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Mexico's Organic Coffee: More Than Caffeine!

MAJA WALLENGREN EXPLORES THE LUSH FOREST AND GROUNDS OF FINCA IRLANDA, AN ORGANIC COFFEE FARM IN CHIAPAS, MEXICO.

Here, in this forgotten corner of paradise, a humming bird hovers between lush green coffee trees while, nearby, a bright blue butterfly lazily flutters here and through a group of orange trees and wild yellow orchids. Welcome to Finca Irlanda, an organic coffee farm in the southern state of Chiapas.

More than 30 years after Mexico exported the world's first shipment of certified-organic coffee from Finca Irlanda, the organic movement is growing faster than any other sector in the global coffee markets. What was started as a pioneer movement by German immigrants in Mexico in the 1920s, has today become possibly the most secure market for coffee farmers around the world, who are desperately looking for better and more stable prices in volatile markets. With certified-organic coffee trading at premiums of 30-50% higher than the price offered against the New York Coffee Sugar and Cocoa Exchange's "C" Arabica coffee futures contract, farmers are eager to see their coffee certified as organic.

"After my father bought the farm in 1928, he saw that the coffee market was very volatile and prices were fragile, so he was looking for a more secure way to sell the coffee and wanted to produce a coffee which was free of chemicals," said Walter Peters, who today owns and runs Finca Irlanda, which is located in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains in the Soconusco region of southern Chiapas. "We were certified in 1967 and exported the first shipment of 200 bags of 69 kgs to a client in Germany, and from there we have continued to grow. This last season we have been selling our coffee at prices of $1.60 a pound or above, generally about 30% higher than the market price."

The far-sighted strategy of the late Peters to contact the only then existing certifier, Demeter Bund in Germany, where the biodynamic movement in agriculture started as early as in the 1920s, have proven to be a healthy one for Finca Irlanda. Coffee farmers around the world, and in particular in Latin America, where some 65-70% of all the world's coffee is grown, have over the last few years suffered a string of difficulties with year-low prices, which in recent months have dipped to less than $1.00 per pound of coffee, against cost of production of up to $0.90 per pound. And while other Mexican coffee farmers in the Soconusco area at first were highly skeptical toward the late Mr. Peters' growing techniques and use of organic compost, they were soon to realize that in years of low global prices, the production at Finca Irlanda remained economically viable.

"Everybody here in the region at first thought that this Mr. Peters had some rather strange ideas," said Tomas Edelman from the neighboring Finca Hamburgo, "but then after some years with very low prices, they realized that his production was much more stable in an economic perspective, because he had a sustainable price."

Today hundreds of coffee farmers, large and small, across Mexico, Central America, and the rest of the world are joining the growing international trend of certified-organic.

"Now, because of Irlanda, you have tens of thousands of other farmers growing organic coffee and Mexico is one of the big leaders in certified-organic coffee in the world," said David Griswold, president of Sustainable Harvest, a small U.S. importer of organic and shade-grown coffee to the U.S. specialty market.

"Organic is the fastest growing segment in the U.S. market. The total U.S. market of organic product including coffee is worth $6.0 billion. Coffee began in earnest since the beginning of the 1990s, when you've seen really explosive growth of organic coffee," said Griswold.

According to a recent report from the Association of Coffee Producing Countries, consumption of organic coffee now grows twice as fast as that of any other kind of coffees globally. Growth in the organic coffee consumption has over the last few years been growing by 3% per year, according to the report. Organic coffee consumption in the U.S., the world's biggest consuming nation, accounts for roughly 1% of the entire amount of some 20 million 60kg bags of coffee being consumed in the U.S. on average a year.

As pioneers of organic coffee production, Finca Irlanda is still light-years ahead in the organic movement now racing through the markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

A trip through Finca Irlanda is a mind-blowing experience of nature and coffee growing in total harmony with each other--to such an extent that the visitor will think more about the breath-taking flora and fauna in the tropical rain forest than the quick burst of caffeine gained by consuming a cup of coffee.

It is also an adventure. "Watch out," shouts Walter Peters all of a sudden to the small group of visitors as he points at a four-foot-long frog snake that slowly slithers through the grass a few feet away from the group.

Critics of the organic movement who question whether organic coffee, as well as other organic products, really deserves the higher premiums consumers pay because of the expensive investigations of the farms are quickly shut down by coffee people such as Griswold. "Without inspections and certification, there would not be premiums for growers, as people would simply re-label their coffee as "organic" regardless of the origin. There are many importers selling organic coffees, but not certified, in which case the consumer cannot be assured of its origin," he said. "Certification is a necessary step to ensure consumers get what they are paying for, which is a coffee grown without chemicals for consumers who care about eating or drinking chemical-free products and are aware of agricultural products free of chemicals."

According to a certificate from Demeter Association, which is one of a handful of larger certifying agencies, an organic farm must prove "no use of synthesized fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fumigants," while only using "organic, naturally produced fertilizer." In order to ensure that certified-organic farms indeed are growing coffee organically, "farms are visited and re-evaluated annually and standards must be followed for 36 months before certification can be considered," while soil tests are taken to trace any possible unauthorized use of chemicals.

Furthermore Demeter demands that a farm must operate "a balanced farm ecosystem, crop diversification which provides a favorable environment for animals and birds." This is quickly verified when visiting Finca Irlanda.

Numerous studies conducted by universities and biologists at the farm over the years have found impressive varieties of both animals and plant species at Finca Irlanda's 320 hectares of land, of which only 270 hectares are cultivated by coffee, while the remaining 50 hectares have been maintained as a 30-40 meters high tropical rain forest.

"A team of researchers from the University of Michigan in the U.S. found more than 80 species of ants in just one area of the farm," Peters told Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a recent tour of the farm. He said other research teams and investigations had detected 87 species of spiders, more than 50 different species of tropical trees and 63 butterflies in just one particular plot of the farm. And of the more than 8,000 plant species existing in Chiapas, over 500 can be found within the farm land of Irlanda, he added. Peters, himself a devoted ornithologist, also estimates that there are over 200 different tropical birds living within the farm, in addition to hundreds more every year during the annual winter migration of birds which come in the thousands from Canada and the U.S.

That the coffee is grown in harmony with nature shows in the lower average yields of about 20 quintals (46kg bags) per hectare, compared to 30-40 quintals per hectare in an average non-organic coffee farm with intensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The yield is also lower because of the high density of tropical trees growing in between the coffee, which limits the density rate of coffee trees per hectare. Also, shade-grown techniques limit the coffee's direct exposure to the sun while allowing for flora and fauna to live side by side with the coffee.

"The organic compost is the most important aspect of organic coffee growing. When the first investigators came to the farm in 1964 we realized we had to enrich the compost instead of only making it with the pulp left after processing the coffee," he said. Finca Irlanda now has a production of over 1,000 tons of organic compost a year which, besides the pulp, includes cattle manure, loppings and weeds, sugarcane bagasse, dolomite and milled granite, most of which are produced at the farm. Besides using organic compost as fertilizer, explains Peters, all farm diseases, or other problems such as a too high PH-value in the volcanic soil, are treated with "natural enemies":

* The volcanic soil is enriched with dolomite limestone to Lower the PH value from the natural high soil acidity of between 3.7 to 4.3 PH, to the ideal coffee-PH value of 6.5.

* Coffee rust, a fungus attacking the leaves and eventually causing the trees to die if Left untreated, is limited by severe pruning.

* Coffee broca, a worm which eats the cherry from the inside and which can cause Losses of up to 20% in an infected tree, is treated with the natural fungus "entomophagous fungi," or beauvaria bassiana, which is developed in cooked rice at the local agricultural research stations and sprayed once every year at all trees in potentially infected areas.

Another environmental project run by Peters at Finca Irlanda is a rehabilitation center for animals threatened with extinction and found either wounded in the wild or rescued from the black market trade in towns around the Soconusco area. The latest patient of this program is a little Quetzal from Guatemala's northern San Marcos region, which was found on the black market in the streets of Tapachula at the Mexico-Guatemalan border a few months ago and now is being cared for by Peters before being set out in the wild again when it has recovered its strength to fly.

Finca Irlanda today has an average production of between 2,500-3,000 bags of 69 kilograms per year, and acknowledges that being the first exporter in the world, the farm has no problems with finding buyers. Peters is confident that organic coffee will continue to increase its market share among consumers worldwide. He ends off the interview, saying, "The trend of ecologically friendly and sustainable grown coffee is here to stay--and there is room for growth, even if the tendency is that growth will come slowly."

Finca Irlanda SA de Cv may be reahed by contacting: 17a Calle Ote, S/N Local 5, Conjunto Los Langeles, Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico; Tel: (52)(962) 554 85; Fax: (52)(962) 539 91.

Maja Wallengren is a correspondent both for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and our sister publication, Tea & Coffee Asia. She is a freelance coffee consultant and also works for Dow Jones Newswires.
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Author:WALLENGREN, MAJA
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Aug 20, 2000
Words:1858
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