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A Healthy Jolt.

Organic coffee grown in Mexico is injecting some life into an ailing industry.

A HUMMING BIRD IS SINGING AMONG lush green coffee trees in this forgotten corner of paradise, while a spectacular blue butterfly makes a quick pass through a group of wild-orange trees and yellow orchids.

Welcome to Finca Irlanda, an organic coffee farm in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains in the Soconusco region of the southern Mexican 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 in global coffee markets.

What started as a pioneer movement by German immigrants to Mexico in the 1920s has today become a worldwide phenomenon for coffee farmers, who are desperately looking for better and more stable prices in volatile markets.

With certified organic coffee trading at premiums of 30% to 50% more than the price offered for futures contracts on the common arabica beans, farmers are eager to join the movement. Especially since farmers around the world, particularly in Latin America, where some 65% to 70% of all the world's coffee is grown, have, over the last few years, suffered a string of difficulties. The culprit? Low prices, which in recent months have dipped to less than US$1 per pound, with production costs of up to 90 cents per pound.

"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," says Walter Peters, the son of Finca Irlanda's founder and its current manager.

Soon after Peters' father bought the farm in 1928, the coffee market--along with all the others in the wake of the crash of '29--became very volatile. To avoid the price dips and the use of hazardous chemicals, the elder Peters decided to start producing naturally grown coffee. He sought out the era's only existing certifier, Demeter Bund in Germany, so that he had independent proof to justify his claims of natural production and higher prices.

Strange ideas. While other Mexican coffee farmers in the Soconusco area at first were highly skeptical of the late Peters' growing techniques and use of organic compost, they soon realized that in years of low global prices, the production at Finca Irlanda remained economically viable.

"Everybody here in the region at first thought that Mr. Peters had some rather strange ideas," says Tomas Edelman, owner of 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. "Because of Irlanda, you have tens of thousands of other farmers growing organic coffee," says David Griswold, president of Sustainable Harvest, a small U.S. importer of select beans for the U.S. specialty market.

According to Griswold, organic coffee is the fastest-growing segment in the United States. The total U.S. market of organic product--including coffee--is worth $6 billion. "Since the beginning of the 1990s, you've seen really explosive growth of organic coffee," he says.

A recent report from the London-based Association of Coffee Producing Countries reports that, at 3% per year, organic coffee consumption is growing almost twice as fast globally as that of any other kind of coffee. Yet, it still accounts for just 1% of the some 20 million 132-pound bags of coffee consumed on average every year in the United States, the world's largest consuming nation of java.

As pioneers of natural production, Finca Irlanda is still light years ahead in the movement now racing through the markets in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Proof of purity. There are plenty of critics of the organic movement, whose members question whether these products really deserve higher premiums at market and whether they are cultivated any different than regular coffee beans. Those criticisms are quickly shot down by coffee people such as Griswold.

"Without inspections and certification, there would not be premiums for growers, as people would simply relabel their coffee as `organic,' regardless of the origin," he says. "Certification is a necessary step to ensure consumers get what they are paying for, which is a coffee grown without chemicals."

According to a certificate from Demeter Association, which is one of only a handful of large certification agencies, an organic farm must prove "no use of synthesized fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fumigants" while using only "organic, naturally produced fertilizer."

To ensure that producers are growing coffee without chemicals, farms are visited and reevaluated every year. 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. Demeter also demands that a producer must operate "a balanced farm ecosystem [and] crop diversification, which provides a favorable environment for animals and birds."

A trip through Finca Irlanda is a mind-blowing experience, with nature and coffee existing in total harmony with each other. Oftentimes a visitor will be more interested in the colorful flora and fauna in the tropical rain forest than the quick injection of caffeine gained by a sip of the brew from the juicy red berries once they're roasted. It is also quite an adventure. "Watch out," Peters shouts to a small group of visitors, as he points to a 1.2-meter-long frog snake that slithers gracefully through the grass ahead.

At Finca Irlanda, many studies conducted by universities and biologists over the years have found an impressive number of varieties of both animals and plant species at its 790 acres of land. Only 667 acres are used to grow coffee, while the remaining 123 acres have been maintained as a 100 to 130-feet high tropical rain forest. "A team of researchers from the University of Michigan in the United States found more than 80 species of ants in just one area of the farm," Peters says.

Peters says other research teams have 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, more than 500 can be found within the farm land of Irlanda, he adds.

Peters, himself a devoted ornithologist, also estimates that there are more than 200 different tropical birds living within the farm. Hundreds more come to visit every year during the winter migration of thousands of birds from Canada and the U.S.

That the coffee is grown in harmony with nature shows in the lower average yields of about 4,989 pounds per acre, versus 7,484 to 9,978 pounds per acre in an average non-organic coffee farm with intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The yield is also lower because tropical trees growing between the coffee trees reduce the density of coffee trees per hectare. Shade-grown techniques also limit the plant's direct exposure to the sun while allowing for flora and fauna to live alongside.

The organic compost is the most important aspect of natural growing, Peters explains. "When the first investigators came to the farm in 1964, we realized we had to enrich the compost instead of only making it by the pulp left after processing the coffee," he says.

Finca Irlanda now has a production of more than 1,000 tons of organic compost a year. Besides the pulp, the compost includes cattle manure, weeds, sugar cane bagasse, dolomite and milled granite, most of which are produced at the farm.

Peters says all farm diseases or other problems are treated with "natural enemies." For example, the area's volcanic soil is enriched with dolomite limestone to lower the natural high soil acidity. Coffee rust, a fungus that attacks the leaves and eventually causes the trees to die if left untreated, is limited by severe pruning. And the coffee broca, a worm that eats the berry from the inside out and 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 on all trees in areas potentially infected.

While many believe the movement for naturally grown products is just a passing fad, Peters feels that organic coffee will continue to increase its market share among consumers worldwide. "The trend of ecologically friendly and sustainable grown coffee is here to stay," he says. "And there is room for growth, even if that growth comes slowly."
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Author:WALLENGREN, MAJA
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:1456
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