Following on from Last week’s blog about the Nescafé Plan project, today’s blog is about a family who bought a farm with not a single tree left on the land and is now a thriving certified coffee-farming oasis.
About 22 years ago, the Merino Family purchased land that the previous owners had long used to grow corn using slash-and-burn agriculture, meaning they burned everything after each harvest. According to Joaquin Merino, there was not a single tree on the land when they bought it.
That is hard to imagine, considering what the property looks like today. Finca Santa Eloisa, as it is called, is now a lush and beautiful coffee farm near the town of Zongolica, in Veracruz, Mexico. Its 64 acres (26 hectares) of coffee bushes and 25 acres (10 ha) of dense, protected forest are Rainforest Alliance Certified™ and verified by the Common Code for the Coffee Community, or 4C Association. It is also participating in the Nescafé Plan.
It was four years ago that Joaquin decided to make Santa Eloisa a truly green farm. “It wasn’t easy. When we did the first pre-audit evaluation (to get the farm Rainforest Alliance Certified™) we were practically disqualified,” he recalls.
Joaquin explains that the farm was poorly organised. Its agricultural chemicals, fertilizers and tools were stored in the main house, near the kitchen and offices. It didn’t have the best conditions and infrastructure for workers, and many important farm records were missing.
It took three years of work and investment to make the improvements necessary to meet the certification criteria. He finally managed to get the farm certified in late 2010, and it has since become an example of sustainability for the area.
The improvements are obvious from the moment one starts exploring the farm. It is hard to imagine that the impressive green landscape that now prevails was once absent. Santa Eloisa has more than 100 vainillo trees per hectare (2.5 acres), which shade the coffee bushes while enriching the soil with nitrogen. The farm also has approximately 1,500 cedro rojo trees, among other species.
A network of trails for workers and pack animals traverses the property connecting the coffee farm to the mill and other infrastructure, much of which was renovated to meet the certification standards. There are separate storerooms for tools and chemicals, which are properly labeled, organised, well ventilated and lit.
A road that passes through a small forest leads to several kitchens where seasonal workers prepare their own meals. The nearby worker housing has bedrooms with wooden beds, mattresses, bedside tables and small porches. The communal bathrooms are divided between men and women, and there is a separate shower used exclusively by workers after they apply agrochemicals. Scattered throughout the facilities are bright red fire extinguishers marked with signs.
The farm also has plenty of labelled bins for depositing different types of inorganic rubbish, as part of efforts to keep the property clean, and to separate and recycle as much of its solid waste as possible.
When asked if workers know that the farm is certified, Joaquin responds that they are well aware because they are the main beneficiaries of certification. Along with the improvements to worker housing and other infrastructure, Finca Santa Eloisa pays competitive wages, in compliance with the law, including legal payment for overtime when applicable. Neither children nor pregnant women are allowed to work on the farm, and priority is given to local workers – 80% of the permanent and temporary employees are from the area.
As a result, the community has adopted many of the good practices that its members learned on the farm as part of the certification process. For example, local people are now protecting biodiversity and water resources by hunting less and keeping a nearby river clean. They are also separating their trash for recycling.
Recently, Joaquin decided to share Santa Eloisa’s sustainability experience with thousands of small coffee farmers in Zongolica. The farm is part of the family business, Grupo Merino, which also has a wet and dry mill and buys coffee from local farmers. They are working to get their suppliers to adopt good social, environmental and economic practices, and to comply with the 4C Code, which can help them to eventually get their farms Rainforest Alliance Certified.
“We’ve moving forward,” says Joaquin. “We’ve gotten our own farm Rainforest Alliance Certified and are complying with the 4C Code, so we can now talk to local farmers and share our experiences with them. We want them to make substantial changes that will eventually benefit them.”
As has Santa Eloisa, those small-scale farmers are developing nurseries, in compliance with the 4C Code, in order to grow the coffee saplings they need to renovate their crop and increase production. At the same time, Joaquin is pushing them to join the Nescafé Plan, an international initiative sponsored by Nestlé.
The Nescafé Plan provides technical support for renovating coffee farms with higher yielding and resistant coffee varieties. It also helps farmers implement the Nescafé Good Agricultural Practices (NGAP), which are designed to help them improve their farm productivity and coffee quality while adopting the social and environmental sustainability criteria of the Sustainable Agriculture Network and 4C Association. Through the Plan, Nestlé will ensure that its suppliers are more productive and sustainable, while the company doubles the amount of coffee for Nescafé that it buys directly from coffee farmers and their associations.
Joaquin says that he will continue working to make Santa Eloisa more sustainable with each passing year, adding that he hopes this will keep the land healthy and productive. At the same time, he wants the farm to serve as an example for all the coffee farmers in the area who want to learn more, or see for themselves that good practices for sustainability and increasing production really do work.