Pierre and I went on a tour around La Cumplida’s coffee plantation with Wilfredo. La Cumplida is a huge finca of over 1,600 hectares (this includes 700 ha. for coffee and 600 ha. for protected reserve) situated in the region of Matagalpa, which is very well known for its coffee production. First we went to the processing plant, which is under repair because some of the machines were being too rough on the coffee beans. Despite the fact that none of the machines were currently working, he walked us through the bean process: loading, skinning, washing, and reloading the beans. The drying and roasting takes place at another location. If we had been here any time from October through February, the machines would have been whirring and red beans would come by the truckload to be processed, since over 2000 coffee pickers would be hard at work in the hills, collecting beans.
Below is a video of some of the coffee work we watched. Wilfredo’s explanation of the deshijo is translated in brief three paragraphs below.
We drove up to a plot where workers were digging holes for a resiembra, a “replanting” (really a replacing) of last year’s hybrid coffee that didn’t take well to the soil. The holes were dug where a dead or dying plant was uprooted. These floundering plants had crumpled leaves, undeveloped roots, and stunted trunks. One of the reasons the replanting was so necessary was that the specific plot we visited was very flat, so that even the ditches dug between rows couldn’t keep the mud from drowning the plants. Shade, moisture, and altitude are the three key elements of coffee growth, and they must be regulated when possible to achieve full potential. Multiple species of tree are planted through the coffee rows to provide shade and cultivate more than one crop per plot—mahogany, Platymiscium pinnatum (known here as coyote but internationally as granadilla, among dozens of other names), oaks, cedars, teaks, and others can be found amongst the coffee. Banana trees are also used for shading and additional harvest.
The mixture of perennial and biannual species allows for variable sun cover. A steep incline is best for moisture control because it ensures that puddles can never form in the earth and supersaturate the coffee roots, which later leads to dehydration and stunted growth. The best place for coffee to grow, Wilfredo explained, was on a steep hill in the range of 1000 meters above sea level with mixed shade.
We soon visited one such plot of coffee plants, where some common (non-hybrid) bushes about seven years old had recently undergone the deshijo, which means new and unnecessary branches were trimmed before they “wasted” any more of the plant’s energy. Nearby was another, older plot that was undergoing a more serious trimming, known as a podo, where the whole bush is cut down to the trunk so that the practically defunct plants become reborn as high-yielding bushes. There are two types of podo: the cyclical and the block variety. The former involves dividing the whole plot into three row segments. The first row is cut to the trunk so that the next year there will be a small but increasing yield from the first row while the second and third rows continue in their natural decline. The next year, the second row is similarly cut so that there will be a larger yield from the first row, a small but increasing yield from the second row, and a still-declining third row. By the third step the whole plot has undergone the podo and is starting to reach peak yields again, but this rebirth has been achieved evenly across the plot and in a state of equilibrium unlike the block podo, where the discrepancy between pre- and post-podo yearly yields will be greater. If this whole cutting process is still confusing to you, just think of the first variety as trimming the plot by a third every year and the second variety as a full plot trim—as well as an amazing Philip K. Dick short story. I forgot to note that all the wood from these cut down coffee plants is used for firewood by the finca community.
As we walked through one plot we passed by a couple cacao trees, which had some ripe pods on their branches. Wilfredo opened one by cracking it against a tree trunk and we enjoyed the sweet slime that covers the cacao beans, not unlike but less substantive than that which covers a lychee fruit. The chocolate taste only comes from the beans themselves, with baking and lots of sugar.
A not-so-sweet accompaniment to the coffee plantation is the infestation of leaf-cutter ant colonies. The laborious insects can easily defoliate a plant completely and leave it to die—they have no shortage of leaf material and therefore don’t need to keep anything alive for future harvest. In terms of coffee pests, these ants are probably the number one culprit, although some fruit-boring insects are also problematic.
Several plots later we were climbing a steep hill covered in small banana trees and coffee plants, and the lack of shade added to the torrential winter rains was causing weeds to overrun the slope. Half a dozen workers were busy clearing these unwanted plants with their machetes, expertly swinging the blades while pushing the stems and leaves away with their helper stick. Even after ascending all these hills and observing the imperative pre-picking-season processes, we could still barely truly appreciate the daily labor that goes into turning the little beans into the incredibly popular liquid in people’s mugs. I hope to get more information on the coffee company’s organic Rainforest Alliance certification and export market soon.