We’re picking fresh coffee in the thick of a Guatemalan plantation. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, meeting a family whose coffee legacy, which dates back to 1895, is being challenged by a modern problem: climate change.
Our journey starts in Guatemala City, where we travel pollution-filled highways out of the capital toward the country. We’re headed for Acatenango, in the southwest part of Guatemala in a department called Chimaltenango. Once we turn off the highway, it’s dirt roads that snake between mountains. We spot tiny churches and schools that dot the landscape here and see kids who spend whole days chopping and stacking firewood along the cliffs.
It’s here we find Finca La Soledad, a coffee farm that’s been part of the Perez family for generations. This family, including its two sons, are among the 125,000 people working in coffee production in Guatemala. Raul Perez, the oldest son, learned English in college and is the obvious choice to show us around.
It’s clear from the start that Raul is deeply committed to continuing his family’s business. He said, “This is our family’s farm and we have been working coffee for a little bit more than 100 years, and I’m the fifth generation working coffee here.”
To understand what a massive challenge it is to keep growing specialty coffee despite environmental challenges, we’re touring Finca La Soledad, bouncing around the back of a pickup, flying down the muddy paths that separate sections of the Perez family's coffee farm.
I ask Raul if this area is a good place to grow coffee. “It’s a great place to grow coffee actually,” he tells our crew. “We have the best weather conditions, we have really good soils.”
But he admits it used to be easier. Production is off. And the family said its biggest threat isn’t mega-companies like Starbucks. It’s climate change. They said they’ve seen the impact already.
“Mostly the rain patterns and the amount of rain we’ve been receiving in the last five years,” Raul explained. “It has been changing too much and for us as coffee farmers it’s really hard to adapt to those fast changes. It’s too fast for us. We are changing the systems that we are planting our coffees but it’s not fast enough to adapt to these areas.”
Like many coffee farms in Guatemala, Finca La Soledad is in the mountains. The Perez family has been here for years, but rising land prices have sent some other farmers to higher elevations out of necessity. Here the coffee grows on a plantation that sits so high it’s hard to know where the earth ends and heaven begins.
"Everything that we have - education, housing, is because of coffee. So for us it is really sad to see that probably in the future we will not have good or enough coffee to sustain the farm."
But rain at this elevation, or any elevation, impacts coffee yield. Yield equals money. And with costs growing, profits shrinking and the weather ever-changing, there’s an inevitable question - can a family coffee business like this survive the changing climate? Raul said every year it grows increasingly complex to farm their land. But despite the unpredictability the Perez family remains committed to their home and their livelihood.
“This farm has our roots, my roots. It has been here for many years in our family. It’s a sense of belonging. We think we belong here,” Raul said.
We take a break to enjoy a picnic in an area tucked between the 200,000 trees on the Perez family farm. Enjoying a cold beer and swapping stories, it’s obvious this is where they feel comfortable and happy and proud. In the circle with us, drinking a Guatemalan beer that’s been chilled in a nearby cooler, is Dr. Francisco Anzueto. He may understand the challenges a family like this faces better than anyone. He’s an expert who’s been studying coffee longer than the Perez brothers have been alive.
“The effect of climate in a coffee crop is very important since coffee is grown in an open sky,” Anzueto explained.
The issue of climate change is a point of focus for Anzueto and the group he works with, World Coffee Research. The non-profit agricultural group partners with Texas A&M, conducting studies and handling projects in 21 countries around the globe. Their goal is to help coffee farmers produce higher quality coffee and facilitate more sustainable farming methods.
“We have been able to observe the greatest effect of climate on coffee production is its influence in the behavior of a plague we know as 'rust.' Since the year 2012, this plague has spread epidemically,” Anzueto said.
A recent study from World Coffee Research found more than $2 billion worth of coffee was lost to rust between 2012 and 2016. Guatemala took a major hit. The organization found some areas dealing with problematic rust had the disease on as much as 60 percent of its acreage.
"Regarding the climate, it's difficult to change conditions. However, we can adapt coffee production to the climate conditions."
Raul and his family are constantly looking for signs of rust, which they call “roya." It wasn't hard to find during our tour.
“There’s not enough leaves to feed these cherries and we can lose some harvest or the growth for next season so next harvest will be a small harvest, a small yield,” he explained while showing us evidence of rust on a coffee tree.
“There’s the risk of losing the cherries. They will dry out because they need nutrients. They are feeding right now and if they don’t have nutrients they will just turn into black and we lose that branch or we can lose the whole tree at once.”
Organizations like World Coffee Research are leading research to help cut out rust altogether. Their work involves genetics, discussions of adaptation with shade and rain as well as other work to deal with climate change.
Finca La Soledad is closely following the efforts of World Coffee Research. They’ve added shade trees and made other adaptations to their farming methods. But it’s a careful dance. Climate change can impact quality. Changes in how they farm could also impact taste. And when you’re selling specialty coffee, you can’t take too many chances. There’s even more at stake when your family’s name is on the label.
“Yes, it’s a lot of pressure. But it’s a good pressure because it’s a product and a business that has a lot of history so instead of pressure, it’s motivation to keep working,” Raul said. When I asked him if he loved it, his response, “Of course, there’s nothing else I would choose to do in this life.”