Last month I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico and began a two day journey to the isolated coffee community of Ixtepec. This was no vacation. Traveling with Dave Day and Geron Gray of Growers First, I was part of a call-to-action aimed at saving a group of farmers whose coffee crop had been ravaged by la roya. Growers First had arranged for the transfer of 40 to 50,000 Arabica seedlings to the Oaxacan farmers, and Vournas Coffee Trading was there to assist in the re-planting by helping Growers First hand out the new coffee saplings. Advanced water filtration systems also needed to be assembled and distributed, but that’s just the beginning.
It took a full day’s drive to reach the outskirts of Ixtepec where we slept for the night. The final stretch up the mountain was very slow moving. We’re talking small, dirt roads littered with switch-backs and a 4,000′ climb. When we arrived, I met project manager Saul, and his father Lau, respectively second and third generation coffee farmers. They showed me first hand the damage done by la roya, which was significant. Roughly 75% of their crop has been lost, literally hundreds of thousands of coffee trees, delivering a devastating blow to a community where every cent and every dollar counts.
The farmers had their hands full. Roya damaged trees had to be painstakingly removed by hand, an understandably emotional and scary process for the families who have been harvesting cherry from the same trees for multiple generations. Luckily Growers First was able to provide some chain saws to speed things up. Later amid the traditional mid-day lunch of hand-made corn tortillas and beans, we began assembling the water filtration systems. As Dave Day explained their function and detailed their maintenance, everyone became overjoyed to learn that illness from water-borne disease and bacteria could now be prevented. Additionally the units are a time saver by reducing reliance (and labor) on chopped firewood for boiling and sanitation. Vournas Coffee Trading committed to donating 25 water filtration systems to coffee families in Oaxaca and another 25 to coffee families in Honduras. Each system filters down to .1 microns, making it certifiably impossible for any bacteria or contaminants to pass through. It’s worth noting that for the first time in six years I became ill on this trip. It was not fun. Thankfully I had my travel med kit, but it definitely underscored the need for these families to receive the support.
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The next day we were up with the sun (and the rooster). By the way did I mention it was hot?! It was. Not all of these new Arabica saplings will survive their relocation. Prior to our arrival a staging area with small potters of organic soil had been established for them, where for one to two months under a shaded canopy the saplings will be carefully attended to before being replanted in the field. When we finally met with the local coffee co-op president and chairs, the mood was noticably tense and the stress of financial worry palpable. Our goal here is to strengthen the co-op and thus empower the community. This is a long term investment for Vournas Coffee Trading to sustain growing operations in Ixtapec and to support its families to provide a more secure future. Before our goodbyes we toured an old, nearby dry mill in need of renovation. This is a potential windfall for the community who would stand to benefit from higher quality micro-lots, and higher premiums. Could this be Vournas Coffee Trading’s first foray into a milling operation? Stay tuned.
On our way back to Oaxaca, we stopped and spent the night in the nearby town of San Juan La Garsa, where we buddied with a few of our new friends over some beers and reflected on our journey. On the way out of Ixtapec we were caught in a flash storm which destroyed my notes from the trip I had so astutely left in the back of the pickup. Heed the warning they say: always expect the unexpected! We slept that night at a cheap motel with a full bath and running water that may as well have been the Hilton! See where I’m going with this?
I am always moved by the dedication and hard work of all coffee farmers. In this case and in the face of a difficult, new, after la roya reality, the pride and perseverance of the Oaxaca farmers was on display for all of us to see. It was an honor, and I look forward to the trip back, and better growing seasons ahead.
Up next month is part two where Vournas Coffee Trading along with Growers First continue their journey to Honduras.
All the best,