Trial and Error: Going Organic in Guatemala
How Ana Vizcaino embraced the weeds and transformed Finca Esperanza from a conventional coffee farm to an organic and bird-friendly haven.
It takes three years to turn a conventional coffee farm organic. Or at least it takes three years to gain the certification needed to sell coffee as organic in the United States. Of course it’s not as easy as just stopping the use of chemicals and watching the transformation happen. As Ana Vizcaino found when she decided to make the change with Finca Esperanza in Guatemala, it takes a lot of time, energy, and plenty of mistakes to reinvigorate a coffee farm.
Vizcaino’s family has been in the coffee business for generations. Although born and raised on a farm, Vizcaino herself lived in the United States for 40 years and raised a family there, until her father died and his children decided to separate out the inherited properties.
She came away with Finca Esperanza located in the Suchitepéquez department in the southwest of Guatemala, making a triangle with Huehuetenango to the north and Antigua to the east. “I was lucky enough to have this piece of land that is not too big, but is very far away from the city,” she tells me.
The farm itself is 225 acres, with 120 acres of coffee and the rest part of a nature reserve. Its location on the slopes of a volcano means altitudes start at 1200 metres above sea level and go up to 1700. Today Finca Esperanza is certified organic as well as Smithsonian Bird Friendly, something that didn’t seem possible when Vizcaino first took charge.
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If You Don’t Have Weeds, You Don’t Have Life
One of the first things that Vizcaino noticed after taking over the farm was the lack of wildlife. “When I came to the farm in 2009, I couldn’t see frogs or insects—except mosquitoes,” she says. “There were no frogs, snakes, field mice, or even birds.”
The other things that were missing, in Vizcaino’s view, were weeds. “If you don’t have weeds, you don’t have life on the farm,” she says. “People hate weeds, but to me they are key—it’s like the circle of life, and weeds are the start of that circle.” Before she took it over, Finca Esperanza had been run as a conventional coffee farm, and although her father hadn’t used pesticides—“there was no reason for it, because there were no pests, no insects!”—herbicides had been utilised. “It looked like the soil was abused,” she says.
What Finca Esperanza did have was good yields, and Vizcaino admits that in her drive to go organic she made mistakes at the beginning that impacted production, especially in her decision to not use fertiliser at all. “There’s not one book that tells you what to do when you’re organic, so it was trial and error. I remember someone telling me that you cannot just go organic the next year, you have to be super patient. You have to use fertiliser, even if you don’t want to, and little by little you start taking it away.”
Finca Esperanza had a few years of good yields after Vizcaino took over, but then it dropped by half. “And it was because I'm paying for the four years that I made a mistake, I should have fertilised and then used less and less over the years, but instead I stopped completely and only used vermicompost and compost tea and it wasn’t enough.”
Moving towards growing specialty was also tricky, because her workers had to be encouraged to harvest selectively, to pick only the ripest berries. “They didn’t want to do that work, because it’s hard work! So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll pay you double, and I’ll pay you to pick and then to sort,’ and three years later they pick really well. And I pay them the best because without them I don’t have specialty coffee.”
Like other farmers around her—not to mention across the world—Vizcaino has had to contend with disease and pests. “We didn’t have a lot of the funguses that we have now,” she says. “We didn’t have coffee rust in 2009, and by 2013 we were covered—and that is only supposed to happen to farms at low altitudes.”
The coffee berry borer also decimated her area, causing losses of 35% for Finca Esperanza in 2012 when in 2009 there was no sign of it. All of this has added to the difficulties facing farmers in Guatemala, making selling up seem more tempting. “Little by little the cities are moving closer to the farms,” Vizcaino says. “Before we had six or seven big farms between us and the city, and now it’s maybe three. Farmers don’t prosper, so they sell their land.”
This, coupled with the exodus of Guatemalans to the United States in search of a better life has made coffee farming in the country ever more tenuous. Is there a solution?
Two Birds Coffee
For Vizcaino, having greater control over the wider coffee supply chain has been key. Before being certified, but still while using organic practices, she would send her coffee to the local mill for processing, and was saddened to see it put into the mix with all the other coffee and sold to a big exporter. So she built her own mill, and together with her US-based children began exporting her coffee directly, which led to the birth of Two Birds Coffee.
Run by her children, Two Birds now exports coffee from Finca Esperanza and Vizcaino’s brother’s farm Rosario Pecul to the United States, Canada, and Saudi Arabia, forging years-long relationships with specialty coffee roasters. “We have to be partners with the roasters,” Vizcaino says, “and we as producers need to be very transparent with the costs of the coffee.”
“My dad was a romantic,” she continues, “and I started that way too—I am still a little romantic about being a coffee farmer. But when you start working on it there’s a reality check: it’s not about having something beautiful, it has to produce money because people are leaving Guatemala.”
Vizcaino is beginning to work with other farmers as well, helping them to build long-term partnerships with roasters and gain more stability in the process. “So I buy 40 bags from this guy who is always at the mercy of the C market, and I told him I’m going to find a client that pays him at least the same every year, and he didn’t believe me! He’s new to all this, but I’ll show him. That’s the business, and that’s what we have to do to survive.”