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Tracing organic coffee back to its roots.

It has been over 85 years since the first coffee farm in the world took a conscious decision to turn its farming practices into organic cultivation. Inspired by the world's first certification agency for biodynamic produce, Germany's Demeter-Bund, Mexico's Finca Irlanda has been leading the way in organic coffee for 85 years. The story of organic coffee is one that is unmatched by that of any other certification label, yet little is actually known about the evolution of organic beans and not a single site on the Internet casts light over this puzzling fact. Despite multiple challenges from climate change and year-low prices, organic coffee is doing well and continues to grow.

A random Google search on organic coffee comes up with close to 31 million hits, far above that of any other kind of certified coffees available in the market. There are good reasons for this--85 years of good reasons to be exact-and two countries have to be given credit above any other for their pioneering contributions to the organic movements spread to coffee: Germany, which was the first country with the support from consumers to embrace it, and Mexico, which thanks to the Finca Irlanda coffee farm, made Mexico the worlds biggest undisputed producer of certified coffee for over 35 years. But to date, limited information has been made available to consumers or other interested parties as to how organic coffee has evolved. Despite the millions of links that mention organic coffee as a concept, not a single page appears on basic internet searches that actually tells the historic timeline.

It was 1927 and a group of German farmers, after four years of lobbying and work, had succeeded in getting the German association Demeter-Bund up and running to promote certified goods of agricultural products cultivated with the use of biodynamic practices, i.e. without the use of any chemicals. By 1928, the Demeter brand was registered in the German capital Berlin and that same year German immigrant farmer Rodolfo Peters took over the Finca Irlanda coffee estate in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas.

"My father always had a very clear idea of how he wanted to contribute and be a part of the organic movement, so from the minute he took over Irlanda he started implementing biodynamic practices," said Walter Peters, the son of the late Rodolfo Peters. "That was in 1928 and we can safely say that Irlanda started producing organic coffee as far back as 1930," [Walter] Peters told Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a visit to the farm, which holds international recognition as being the first farm in the world to export certified organic coffee. Hence, here in the lush rain forests of southern Mexico started what is an extraordinary part of coffee history.

Daniele Giavannucci, an international renowned coffee expert and the author of numerous reports and studies of organic and other certified coffees, said the core strength of organic coffee is its deeply established practices and legal status. "Organic coffee is very different from the rest. While the recent standards have yet to prove that they can bring the same benefits--though I think they do deliver some of what they promise at least in some ways--overall organic is not easy and it is, in terms of compliance and requirements, a very serious standard in comparison with other certification programs," he said.

There is no denying that organic coffee farming is not easy. To get the certification from Demeter, a farmer has to prove that no use of "synthesized fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fumigants" have been applied for up to three years prior to certification, according to official information from Demeter. Only the use of "organic, naturally produced fertilizer" is authorized and all crop pests must similarly be controlled through non-chemical practices. Furthermore, farms are visited and reevaluated on an annual basis and a rigid series of soil analysis is tested for any trace of unauthorized use of chemicals.

"Organic was the first certification to put strict standards around agronomy best practices, and its growth has helped open the market and allowed other certifications to grow--especially those that also deal in agronomy best practices," said Sara Morrocchi, global supply chain director of Portland-based roasters Sustainable Harvest.

Organic Origins at Finca Irlanda

As certified exports started to emerge in continuously growing volumes from Finca Irlanda, the neighboring coffee producing regions started to take notice and by the early 1980s a growing number of cooperatives in Chiapas were getting started on organic certifications of their own.

"It was from Irlanda that everything would start, grow and expand, with farmers from the local cooperatives among the first to start making regular visits to Irlanda to learn how this worked," said Homero Bias, president of the Mexican Organic Production Society, Somexpro. "It was a whole new world in coffee but from then on, very quickly, you started to see Mexico as the dominant exporter of certified organic coffee in the world," said Blas.

Mexico would remain the largest producer of organic coffee up until around 2000, accounting for as much as 60 percent of total world output of chemical-free beans at the time. Between 2002 and 2004, as Peru started expanding production thanks to U.S.-funded renovation projects switching illicit cocoa crops for coffee plants, Mexico started losing its lead but has stayed among the world's three biggest exporters of organic coffee. In the last five years Honduras has risen to become the world biggest exporter of certified beans, according to official figures from the Honduran Coffee Institute and other industry sources.

The vision the late [Rodolfo] had for coffee was decades ahead of anyone else in coffee, and Irlanda continues to enjoy the praise and recognition of connoisseurs across the world of coffee, even if it would take another 40 years before the certification seal got in place.

"In the late 1940s, we received our first official visit from Demeter to start working on the official certification, and even though we were doing everything right as far as adhering to the bio-dynamic practices, we realized that we had to do a lot of things better in order to make the farm economically sustainable," said Peters. Most notably, the Demeter agronomists were concerned that average yields were too low because the organic fertilizer was produced largely by the pulp from the coffee after processing and lacked substances that would enrich the fertilizer, such as chicken and cow manure, as well as a long list of other ingredients such as sugar molasses and limestone for example.

"In a good year we can get between 20 to 25 quintals (46-kilogram bags) per hectare thanks to the enriched organic fertilizer, and that allows us to have competitive yields," Peters said, adding: "We exported our first shipment of one container of certified organic coffee in 1967 to a client in Germany." Even though in recent years he has handed over the daily management of the farm to his son Bernd, the 82-year-old Walter Peters still walks the farm everyday.

Walking the farm at Irlanda is not your typical coffee experience, but rather that of a full-fledged safari, surrounded by dense jungle where coffee appears to be the ornamental plant of choice and a wealth of animals from bird life to the sacred jaguar still can be found living in full harmony within the natural habitat.

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. Of the total 320 hectares of land only 270 hectares are cultivated by coffee, while the remaining 50 hectares have been maintained as a 30 to 40 meters high tropical rainforest. Researchers from the University of Michigan in the U.S. found more than 80 species of ants in just one area of the farm, while another research team detected 87 species of spiders, more than 50 different species of tropical trees and 63 butterflies in just one particular plot of the farm, according to scientific journals kept at the farm. Of the more than 8,000 plant species existing in the state of Chiapas, more than 500 can be found within the farm land of Irlanda alone, including at least 200 different tropical birds, and this is not including hundreds of migratory birds that camp and nest on the lands during the U.S. and Canadian winter.

From Past to Present

The earliest beginnings of the organic movement can be traced back to 1840 when German chemist Justus Von Liebig, in establishing the concept of organic chemistry, realized that mineral plant nutrition could be fully substituted by organic matter. But it was not until the start of the 1900s that the organic movement as such began in a direct response to the shift towards the increasing use of chemically produced nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides adopted by supporter of the Industrial agriculture.

In 1924, concerned about the intensive farming practices that were starting to be adopted across the industrialized world, a group of German farmers approached Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner for ideas in how to set up Demeter Bund in 1927. Steiner had been actively involved in the public debate promoting environmentally friendly practices as a more sustainable approach to agriculture, which increased soil fertility without the use of chemicals. As such, this line of thinking represents the earliest established practices of organic farming.

By 1972, when Demeter Bund, together with a handful of other worldwide organizations promoting biodynamic farming, formed the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Finca Irlanda had already been farming coffee according to these principles for over 40 years. And Irlanda had been exporting certified organic coffee to clients in Europe, Japan and the U.S. over 30 years before Fair Trade USA was founded in 1998, and it was 20 years ahead of the Max Havelaar foundation for fair trade in the Netherlands. The fair trade movement for coffee in the U.S., however, was quick to attach itself as a second seal of certification to producers already growing organic. This, says coffee experts like Giavannucci, was a move that organic coffee benefited from while at Sustainable Harvest, for instance, half of all the organic coffee the roaster sells today is also fair trade. [All figures noted as certified organic refer to all organic coffee regardless of the certifying agency, i.e., including Demeter, USDA, IFOAM and others.]

"Both brands emerged in separate camps with very different objectives. They met and found they complemented each other well and have been very closely associated ever since in many places. The link is very important because they bring a balanced approach from the environmental to the socio-economic aspects to the over-all product," said Giavannucci.

"At Sustainable Harvest, more than 70 percent of the coffee we import is certified organic, with over half of that also certified fair trade. We've found that a rising number of our roaster clients that previously haven't bought into any certification systems have a growing interest in organic coffees," said Sustainable Harvest's Morrocchi, adding that demand continues to grow "with most of the demand coming from high-end specialty roasters in the U.S." The growth in organic coffee is nothing new, but industry officials remain impressed by how successful it has been, especially considering the challenge to economic growth of any value-added luxury product during the last five years of international financial crisis and the U.S. recession.

"The actual growth of organic coffees (in 2009 in the U.S. and Canada) was 4 percent. This brings the 10 year average annual growth rate down to 26 percent and the 5 year growth average to 21 percent," said the report, adding the North American market accounts for 40 percent of all organic coffee imports, while European countries buys 48 percent of the market, and 6 percent goes to Asian markets, primarily Japan. "In 2009, eight exporting countries accounted for more than 85 percent of total supply," said a 2010 report by Giovannucci, listing the eight top organic producers as Honduras, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Colombia and Nicaragua. "With about 120,000 hectares now certified, nearly 11 percent of Peru's total coffee exports are organic. Peruvian organic export volumes declined by 24 percent from 2008 levels to 405,000 bags," said the report.

In 2024, it will be 100 years since the organic movement that led to chemical free beans in the coffee industry got underway in Germany. But gone are the days where this market segment would provide one of the most secure and stable sources of prices in a volatile market. From population growth cutting into the average land size per farming unit to 15 years of low prices resulting in widespread abandonment of farms and basic farm husbandry, new challenges continue to emerge, most recently when Central America and Mexico were hit by the biggest coffee leaf rust outbreak in the history of the disease. But to third-generation organic coffee farmer [Bernd] Peters, the addition of climate change to the growing list of challenges he must face on a daily basis, is just another bump in the road.

"The last few years have been very difficult because of the aggressiveness of the rust outbreak, but look at us--we are still alive, we are still in good spirits and we are still producing coffee," said Peters. "Rust or low prices aside, it's hard to argue against such pure coffee spirit. Organic coffee is here to stay."

All photos courtesy of Maja Wallengren unless otherwise noted.

Maja Wallengren has been writing about coffee for more than 20 years from over 40 coffee producing countries across Southeast Asia, East and West Africa and across Latin America. She can be reached at:
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Title Annotation:ORGANIC COFFEE
Comment:Tracing organic coffee back to its roots.(ORGANIC COFFEE)
Author:Wallengren, Maja
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Cover story
Date:May 1, 2015
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