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November 9, 2008
This morning we hiked up the mountain in the protected rainforest on Selva Negra. There are several marked trails so it is fun to explore. Many of our group had already gone on early morning hikes. Today we had a nature guide and Mausi along. The rainforest is an amazing place. The biodiversity and lush fertile growth is more abundant than I imagined. There was also a lot of mud so there was a lot of slipping and sliding. (We were told the forest is always wet but that the moisture was increased by the heavy rains that fell part of the hurricane that hit Cuba.)

After lunch and cleaning up from our hike we went to visit a neighboring farm. This farm has clear-cut trees and open coffee fields. You could instantly see the damage this practice caused to the landscape. Most of the unplanted fields were barren of diverse growth with only grass and one kind of hardy weed. There were mudslides and dead growth where pesticides were used. In one area there were rows of pine trees that had been imported to grow for lumber. The government no longer allows the farmer to cut the trees so they remain even thought they are not native.

We were given a small tour of the wet mill area and the hydro-electric operation. Mausi asked for us to be able to see the school but we were not allowed to go further onto the property due to a holiday (school is out of session for the harvest season). We could see a small corner of the staff housing. These homes were made of part brick and part wood. Mausi let us know that a typical coffee worker house has only one room for sleeping and cooking.

The coffee processing facilities were nicely maintained and the foreman and owner that greeted us were very nice but there was no sense of a thriving and busy community like we felt at Selva Negra. It felt like they were waiting to begin (and they are since the full harvest will likely not start until November 20) versus being engaged in the life processes being managed at the farm.

Tomorrow we will visit the dry mill and a local market (national election aftermath permitting) before we return to Managua for our flights home. Some will leave tomorrow while others will leave Tuesday morning. I plan to get some additional “facts and figures” from Mausi on our drive down the mountain.

November 8, 2008
This morning we visited the worker’s housing on Selva Negra. Coffee harvest starts in November and continues through February. During the harvest the farm employees from 600-1,000 pickers but there are about 300 year round staff that remain working on the farm doing maintenance to equipment and the fields as well as working at the hotel and restaurant. Of the 300 permanent staff 50 families (some have two or more employees) live in concrete family with an outside private bath facility. In addition, there is a school for children through sixth grade for all farm staff as well as classes at night for adults. Every person on staff is encouraged to learn to read and write. Children that successfully complete sixth grade may attend high school in Matagalpa and if they want Selva Negra (sometimes with the help of some of their bigger buyers) will pay for them to attend university or trade school.

There is a health care clinic in the family housing area. A resident nurse provides standard care and education in hygiene as well as healthy living and physical education. Family planning is an important topic. The average family size has decreased from 12+ children to and average of 4 per family since these services have been provided. Some families chose to have just one child.

Every worker is provided with three meals a day served in the worker’s kitchen. A typical meal includes vegetables from the farm, tortillas, and protein. Corn for the tortillas is not grown on the farm but the tortillas are made fresh each day for the meals. During peak picking season an automated tortilla maker is used.

The standard of living is much lower than in the United States. Homes are about 600 square feet with a kitchen and one large room divided into sleeping and family areas. Tiled bathrooms with underground sewer are located outside and laundry is washed in a community area at washboard sinks. Families have very few possessions but as we walked through the housing area we could quickly tell the pride the families had in their simple homes. There were beautiful flower gardens and other landscaping, murals, and many doors were decorated. The children loved seeing the visitors and we came prepared with small gifts of toys and candy. Travelers also provided Mausi with clothing and school supplies.

Ted Gives a VT Sports Donated Baseball to Childern Don Giving Toys & Candy to Childern

From the worker’s housing we moved on to the stables to see the animal farm part of the business. The beef cattle are grazed off the main farm while, 500 laying hens, broilers, quail, a milk heard of 200, and pigs are raised on the main property. Mausi wants the farm operation to be as self sufficient as possible. Most of the food they grow is used to feed the workers and the hotel guests. Nothing goes to waste. In the event they cannot use a food item they produce it is sold in the local area. Future operations will include a free-range pig lot, a larger cheese making facility, gourmet chocolate, and goats.

Selva Negra also runs a hotel and restaurant. This part of the business helps keep the staff busy during non-harvest time and also provides a non-coffee related income. The hotel cabins were planned to fit into the landscape with a careful watch not to remove trees and plants. The resulting resort is a bit rustic but is also quite comfortable. The menu at the restaurant has some German items as well as local recipes. The restaurant features items grown on the farm and of course also sells coffee.

Ted Picking CoffeeIn the afternoon we went to try coffee picking. There were 15 untrained pickers plus our host Steve, the foreman, and Mausi. We strapped on our coffee baskets and headed into the coffee field. The goal was to pick as many ripe cherries as possible (no stems) and to leave the trees in good shape with the green (unripe cherries) in place. Oh, and we had to be careful not to step on the smaller coffee trees planted between the rows. (They replant about 250,000 trees a year and rotate out fields to new coffee trees as the older trees yield less coffee. A coffee tree takes about three years to yield a harvest.)

We quickly learned that picking coffee was no easy task. After about an hour and a half of work all of us together only had one basket of coffee cherries or about $1.00 in wages. When processed the coffee we picked would yield about one pounds of beans or about 36 cups of coffee.

Holli Picking CoffeeLife on a coffee farm is not easy. There is a lot of hard work but the lives of the employees of the Selva Negra farm are much better than most. Generations of families have lived on the farm due to the benefits provided.

Tomorrow we are going to explore the protected rainforest on Selva Negra and we’ll be visiting a neighboring farm.

Day 2: Selva Negra

November 7, 2008
Amazing! We couldn’t see how beautiful the area around the hotel was last night. This morning the geese were honking and we went outside to find a gazebo and a lake! The rustic accommodations fit perfectly into the landscape.

We had breakfast on the patio while Eddy Kuhl told us about the history of the family and Selva Negra. We learned that both Eddie and Mausi have German ancestors—now I understand why so much of the architecture here looks German.

Mausi runs the business and promotes women to be in leadership roles. Her passion is sustainable and organic agriculture. Everything at Selva Negra is used and reused.

On the agenda today was to see the coffee wet process. The coffee bean that is roasted and brewed to make a cup of coffee starts out as a coffee cherry. The cherries are deep red when they are ripe (we get to pick coffee tomorrow). Once the cherries are harvested they go through a series of steps to remove the outer fruit and the second layer of skin. During the process the beans are sorted with the best beans being sold or used at the Selva Negra Hotel and the second grade beans go to make a local roast for the workers.

The water used in the processing of the coffee is treated and is reused to irrigate the coffee fields, vegetables and other crops. The husks from the coffee are used in cooking, and also are composted to use as fertilizer. Selva Negra has a lab that develops bacteria cultures to help the composting process and also they maintain a worm farm used for composting. The organic liquid fertilizer they create is only lacking zinc and calcium. The methane gas produced from these processes is captured and used.

Selva Negra is in the rainforest and the coffee grown here is “shade coffee.” Coffee grown under shade trees has a better flavor. In addition maintaining the shade trees helps protect the rainforest. The downside is that growing organic, shade coffee produces about half the yield compared to farms that use pesticides and clear-cut the fields.

Tomorrow we’ll visit the staff housing, the animal area and we’ll pick coffee.

November 6, 2008
I have a wonderful job! Today I am traveling to Nicaragua to visit the Selva Negra Coffee Plantation. I am accompanied by Ted Faulkner, and Don Harvey from Virginia Tech, plus 13 other coffee lovers from the United States all that buy Selva Negra coffe for their coffee shops or restaurants. Our goal is to see the organic and sustainable coffee growing procedures of Selva Negra first hand. The Delta Connection Magazine for November is all about Coffee including a small story on Selva Negra.

A car ride, two flights and a night time bus ride got us to the Selva Negra Resort. The main roads in Nicaragua are good but they do not have the highway system we are used to in the US. Their highway is a two-lane road and ventures off the main road quickly degrade to dirt and gravel. We traveled from the airport in two mini buses with much of our luggage tied on top. The 60-80 mile journey took about 2 hours and the end of our travel took us up the side of the mountain on a winding dirt road.  Our hosts provided cold local beverages as well as sodas and local snacks of plantain chips, papaya chips, and trail mix. Ted is the trooper…he even ate the cheese and mystery meat sandwich provided.

The entire journey took 15 hours so we were all pretty tired when we arrived at the hotel at about midnight.

Tomorrow we will tour the farm and we’ll see the wet mill process.

November 6-11 Deet’s Place manager Don Harvey, associate director Ted Faulkner, and marketing and publications manager Holli Drewry will be visiting Selva Negra in Nicaurgua to explore the direct relationship coffee farm.

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