DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part I
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.
The world is strange. First of all it is 9:41pm and it is past my usual bed time here, but I feel like writing. I’m in the lumpy bed that is comprised of 4 mattresses laid cross ways with 3 separate pieces of foam on top. It works for sleeping. What is strange is the mosquito net. 9 years ago when I was here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I only used a mosquito net for the rats. There really weren’t any mosquitos to speak of. There are areas in the DR that demand mosquito nets (and they sell very fancy nice ones). Here in Los Frios a few years ago the mosquitos arrived. Just like Nairobi Kenya – Los Frios had the elevation and average temperature (maybe wind too) to not let mosquitos really be pests. Now, just like Nairobi, mosquitos are a problem. Hence, I’m writing this from under a net designed for mosquitos and tonight it is for both, mosquitos and rats.
I knew this was going to be a good trip. The farm has been progressing and I have been better as a manager to push for results and networking. This year I’ve been able to make more things happen than normal. I finally found a greenhouse supply company that could custom cut the right plastic sheeting in a size that I could check on a plane. I found a distributor for Beauveria bassiana – a fungus used in Broca control. We just planted 100 grafted lime trees. We are fully stocked on saws for the pruning. Lots of great things. But what really makes a great trip isn’t just checking off the to-do list.
I missed the check-in for the first flight by minutes. I thought it was a 956pm flight so I showed up just over an hour before check-in, to find out they had already closed the flight which was actually at 942pm. Wow, there is a first time for everything. Lucky for me there was an 830am flight the next day and I got to sleep in my own bed. I arrived at 1230pm to Santo Domingo to incredible heat and humidity and this really moldy carpet smell that the airport walk way plane connector thing always smells like. I took the bus from Santo Domingo to San Juan to pick up the Beauveria bassiana and swing by a hardware store for supplies to build a level for planting coffee. I had arranged for a truck to pick me up and take me from Guantio to Los Frios that same day. To make the pick up time I took a taxi from San Juan to Guantio. The driver was recommended by a friend. He played really great reggaeton and seemed like a cool dude. While this new reggaeton was bumping we pulled up to the gas station and he had them put $0.50 cents worth of gasoline in the yellow mini van. While the gas was pumping a kid no more than 13 years old walks up with a stack of CD’s. “Look, I got MP3’s, this one has 150 songs of all reggaeton, this one has 200 songs of bachata, and for you. . . 100 pesos”. The driver offered 50 pesos for the 200 song MP3 CD. The kid nodded. By this time the $0.50 cents worth of gasoline had been pumped. The driver digs through his loose change and pays the kid 45 pesos. The kid was pissed and just said something vulgar. The driver turns to me and says the kids here all hustlers, but they have to be that way to survive. We both laughed but it wasn’t funny.
Leaving San Juan we were waved by a Police check point to stop. I never get stopped at these points so I assumed the worst. He stopped us to ask if his two lady friends could get a lift to Guantio. Sure. We take off in a bright yellow van that clearly has acceleration problems, so it is more like we tumbled off. The driver slips in his new CD and some new Aventura (a Dominica bachata band that I won’t admit how much I enjoy the music) song comes on. The two ladies in the back of the taxi know every word and belt out the next 3 songs like they were on Dominican Idol (not that they could sing well… just that they sang with spirit). There were clouds high and low, a really light rain coming down and the sun was about an hour from setting. It was really a beautiful moment to be alive and I can’t imagine it happening in any other country.
Once I arrived in the DR everyone wanted to know what I thought about the coffee market. “Will we get the same prices as last year?” A lot of people missed the peak of the last big market rally and still are sitting on coffee. Everyone was sure that the price would come back and the prices just kept falling. I had someone offer us some 20 bags of “perfect coffee”. Interesting considering the harvest has barely started. The coffee had a musty smell, it wasn’t perfectly washed and the humidity was 19%. Humm – maybe in Sumatra this is perfect. Here in the DR this is old crop coffee. I gave everyone the same advice. Don’t hold coffee, sell it where you can make money, the market is really crazy right now.
On Finca La Paz some good things are happening and some bad. The coffee in the upper section is doing really well. The area is responding really well to all the attention. The Broca seems to be more under control than usual. The grafted lime trees are all looking great and Antonio did a great job planting them at a healthy distance. Overall things look great. There are always one or two things that fall in the negative category.
There is this really awful fungus that is attacking the coffee in the whole region. It is this terrible vicious thing. It seems that it attacks the new growth, then kills the branch as the coffee matures. So the green cherries look fine except for the terminal leaves turning yellow and the stem black. Then as the coffee matures, they turn from green to black and some just fall off. I have pictures to ask my agronomist friends about this specific issue. Climate change? Or is this just the initial picking Cabrilla as it is called?
The only other mega-negatives are all the horror stories of violence being told. One of Antonio’s sons had a few days of vacation from work in Santo Domingo and was here in Los Frios with us. The stories he told involving people he knew were worse than the 5 o’clock news: murders, people selling drugs, rape, violence, all with details like he was there. He even had a word for getting shot: plomo – lead. The DR has always been violent, but to hear the stories told by a kid in a neighborhood that I’ve stayed in in Santo Domingo hit a little close to home.
More tomorrow from the farm.