Tales From Finca La Paz

Our Coffee Director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, isn’t just a coffee director here in New York City—he’s also not-so-secretly a farmer in the Dominican Republic. Every now and then we let him out to check on his farm. Here’s the latest dispatch from his March visit.

Byron's farm, Finca La Paz, in the DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Byron’s farm, Finca La Paz, in the DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the good. Good days on the farm are fantastic. Since buying the farm about six years ago, I’ve tried every processing experiment that I could find, honey-ed, post-fermentation soak, underwater ferment, natural process, dry ferment and wash. All but two were new to my manager Antonio (1. traditional dry ferment and wash 2. natural process). I’ve tried to glean tips and pointers from all my travels, but farming coffee is nothing like corn in Kansas. I would imagine that corn in Kansas is pretty similar from farm to farm. In coffee farming every slope, every section provides different advantages and disadvantages. Some sections will need lots of shade. Some slopes need much less all because of how the sun hits it. So when I come back from coffee-buying trips with ideas to install on the farm, Antonio very patiently tells me why it won’t work and then we do it his way. Now that I’ve seen enough farms and have more or less a full plan of how I want to manage the farm, I’ve won a few of those debates.

Coffee tree nursery for future plantings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Coffee tree nursery for future plantings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Based on a cupping experiment done at Dallis I have decided to plant a lot more Caturra and Yellow Catuai. They ripen later and they cup better (per the score sheet) than Typica, which is about 90% of what I have planted. We are also going to try a new grass that I learned about in Brazil: Brachiaria brizantha. We are going to plant in rows like they do in Brazil. We are testing a “cajuela” technique I saw in Kenya and in El Salvador. In this technique we basically dig a hole in the shape of a box just above the coffee and it behaves like a catchment for organic material, water and erosion. All really fantastic things that mountain slopes need. It is labor-intensive and would have to be done every year but it should work. The new Catuai planting looks great. I think that specific part of the farm will do very well with that variety. We are planting more like the Brazilians: lots of trees, closer lateral space, and more space vertically (0.5*2.7). The pruning is done. The Passionfruit is finally taking root and should produce this year. We are experiencing a really strong drought, which isn’t bad if the rain comes in the next few weeks. All of these things are in motion.

After taking 3 different soil samples, none of which were tested for various reasons, we finally have one that is due to return from the lab any day now. Diomedis, Antonio’s son, has finally done a fantastic job pruning my coffee (Antonio has been pretty sick for the last several months). Antonio and I have been arguing for years how coffee should be pruned. After 6 or so harvests, we are finally pruning like I want to. The new plantings on the upper section and new shade crops are growing fantastically. They look really good and there are tons of flower buds. Again, if the rain comes at the right time, our October harvest will be big and good.

On to the bad news, the lower section of the farm (about half of the farm) produced sub-par quality and will be sold locally. All the care and attention didn’t matter because the development of the cherries was inhibited by a couple of fungus. Both Leaf Rust (roya) and Antracnosis really were hard on the trees. The roya or leaf rust is scary. There is a lot of it and it looks worse than ever. Leaf rust is nothing new, but this level of attack is new. I’ve considered spraying for leaf rust in years past, but why when it is never serious and more just a nuisance? Now it is serious and has some countries (Guatemala, Costa Rica) declaring national emergencies because of the level of infestation. Yes, it is hitting all of Central America at once, and the Caribbean.

Roya is now the first part of the conversation with all of our partners in Central America. Roya came from Brazil and it is present in every coffee growing country. It is probably the most damaging disease to coffee production worldwide. Almost every coffee farm has to deal with Roya. Usually it is a nuisance and doesn’t need lots of fungicide sprays. Often times a farm will either not treat it or treat it as part of general maintenance.

Roya (as it is called in Spanish) starts as bright orange rust-like spots below the leaves of coffee trees. A few dots on a farm are not really worth an application of fungicide. This is how it started in El Salvador this year. It looked like a normal dusting of orange scattered throughout the coffee growing region. As the harvest progressed, farmers noted that this was no normal Roya season. Farmers that were slow to spray for roya lost not only part of this harvest, but also lost trees. When Roya is aggressive, the leaves become weak and fall off. As it progresses through the entire tree, lateral branches start to die. At the worst it can kill the tree. It is rather rare that farms will lose trees.

Roya attacking coffee trees. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Roya attacking coffee trees. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Here is the strange part. I first heard about this in the Dominican Republic with the harvest in the South. Then reports from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala all started arriving to my inbox. I know that Colombia has been struggling with more Roya than usual as well as Broca. I could regurgitate what the reports say but that would make this post a small book. I’d rather share my personal perspective about where it came from and what makes this season so bad.

I think this hurricane season is to blame for all the spread of this Roya. Big powerful storms can take spores for thousands of miles. I’ve heard of specific farms in the DR that only had a single band of roya, like it came in from a single gust of wind. I’ve also seen it like it rained down in little pockets. That is what it looked like on Finca la Paz. There were little spots of roya in small sections but overall it was very limited on the upper section of the farm. On the lower section of the farm, it was much more intense. There were trees with no leaves and some with just a few remaining.

Roya is a fungus and it mutates. For many many years scientists thought that there was only one type of roya, hence there was a lot of money and energy put into developing varieties that are resistant to roya (mainly Catimores). One thing that has been noted, especially in India, is that these new varieties of roya-resistant plants are only really resistant for 5-7 years. Then their resistance “wears off”. The reality is that the fungus changes and then the plant is not resistant to the new variety. I remember from a presentation I saw in Ethiopia at the Naturals Conference that in India there are 43 identified types of roya. In a few years, the speaker said, there will be 44… In Colombia they have 3 different types of Catimores: Catimore, Colombia and Castillo. Castillo is the most recently developed and apparently the best tasting. I’ve never tasted it in an isolated cupping.

So, did this Roya come from an aggressive strain that has been wreaking havoc in Colombia? I think so.

One conversation I’ve had with several people is the relationship of shade and Roya. More shade generally means more moisture. Funguses like moist environments. Historically, one of the farm treatments for roya is reducing shade or removing it all together. Brigades of workers are already organized in the DR to prune shade. But wait..according to the real world that is happing right now on farms that I visited (e.g. Finca Rufino) it is the opposite. Most of the roya that is visible is actually in exposed areas and the shaded areas have less roya. One report I read mentioned that a naturally occurring fungus called White Halo actually controlled the presence of roya on some coffee farms. Just like beneficial bacteria, there are plenty of beneficial funguses.

The COODOCAFE is also preparing these brigades to spray copper-based fungicides. In East Africa, roya has been controlled by the application of copper basted fungicides for many years. Look at Kenya as an example, they are very strict with the spraying of fungicides (as I have been told it is enforced by law) and spraying is something that has allowed roya and coffee to coexist. Kenya also just launched a new coffee variety called Batian which is a smaller plant and more resistant to roya and also cups well according to their research. I’ve had some decent Batian, but it didn’t reach the high marks of the best SL-28 and SL-34 I’ve tasted. Then again most SL-28 and SL-34 don’t reach those high marks all the time either.

Finca Rufino, DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Finca Rufino, DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

I spent a couple hours with Rufino Moronta on his farm (Finca Rufino) yesterday. His farm is at the top of the ridge and faces South West. On the way up to his farm we passed by farms with coffee trees without any leaves. I hoped that his farm looked much better than those, his coffee was delicious last year. At one point during the visit he was looking at some four year old Caturra trees that really looked fantastic. Do you think we will make it through this harvest before the roya gets it? The stress was audible in his voice, his demeanor changed from a cowboy farmer to someone expressing fear about his livelihood. I couldn’t say, “sure your harvest is secure, sleep easy.” I couldn’t say, “you better plant some bush beans because these small spots of roya are going to eat your harvest before you can pay your bills.” I just said the truth in a typical fatalistic cultural expression, ojala que si – God willing, yes.

Looking forward: if farmers don’t spray, prune or fertilize at the right time, now, then they will have a very steep road in front of them for next year. The trees will struggle to recover from the current Roya infestation and the production of next year will be worse than this year.

On the human level things are much worse in some aspects.

I’ve kept this pretty under wraps but Antonio has been very sick for quite a while. I’ve hired his son to do his job on the farm. Antonio has been getting all kinds of analysis from different doctors. Laura (my wife) is a certified medical interpreter looked through his papers (he can’t read them himself) to find out that the next analysis is actually a cancer treatment. No one told him he had cancer. We did. Let’s just say it is never something that I ever want to do again. We didn’t cry, but maybe we should have. All I can do is offer to support what I can financially and say a few prayers.

Today had to be one of the best and worst days.