In the lush hills of Honduras, coffee farmers are planting the seeds of a better future. Rob Crilly reports from the mountain region of Comayagua.
It was looking like an exceptional year for Honduran coffee farmers such as Frank Castillo.
Analysts thousands of miles away had predicted that drought would bring a poor Brazilian harvest, pushing his prices higher and higher on the New York markets.
Their predictions turned out to be wrong. And the price is sinking.
Mr Castillo, who farms four and a half acres of prime coffee land in the Honduran mountain region of Comayagua, said he was philosophical. Anything would be better than last year, when low prices and disease combined to ensure he made a loss.
“I watch the price, but whatever happens on the markets it still comes down to what some intermediary is willing to pay me,” he said.
Coffee is the mainstay of the Honduran economy, accounting for more than 20pc of exports. Its high growing region is known for producing beans with butter and citrus notes. And for the farmers it is a reliable source of income – despite the peaks and troughs – in a country where unemployment runs at about 28pc.
The harvest starts in October when some of the green coffee berries begin to turn red. The main jobs at this time of year are weeding and fertilizing. Small bushes, raised in his nursery, are ready for planting on a new patch of land.
I watch the price, but whatever happens on the markets it still comes down to what some intermediary is willing to pay me
He also keeps an eye on the weather. September’s rains were welcome after a dry summer but too much more and it brings the risk of diseases – such as the leaf rust which cut a swathe through his plants last year.
For the past seven months he has lived in a smart cottage on the farm with his four children and wife. The house is named “Twins” after his two one-year-olds. Winter is spent down at the bottom of the hill before returning to the farm in spring to start the next cycle, a pattern that Mr Castillo has followed for the past 17 years.
Plenty has changed on his farm, however, in that time.
Orange and banana trees now stand over his bushy coffee plants, protecting the soil from erosion and providing an additional crop to sell. He has replaced his old coffee variety with Lempira, which offers more resistance to rust; and he sends soil samples to a laboratory so he knows exactly the nutrients needed.
The changes have come through Mondelēz, the American food giant, which is one of the world’s leading coffee buyers. Its Coffee Made Happy programme is designed to help farmers find the skills they need for a profitable and sustainable business.
Mr Castillo said he had also learned how to budget and keep track of his outgoings so that he could better manage his margins.
For every hectare, he must spend up to $2,000 to produce coffee. The greater the yield he can achieve, the more it insulates him against the vagaries of the New York traders, ensuring he can turn that all-important profit.
“I’m doing it for my children so that one day they can take over,” said Mr Castillo, as thin clouds rolled in from the hills above his land.
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