The path to sustainable coffee in El Salvador

Written by Holly Jones/NCBA CLUSA

Coffee farmers are using what they have on hand—like coffee pulp, husks, manure, minerals and microorganisms—to produce organic fertilizers and pesticides. Coffee farmers are using what they have on hand—like coffee pulp, husks, manure, minerals and microorganisms—to produce organic fertilizers and pesticides. Coffee farmers are using what they have on hand—like coffee pulp, husks, manure, minerals and microorganisms—to produce organic fertilizers and pesticides. Last week more than 700 participants attended El Salvador’s second International Sustainable Coffee Conference. Organized by NBCA CLUSA’s USDA-funded Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification project, stakeholders ranging from farmers to policymakers were able to discuss the future of coffee in El Salvador and the region. With International Coffee Day this Friday, September 29th, the sustainability of coffee is top of mind for El Salvador farmers and officials.

When tropical depression 12-E hit El Salvador in October 2011, coffee farmers called it the perfect storm.

“We had 1500 ml [60 inches] of rain in 24 hours, followed by high temperatures and then more torrential rain for days… the coffee rust just took hold and set off on a path of destruction through the farm. We lost about 90 percent of the harvest in some areas, and only now—after 4 to 5 years of losses—we are finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mauricio Homberger, general manager and executive president of Finca La Trinidad, one of El Salvador’s large scale producers known for its long history of exporting Bourbon, Typica and Pacamara coffee varieties to Germany and Italy.

This centennial family farm, spanning 550 hectares of coffee and tropical dry forest in El Salvador’s Tecapa-Chinameca mountain range, had its harvest slashed from 545,000 kilograms pre-coffee rust to just 90,700 kilograms in 2016.

As the coffee rust continued to spread across the country, farms of all sizes began to collapse, putting the coffee industry on the brink of folding and the livelihoods of thousands of rural farm workers at risk. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, the program introduces cost-effective technologies and techniques to help rebuild and strengthen farms using sustainable agriculture methods.

One of the chief practices that NCBA CLUSA promotes is the onsite production of organic fertilizers and organic pesticides—a low-cost, environmentally sustainable soil amendment alternative to synthetic agro-chemical based methods. Using easily accessible organic material (such as coffee pulp and husks, chicken and cow manure, ash, rock dust minerals and mountain microorganisms), the program’s agricultural specialists work hand-in-hand with farmers to teach them how to produce, store and apply the organic soil amendments on their farms.

“Each year, we would test out the new synthetic agro-chemical products on the market that were designed to eliminate the coffee rust, and we just weren’t satisfied with the results. When NCBA CLUSA approached us in 2016 about trying out the organic biofertilizers that had been successful in other parts of the country, we were willing to give it a shot,” said Homberger, a third generation coffee grower. By working closely with NCBA CLUSA’s specialists to formulate and test the products, farmers have now mastered the process and produced over 3,500 liters of liquid organic fertilizers and 325 metric tons of solid organic fertilizers.

“What we like about these organic biofertilizers is the science behind them and the technology transfer that working with NCBA CLUSA represents,” Homberger said. “We’ve really enjoyed learning about the different blends that are possible, and it was great to see that we already had so many of the ingredients on hand from our own milling process.”

Francisco Navarrete, NCBA CLUSA sustainable agriculture specialist, said, “Our mission is to introduce eco-friendly practices that can fit within the productive business structure of what coffee farmers are already doing ... We started testing them in small areas, and now they are working for many farms across the country. You can really see the difference in how healthy and vibrant the plants look.”

“These organic biofertilizers help keep our soils healthy by incorporating nutrients and organic material, in addition to the coffee pulp that we had been using before,” Homberger said. “We see a major difference in plant health, and producing these organic fertilizers also represents a significant time and cost-savings for us. Working with NCBA CLUSA saves us the time in trial and error that we used to spend on testing the different synthetic agro-chemical products. In terms of cost, we’re seeing an upwards of 60 percent savings in soil amendment expenses. With the organic biofertilizers, it only costs me $5 to treat the same size piece of land that before cost me $12.50 with synthetic agro-chemical products. It’s really impressive.”

Pleased with their success, Finca La Trinidad has since opened up their farm to neighboring coffee farmers to share their experience and support the production of organic biofertilizers in the region.

While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change-related impacts and market volatility have devastated the national coffee economy in recent years. The El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project is working with 7,500 producers and 50 producer organizations, cooperatives, companies and government agencies in an integrated approach to revitalize the industry and increase environmental sustainability through sustainable agriculture techniques and low-cost technology.