DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part III: Doing Business in the DR

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his third dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.

I went to visit some friends in Bani who sold us a great lot of coffee last year. One of the larger farmers in the area was talking about the rain and quoted an ex-president of the Dominican Republic, Balaguer: “The best coffee farmer is the rain”. When the rain comes at the right time, often the coffee produces well. We had a pretty extensive conversation about a couple farms that used to cup in the 84-85 range and now were cupping closer to 81. They were saying the coffee had lost a lot of its body on the cupping table and they attributed that to what used to be 8 months of rain and now they have irregular rains and less rain during the whole year.

Then I took off to Santo Domingo to see about a new grass cover crop and a fungus distributor. I’ve been looking for a quality grass to plant on the farm that could provide appropriate ground cover for areas that need shade. I actually found it in Brazil. Brachiaria brizantha should fit the bill, it can grow under shade, it is nitrogen fixing, it has short rhizomes (horizontal underground stem), and isn’t so aggressive that it can’t be controlled with a diluted dose of Round-Up. I found a distributor in the DR so I visited his warehouse to pick up some samples to test on Finca La Paz. I’m most excited about the fungus. There is this insect killing fungus called Beauvaria bassiana. It is a natural predator of the Coffee Bean Borer or Broca in Spanish. I found a guy who sells it in a dormant state by the kilo. We put the “sleeping fungus” in a solution (milk, humic acid, sugar and water) to have it multiply and applied it with a backpack sprayer. This should bring the Broca infestation down to reasonable levels. I’m really hopeful for both of these.

On Saturday I went from Santo Domingo to Santiago and back. Our export partner there still has some really stellar coffees for sale and I wanted to check in on a few things. We cupped a table full of great coffees (actually there were 2 that were pretty rough). I have samples of my favorites.

Over all I’m hopeful for coffee and agriculture in the Dominican Republic. It is an uphill battle and so far I don’t see a lot of support from upper political levels. For example, the Banco Agricola (National Agriculture Bank) charges 18% interest on loans to farmers. Of course there exceptions, I’ve heard of numbers of 3% as well. Put that against countries that have no support and I sound like a whiner.

One of the biggest challenges is that there is a history of incredible support for coffee but not in an accountable way. In the time of Balaguer, here farmers were given fertilizer (or provided a subsidized rate, everyone has a different memory), farmers were provided with a brigade of men to clean the coffee farms, farmers were given pruning shears to prune the coffee, etc. Farmers talk about that time as “the glory days of Dominican Coffee”. But look at the economics, their cost of production was almost zero! Ok they had to pay people to pick and process the coffee but some of the biggest costs of coffee production are cleaning and fertilizing coffee. Removing both of those from the cost of production means they didn’t have to pay much to produce the coffee and what they sold was theirs. The system has changed but the mentality hasn’t. Last year I was calling hardware stores in San Juan of the DR to try and find a some pruning saws and couldn’t find a single one. So this year I brought 3 saw blades for each bow saw that we have on the farm. I can’t find anywhere that sells grow bags for coffee saplings in the DR. So I went to a large nursery to see if they had some, they said, “I wish you asked 5 months a go because I we had some, but now we only sell them… ” (As opposed to giving them away for free!)

“Perfect, please sell me 5000 of proper size and gauge plastic”, was my immediate response.

To a large extent, I know that my tiny farm is an unrealistic example for most other Dominican farmers. Paying about $60 USD for some grow bags is a lot of money to a small farmer with only a mule to his name. I would never say that I could figure out how to change the mentality of anyone or figure out a better system to support Dominican farmers without becoming paternalistic. At the very least, I hope to show some alternative ways to do things and produce some great coffee at the same time.

More to come…