LOS RAMIREZ - HONDURAS
As part of Semilla's ongoing mandate in sourcing coffee from exceptional groups who are currently underserved or under connected to the specialty market, Semilla is happy to formally announce we will be offering coffees from Los Ramirez, a small family of producers in San Miguel de Selguapa, Comayagua, Honduras.
Located in the remote, soaring peaks of Comayagua mountain range, the community of Selguapa is amongst the highest of all the communities producing coffee in the country. Indeed, a look at maps of Comayagua will often claim the elevation maxes out at 1500masl, while this group sits comfortable at 1800 and above. The incredible altitude has meant that Roya is largely non-existent and has allowed for the cultivation of heirloom varieties -- most specifically Typica and Bourbon -- that are difficult to find in good health elsewhere in the country.
History Doesn't Happen, It Is Made
The story of Semilla’s work with this group, as with the story of coffee in Selguapa, begins with Antonio Ramirez.
Born in Selguapa in 1950, he is the literal father of coffee in this region. At the time of his birth, Selguapa (1800 metres above sea level) was nothing more than a few casitas lodged in the steep, verdant ledges of the mountains of Comayagua. The principal economy for the majority of the late 20th century was beans and corn, and the population was incredibly isolated, having to venture on foot or on muleback to the nearest cities of La Paz or Comayagua.
30 years ago, Antonio became one of the very first to commercially grow coffee in the area when he took over some abandoned land. There, sprinkled throughout the hills, were coffee plants - Pacas, Typica, and Bourbon. Finding the Pacas struggling in the frigid nights, he removed this variety and dedicated himself to the Typica and Bourbon. Like many Typica plants in Central and South America, the origin of these seeds is unknown but they retain a character that is deeply unique: bright, clean and fruited, reminiscent of African coffees moreso than the common perception of Central American coffees.
For 27 years, Antonio grew and sold his coffee in cherry to local intermediaries, for bottom barrel prices. This process still exists today, with many cooperatives or middlemen riding through the mountains purchasing coffee in cherry. Today, the price has become more standardized as it is decided in relationship to the C market price. If the purchase is done honestly -- the price is equivalent to around 11USD for 100lbs of cherry, which would translate to roughly .65/lb in exportable green coffee.. If it isn’t done honestly -- incorrect weights are taken and lower pay awarded, or the offered price is simply lower -- producers can and have sold their coffee for much less than this.
Regardless of this system, Antonio persisted and as his land and production grew, so did his family. His four sons - Jose Antonio Ramirez, Israel Ramirez, Reniel Ramirez, and Walter Samuel Ramirez - now all grow Typica coffees that were either originally planted by Antonio or came from seeds from his plants.
Turning the Tide - Emigration and Production
Antonio is now 70 years old and Selguapa has grown to count over 1500 inhabitants, 800 of which are coffee producers. The Selguapa group who is now selling for improved prices to the specialty market accounts for only 25 of these 800 producers, meaning that only 3 percent of the all producers in this area are receiving sustainable prices for their coffee. The others continue to sell in cherry, unconvinced that there is a better market out there, or daunted by the challenge and investment of setting up their own beneficio to process their coffees to parchment.
This is then the importance of our work here -- not only to support the work of these 25 producers working in specialty now, but to show their neighbours and friends that their work is being recognized and valued. Of the 25 currently working specialty, they produce about 400 bags annually. We can make an extrapolated estimate then that there is roughly 13 thousand bags of coffee that is likely of exceptional quality simply due to its genetics and altitude available in this community alone.
In a time where we are discussing the increasing demand for Arabica and a production decline, investment in communities like these can be part of the answer. In fact, this year, a producer from a neighbouring community arrived at our meeting expressing these same sentiments -- he’d heard stories of higher prices paid and visiting buyers, but he’d didn’t believe it until he arrived to see us with his own eyes. Backpack full of samples, he explained his community was also interested in learning, and we left with another potential connection for the future.
Not only are neighbouring communities take note, but those within the community are seeing a reality they didn't believe in only a few years ago -- namely, staying home. Of these 25 producers and their families, I would estimate 2/3 at least have emigrated or currently live illegally in the United States. While this is common in Guatemala and Honduras, this specific communities sheer isolation lends itself to a particularly severe instantiation. However, now that coffee is becoming a viable option members like Reniel are staying home. "Are you still thinking of leaving?" I asked when we saw each other again. Always shy and soft spoken, he shook his head softly and smiled.
Their commitment to the future is obvious by their investment in infrastructure since last year -- much of which was built by Reniel and his brothers. A minimum of twenty new drying beds have been built and multiple depulpers purchased. For those who are unable to invest in their own set up, the group allows for others to share at this central site out of commitment to their common goal of improved quality and prices for the group. This newfound income has also allowed them to develop a mandatory communal fund in which each producer must donate the sale of one quintal per harvest, which is to be availed upon by the entire community in moments of need.
Let's Do Something New
Semilla is proud to be one of their very first partners and hopes to connect them with a durable, long term market in North America. Last year, Semilla purchased all of Antonio’s coffee from his Las Lajas farm in 2019 and connected him with several roasters who we hope will continue to support this impressive man, who has played a huge role in this community. In our second year buying, we will be expanding our scope - purchasing lots from multiple members from the group including Antonio’s sons.
As mentioned above, the current market price for coffee translates into a local price for cherry at 280 lempira for 100lbs ($11USD) or 1800 lempira for 100lbs of parchment coffee (~$72USD). Our price paid for last year Antonio's crop was 5000 lempira for 100lbs of parchment coffee, and we aim to set this as a base price going forward with the group as a whole.
The goal behind any of Semilla’s sourcing is to support and advocate for producers who are in the early stages of transitioning to specialty. This is a precarious and difficult decision, with a lot of risk involved. However, this is what we believe puts the SPECIAL in specialty -- the ability to use our positions of relative privilege to create a sustainable and frankly, just, purchasing pattern that allows for coffee producers to become truly sustainable.
Semilla doesn’t seek to simply buy and sell coffee but to authentically connect roasters with small producers, with care, respect and context to create the basis for a strong long-term relationship that benefits all parties. This is what we believe transparency is, not only a number paid at port, but an understanding of the people who grow this coffee -- their history, their challenges, their successes -- and to pay prices that are decided upon collectively, that make their work worthwhile and give the ability for more than mere survival.