La Perla de Oaxaca Organic Mexico
- July 2017
- Written by : Michael Sheridan
Director of Sourcing and Shared Value / Green Coffee Buyer
The Sierra Mixteca is a rugged mountain range in the northwestern part of the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. There is a rustic splendor and quiet majesty to the coffeelands there, where aging groves of Bourbon, Typica and Pluma--selection of Typica endemic to Oaxaca--grow in the shade of forests that teem with biodiversity and hold the line on conservation in an era of accelerated climate change. There is a kind of serenity in walking through the coffee fields of the Mixteca that belies the quiet revolution taking place there.
My Grandfather's Coffee
Almost 10 years ago, I started working on a project with smallholder coffee growers across Mesoamerica. As the project got underway, we collected baseline data from thousands of small family farms from southern Mexico to northern Nicaragua and countless places in between. The results from the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico stood out, and not in a good way. Growers there had the lowest average yields of any of the places our project was working, producing on average less than two hundred-weight bags of green coffee per hectare. That’s less than a tenth of what we felt was the minimum viable yield for profitable coffee farming.
The coffee plants were old, sometimes more than 60 years old. One of the few young growers I encountered back then told me he was harvesting the same coffee his grandfather had planted, and I didn’t doubt him. There was little active management of the coffee plantations and less reinvestment. The coffee was certified Fair Trade and organic, but there was little about it that was sustainable. The dominant approach to coffee was passive, and Oaxaca’s coffee culture seemed to be on a collision course with extinction.
Then, three seasons ago, against this backdrop, Oaxaca was devastated by an epidemic of coffee leaf rust.
CEPCO is one of our oldest Direct Trade partners and a pioneering cooperative in Oaxaca that has created a reliable path to the marketplace for thousands of smallholder growers for more than 25 years. After the CLR outbreak, CEPCO’s leaders convened its members in a series of extraordinary meetings in every one of the far-flung communities it serves. From the Sierra Sur, soaring high above the Pacific Ocean in the south, to indigenous villages scattered throughout the Sierra Mixe, Sierra Mixteca and Sierra Mazateca in the north, CEPCO’s leaders asked its members one question: do you still want to be coffee growers? The conversations were hard. No one would have blamed the growers if they had decided to quit. But in every meeting, the reply rising from Oaxaca’s hills was a resounding, defiant yes.
Oaxacan Coffee's Youth Movement
Since then, the cooperative has been sowing the seeds of a more productive, profitable and sustainable coffee sector in Oaxaca. Literally.
In dozens of community-managed seedbeds and nurseries in villages across Oaxaca, smallholder growers are raising millions of seedlings that form part of a great youth movement in Oaxaca’s coffee sector. These sprouts are coming to the aid of their aging forebears, slowly taking root among the towering and tiring coffee plants that have kept the sector alive through many years of of neglect. It is, in most cases, the first time in a quarter-century these growers have renovated their coffee farms. The renovation of Oaxaca’s coffee fields in inspiring. But it wasn’t the most exciting evidence of renewal I saw this year in Oaxaca.
What really gave me hope for the future of Oaxaca’s coffee sector was the presence of talented young people in the coffeelands. Young men and women who have returned to their communities after years working overseas or in Mexico’s cities to cast their lot with coffee and take up family farms alongside their parents and grandparents. Young people who are better educated, better traveled, more experienced and more skilled than their parents.
That was another thing we learned from baseline survey we conducted almost 10 years ago. It didn’t just tell us that Oaxaca had the oldest and least productive coffee plants in Mesoamerica. It also told us Oaxaca had the highest average age for coffee farmers. The renovation of leadership underway in Oaxaca may be even more important to the future of the sector than the renovation of its fields. These dual processes of renewal advance simultaneously in Oaxaca and give us hope for the future of its coffee sector and great expectations for the future of La Perla.
This year’s La Perla reintroduces us to the classic Oaxaca profile we fell in love with so many years ago, delivering flavors of raisin, candied orange, pear.
But we are even more excited about the La Perla lots we will source next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.