Salvadoran coffee cooperative picked up by one of North America’s largest independent importers

Written by Holly Jones/NCBA CLUSA

San Antonio Cooperative’s inaugural export on its way to Montreal, Canada.San Antonio Cooperative’s inaugural export on its way to Montreal, Canada.San Antonio Cooperative’s inaugural export on its way to Toronto, Canada.Tucked into the foggy hillsides of the Bálsamo mountain range, between the Pacific Ocean and the San Salvador volcano, sits the San Antonio Cooperative, a verdant 400-acre sustainable coffee farm. This 50-member cooperative has been producing high-altitude Bourbons and Pacamaras since 1980, but until now had never exported directly.

In 2012, coffee rust took a devastating toll on the farm, slashing production from 5,000-6,000 quintals to 460 quintals annually, representing a 90 percent drop. The rust plague, combined with climate change and market volatility, have battered El Salvador’s coffee economy in recent years, putting many producers like the San Antonio Cooperative in danger of losing their farms and putting the lives of thousands of rural families at risk.

In response to this economic crisis, the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project, a USDA-funded program managed by NCBA CLUSA, began working with producers in 2014 to rebuild farms with sustainable agriculture technology and techniques. San Antonio is one of the cooperatives that has worked most closely with the program’s wide array of technical assistance services, transitioning weakened areas of the farm to rust-resistant varieties like Costa Rica 95, Catimores and Cuscatleco, producing organic soil amendments and pursuing crop diversification to sell vegetables in the off season. The cooperative also pursued NCBA CLUSA’s post-harvest management training on quality control, processing, export logistics and commercial relationship development with buyers and trade organizations such as the Salvadoran Coffee Association and the Salvadoran Coffee Cupping Association.

When the opportunity presented itself to start exporting to RGC Coffee in Canada, all of the behind-the-scenes training they had undergone began to pay off. RGC Coffee, one of North America’s largest independent importers of sustainable coffee has over 50 years in the coffee trade and works in 20+ countries to source the highest quality, premium and specialty green coffees.

In order to export, most small shareholders like the San Antonio Cooperative need additional support when it comes to large-scale processing and shipping. By combining forces with experienced exporter Los Ausoles Cooperative, an 2,000-acre operation situated in western El Salvador, the two producers worked together to prepare and package a 19,000 kg shipment to Canada.

“Here at Los Ausoles, we’ve been in the coffee export business since 1969 and have the infrastructure in place to handle the larger shipments that smaller cooperatives can’t take on by themselves. It’s always been our intention to support small shareholders, and we look forward to helping other cooperatives in the future,” said Los Ausoles’ General Manager Fernando Silva.

“We feel great about how the export process was coordinated and the fact that we’ve been able to establish a direct line of communication with RGC Coffee,” said San Antonio Cooperative President Wilfredo Molina. “We’re also appreciative of the negotiation support we received that helped us secure the commodity market price of over $0.20/pound, which we are very pleased with.”

“Training the San Antonio Cooperative on the step-by-step process behind export logistics and making sure that their members were trained to handle future shipments was really gratifying for us. On the national level, their participation in our business networking events and marketing workshops has encouraged them to define their brand identity and create an attractive new packaging solution for local sales as well. Recently, their brand got picked up by an important restaurant in San Salvador, which is an important achievement for them. We look forward to helping them strengthen their commercial relationships and keep growing in the formal market," said Beatriz Alegria, NCBA CLUSA's marketing specialist for the project.

While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change and market volatility have devastated the national coffee economy in recent years. The El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project will work with 7,500 producers and 50 producer organizations to transition farmland to rust-resistant varieties, introduce low-cost, sustainable agriculture techniques and improve business management practices in an integrated approach to increase competitiveness, reduce environmental impact and improve worker health across the industry.