on a ramshackle porch, seventy three year old Aristedes Zeledon explains his simple motivation for building a quaint church for the local farmer’s families.

With an air of avuncular kindliness, his stories of such community benevolence along with his ardent opinions pertaining to family, the country’s history of bloodshed and recent illnesses makes me — along with a delegation from Counter Culture, a North Carolina coffee roaster — brush off the chomping bugs and searing high noon heat.

Two dominant traits that emerge from his anecdotes are a fervent drive and hope. And there’s a good reason why Aristedes exudes such resoluteness – he is a Nicaraguan organic fair trade coffee farmer.

Aristedes, nestled in the mountainous fecund Samulali region of Nicaragua, is among a growing number of northern small-scale coffee farmers who are becoming affiliated with The Organization of Northern Cooperatives, or CECOCAFEN, in order to obtain a higher price (“fairer price,” in Zeledon’s parlance) for their coffee beans.

As he guides us through his half-hectare (1.2-acre) farm we pass by aging equipment guarded diligently by a boisterous black canine. Standing tall with pride dressed in his best collared Sunday shirt under a row of hand-planted, shade-giving cedars, he professes the benefits he has received in the last three years with CECOCAFEN.

“Before fair trade, I had to sell most of my organic beans at conventional prices,” claims Aristedes through the aid of an interpreter. “I could not afford to keep my farm running the way it deserves.”

Aristedes Zeledon
Aristedes Zeledon

It seems as though his fortunes could have easily come to a calamitous end. But a prominent smile on his round, trustworthy face is a dead give-away that things are much better now.

Escaping the Big Chill

The events that had brought me to this coffee farm in Central America’s largest country were set in motion several months earlier. As a professional scribbler, I had penned a piece about the social, economic and environmental benefits of fair trade agriculture.

Researching this article peaked my interest in what seemed like a win-win situation for consumers and farmers alike. I agree to fork over a slight premium for my daybreak java so farmers and their families can afford the basic creature comforts of life like health care and a roof that won’t leak during suppertime.

Taking the plunge
Taking the plunge

And in return, farmers agree to adhere to strict ecological growing methods that will produce a superior tasting brew.

With another numbing Canadian winter fast approaching that I would normally endure with general melancholy, I became increasingly interested in seeking out warmer climes. A quick Google and a few email confabs, and I learned that there was a new tourism program afoot among several of Nicaragua’s fair trade coffee communities.

Before you could say gringo, I accepted with alacrity an invitation to come on down leaving the big chill behind. Soon I was airborne over towering volcanoes on my way to a country that is most interested in replacing strife with tourism.

Children of coffee farmers
Children of coffee farmers

“We put visitors in direct contact with the faces, voices and culture of the farmers who produce their coffee,” says Felicity Butler, a British-born co-coordinator of the rural and community based tourism project at CECOCAFEN.

On what I have been promised is an atypical damp and dreary January morning, she is sitting down with me at the modest CECOCAFEN headquarters in Matagalpa giving me the scoop on their recent venture into agro eco-tourism: an endeavor that affords those from the overdeveloped world the rare opportunity to learn about the agricultural skills necessary to produce coffee, to participate in this coffee production and to sleep and gourmandize in the farmer’s homes. Not to mention plenty of opportunities to tramp in the communities’ verdant countryside.

Consumers from the north have traditionally stood aloof from producers in the south. Felicity and the farmers represented by CECOCAFEN hope this unique type of tourism can help change that. Felicity says brightly, “You’re in for first-class hospitality.”

Making tortillas
Making tortillas

A Rough Ride

A dilapidated mountain road leads to La Carona, a fair trade community set among romantic views of flourishing coffee-draped mountains leaping upward to grab hold of the cerulean sky.

The bus is filled with a dozen or so boisterous students from Massachusetts Bridgewater State College guided by James Hayes-Bohanan, a burley bearded mild-mannered geography professor who, for the last couple of Januarys, has brought his students to Nicaragua’s northern fringes to learn about the positive impacts of trading equitably.

“They may not know it now, but by the end of this trip these guys will have a much greater appreciation for where their morning cup o’ joe comes from,” James yelps as a thundering drop into a doozer of a pothole sends our noodles disturbingly close to the roof.

Happy to have two feet firmly placed on the ground, La Carona initially strikes me as a hodgepodge of activity. Wide-eyed kids scamper about, a group of women are busy preparing our mid-day repast and in the background a stalwart man stands atop a foliated hill manually de-pulping freshly harvested coffee cherries. The unsullied air has become malodorous with their aroma.

As I snap a few photos of a seasoned farmer and his dignified cowboy hat, it’s clear he is embarrassed to be the subject of my fuss.

But there’s little time for photography or to even catch my bearings as our community guide Alfredo Rayo promptly whisks us into the coffee fields. The weather is looking bad as rain spits from lowering clouds. Alfredo is a twenty-something seemingly ubiquitous svelte Nicaraguan youth who is among a growing number of men in his age bracket who are being trained to foster tourists’ understanding of organic fair trade coffee farming.

As the rain begins to fall in diaphanous sheets and biting ants wage war on my defenseless feet, an undeterred Alfredo carries on dishing out fascinating tidbits of information pertaining to the complexities of growing quality coffee in harmony with Mother Nature.