People of Specialty Coffee: An Interview with Juan Luis Barrios

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What are the biggest obstacles that today’s coffee farmers need to overcome to stay in coffee?

Regardless of the size of one’s farm, I believe the biggest obstacle is being profitable on a consistent basis each year. This is quite challenging because there are many factors that are beyond our control: C-contract prices, climate, diseases and pests, fertilizer and herbicide/fungicide costs, minimum wage, exchange rate, and in some countries security issues…just to name a few.

The thing a farmer can control is ensuring that they are doing the proper jobs in a timely manner for the coffee trees, such as fertilization, pruning, new growth management, undergrowth management, and disease and pest control. To ensure that these things are done on time is usually dependent on cash flow. In the current environment, maintaining proper cash flow is a big obstacle.

What are the challenges for keeping the next generation of coffee farmers engaged in this activity?

The biggest challenge for keeping the next generation of coffee farmers engaged in coffee growing is the opportunity cost for them, because there are other opportunities for them to earn more money and possibly have a better standard of living.

What is the history of your farm and your involvement in coffee production?

Our farm has been in the family since 1832. My grandfather planted the first coffee trees in 1912, and therefore was a pioneer of planting coffee in San Martin Jilotepeque. I now manage the farm on behalf of the entire family: eight aunts and uncles and 25 cousins.

Where are the biggest challenges for you personally on your farm?

The biggest challenges I face are having enough workers for the multiple activities that occur on a yearly basis, security issues (theft and provoked forest fires), and ensuring the proper ROI for the farm.

I must constantly question our ROI because the next best option, and probably a better financial decision, would be to parcel off the property into smaller sections. The price of land in San Martin Jilotepeque is quite high in comparison to other areas of the country. For these two particular products/crops in our area, the ROI on the land is less than the real estate value.

The next big challenge I have will be to determine what to do with our current coffee areas and varietals. Decisions like whether to keep a varietal or change it, completely renovate the section or just stump and prune, and determining the ideal distance between coffee trees, or the ideal number of stalks, will all impact the future of the farm.

Have you taken any actions to improve the profitability of your farm outside of growing coffee?

Other than attempting to position our coffee in higher-priced markets to improve revenue, while at the same time attempting to improve crop yield to lower costs, I was able to begin intercropping coffee and pine trees. Although I know there are quite a few challenges of intercropping these particular trees, I do believe that intercropping is one of the most viable options for coffee growers. In our particular case, given the controls that the national forestry agency has on forest harvesting, I had very few options to intercrop coffee with something else other than pine trees.

Having said that, I look forward to finding other options of successful intercropping with coffee in the world. On paper, intercropping simply makes a lot of sense: it ensures two or more sources of income for the same plot of land (improving ROI/ROA), mitigates the volatilty in income because of the volatility in coffee prices, lowers overhead costs, and improves biodiversity, among other benefits.

juanJuan Luis is a third generation coffee farmer from Guatemala. He grew up in both Guatemala and the United States, and now manages the family farms, Finca La Merced and Retiro de Quisaya. Earlier this year, Juan Luis constructed a mill on the Retiro farm to process the coffee cherries. Juan Luis has served on the board of Anacafé, the national association for specialty coffee in Guatemala, and is a current member of the SCAA board of directors.