Nicaragua Flor Azul
- July 2019
- Written by : Michael Sheridan
Director of Sourcing and Shared Value / Coffee Buyer
In the summer of 1987, I was 15 years old and doing things that are common for many 15-year-old boys, mostly playing baseball and hanging out with friends. Then I started doing something comparatively uncommon for 15-year-old boys: watching C-SPAN. Compulsively.
It was the summer of the Iran-Contra Hearings. Reagan administration officials were being questioned by members of Congress and interrogated by prosecutors for their roles an elaborate plan to evade congressional prohibitions on arms sales to Iran and funding for a counterrevolutionary organization in Nicaragua. They did both secretly, and used proceeds from the former for the purposes of the latter. It was riveting drama, but while the hearings focused on whether U.S. laws were broken, I found myself most curious about Nicaragua and the civil war still raging there, which seemed little more than an afterthought in the coverage of events and in the hearings themselves. I had no way to know at the time what a big role that small and curious country would play in my life.
Six years later, I chose to write my undergraduate thesis on U.S. foreign policy in Nicaragua. In defending it before my professors and classmates, I suggested that U.S. citizens owed a debt to Nicaragua for the death and destruction caused by the illegal actions of the Iran-Contra affair. The notion may have been naïve and idealistic, but it was sincere: two years later I found myself on a plane to Managua, leaving the country for the first time for a year of volunteer work that took me to a coffee community in the mountains of northern Nicaragua. It was a year that changed the trajectory of my life.
It didn’t take long for me to be hooked on the idea of working overseas, although it did take me a while to get the credentials I needed to become an international development professional. Once I did, my work took me back to Nicaragua again and again.
From 2004 to 2007, I traveled to Nicaragua frequently as part of a project designed to help smallholder coffee farmer organizations gain access to the U.S. specialty market. From 2008 to 2011, I led a regional coffee project in Central America that took me to Nicaragua regularly to work with other smallholder groups there. And since 2017, I have been making annual visits as Intelligentsia’s Green Coffee Buyer for Nicaragua.
It has been nearly 25 years since I first traveled to Nicaragua. I have lived or worked there under four different governments, and I have never seen the situation there as precarious as it is today after a year of violence that claimed hundreds of lives, a sustained campaign to suppress dissent, and an institutional crisis that has brought the government to the brink of collapse. Implausibly, I returned from my most recent sourcing trip feeling optimistic about the country’s future. Perhaps it is because I spent the entire time with the Canales family, which has been growing coffee since the 1950s, quietly creating economic opportunity, conserving natural resources, and growing exceptional coffee even through periods of dictatorship, revolution, counterrevolution, and constitutional crisis.
In 1958, Pio Canales purchased a modest farm called Los Delirios in the hills above the sleepy mountain town of Pueblo Nuevo where he raised cattle and grew coffee. His son and grandsons are still working the farm, and still raising some cattle. But they have gone all in on coffee, and represent one of the most compelling stories of coffee-driven growth in our entire Direct Trade network.
For decades, the family has been turning today’s success into tomorrow’s through a virtuous cycle of reinvestment in coffee. Season after season, the family has used the profits from its coffee sales to expand its operations. In many cases, this has involved the purchase of pastureland around the edges of its coffee farm, which it converts to organic coffee forests through a patient process that takes the better part of 10 years.
First, the family plants shade trees in a low-density pattern, 20 meters by 20 meters for trees with a large canopy, 10 x 10 for smaller ones, with other smaller species scattered throughout the plot. Four or five years on, they plant coffee, which in turn will reach full production in other four or five years.
This process of expansion and reclamation of degraded land has accelerated since Pio’s son Daniel Canales won top honors at Nicaragua’s 2004 Cup of Excellence competition with the first lot of certified organic coffee to ever achieve that feat. We purchased some of that winning lot, and have built our Nicaragua sourcing program around its farm ever since, 15 years and counting.
Today, Los Delirios is more than three times the size of the original farm purchased by Don Pio, no longer a single farm but rather a family of contiguous farms run by Don Daniel and his three sons, Milton, Norman, and Donal.
Even by the lofty standards of its extraordinary three-generation trajectory in coffee, 2018 was a landmark year for the Canales family. It purchased a dry mill in Pueblo Nuevo and two massive drying facilities, which it outfitted with a vast array of different drying technologies: patios for sun-drying, patios with different degrees of shading, and raised beds arrayed in different configurations in full sun and in every grade of shade available. The initiative was, in some sense, nothing out of the ordinary, merely an extension of the family’s long-standing tradition of reinvestment to expand its coffee business. But it is extraordinary in this regard: it closes the circle, giving the Canales family complete control over every aspect of its coffee operations from the nursery where the family plants new seed to the port where its coffees are loaded for delivery to Intelligentsia.
We worked closely with the Canales crew over the past year as part of this transition, helping them to create new post-harvest processing protocols that position them to maximize quality and position us to effectively evaluate the impact of their new facilities and new technologies on cup quality. The results of all that effort are evident in this lot, which was shade-grown on the remote Los Monos section of the farm and shade-dried at the family’s new dry mill. It reminds us of applesauce, raisin, and Meyer lemon.
Alva Nuvia Martínez
Ana Yelsi Martínez
Ana Yeska Quintero
Juan Simón Olivas