Looking for Kale In Nicaragua

Article and photos by Nora Burkey  

Miraflor is a natural reserve in Nicaragua located 30 kilometers away from the city center of Esteli and a hotspot of biodiversity and ecotourism in the country. Indeed, Marvin Jose Perez, president of base-level Vicente Talavera cooperative, described the work second-level cooperative, la UCA Miraflor, has done to help families provide accommodations to tourists and to help maintain the natural landscape. He offered me his place to stay in order to explore the area or as a base to do coffee research, as many visitors before me have done. He walked me past his ornamental plants and was eager to show me all the vegetables the family had grown. œAll the families in Miraflor have beautiful plants like this,  says Adolfo Velasquez, president of another base-level member cooperative of la UCA, Jose Benito Dia Jimenes.

La UCA Miraflor isn’t the only union of cooperatives that supports Vicente Talavera or Jose Benito Dia Jimenes. They are also members of PRODECOOP, a second-level coffee cooperative representing 38 base cooperatives in the departments of Esteli, Madriz, and Nueva Segovia. Next door to Perez lives a family that runs a little canteen inside of their home for the weary traveler or regular guest. While I and three employees of PRODECOOP were waiting for our meal to arrive at this comedor, we chatted with Rogelio Villa Reyna about his soil and walked through his vegetable garden, which to my delight boasted two varieties of kale.

Mizael Rivas, Martha Centeno, and Rogelio Villa Reyna standing in Reyna's vegetable garden.
Mizael Rivas, Martha Centeno, and Rogelio Villa Reyna standing in Reyna’s vegetable garden.

I asked Reyna if I could really believe my eyes, and he very nonchalantly told me I could. Gleeful, I said that he was perhaps the only person in Nicaragua growing kale, and he shrugged like that was no big deal at all. None of the employees of PRODECOOP had ever seen kale before and moreover did not seem to understand my excitement. They continued to talk about soil while I giddily snapped pictures of this man’s kale and thought: this is what a coffee farm looks like, or rather, should look like. It’s not the kale that made me so happy ”although, after having spent six months in Nicaragua with lettuce as the only green leaf option, I admit to being very overcome with emotion ”it was the diversity of crops planted by Miraflor coffee farmers.   For coffee lovers in the United States whose taste and passion coincides with an interest in food justice and sustainability, there are a few realities of the beverage we might all like to forget. For one thing, it is usually a monocrop, and second, it is anything but local. If I were a green buyer, I told myself, I know exactly where my first purchase of coffee would come from.

Reyna's kale.
Reyna’s kale.

The planting of additional crops in Nicaragua’s coffee lands, however, is at once both an encouraging and upsetting thing to see. Such introduction of edible plants on small, family-owned coffee farms in Central America tells a sad story as well as a happy one, one that means green buyers might not have access to such bio-diverse coffee at all. Traveling to Nicaragua back in January 2014, I asked PRODECOOP what was the project they’d most want a roasting company to support. The answer? Their project against coffee rust. PRODECOOP says that rust is affecting 100% of its members, which is why they’ve drafted a plan and budget to renovate the coffee lands. When I asked Perez how much coffee he’d lost this year, he told me 50%. Not bad, I thought, compared to Velasquez, who lost 95% of his harvest.

President Adolfo Velasquez with yellow bourbon coffee.
President Adolfo Velasquez with yellow bourbon coffee.

œThe coffee is disappearing,  Velasquez said. œSome producers had none this year.  That doesn’t only effect the cooperative, he went on to describe; it effects the whole community. Children used to have enough money to buy things for school. Now they have to pick coffee just to buy pencils, he said. Martha Centeno, part of PRODECOOP’s development team, and local technical support Mizael Rivas, let Velasquez tell me the story of the project and how PRODECOOP is trying to fight rust. The cooperative wants to maintain the varietals that cup well, he explained. œIt’s about quality, not quantity,  he said. There are some hybrids resistant to coffee rust, like catimor, but it doesn’t cup well, so the cooperative wants to keep growing what tastes good, even if they are only able to renovate and grow one manzana at a time. œThat’s the idea,  says Velasquez. œManzana by manzana. On average each producer will grow enough new trees to fill one manzana of land, or, 4,000 trees. Little by little,  he said.

And the rest of their land? They’re growing corn, beans, potatoes, cabbage, and more. œWe can’t forget how to grow coffee,  he said, œBut while we are pulling out our trees, we will need something else to live on.  Coffee has been his livelihood for years and he hopes to return to this way of life, but the crisis poses an additional threat to that goal. Quality coffee needs shade, but it’s hard to grow a lot of corn and beans without cutting down trees. And besides that, everything we do, he said, we want to make sure we maintain the nature in Miraflor. He hopes that in several years, the cooperative will have all of its coffee back, tons of shade, and an intact landscape. The challenge will be surviving in the meantime without compromising those hopes. Ultimately, Velasquez said, œThe problem is not us.   It’s what we are going to give our kids. 

Marvin Jose Perez talking about the cooperative's plan to improve their soil this coming year.
Marvin Jose Perez talking about the cooperative’s plan to improve their soil this coming year.

Perez said that the children have already been effected. All the resources related to health and education in his community comes from the sale of coffee, he explained. Fewer children are in school now, he said, and more children are taking out loans to study. The problems with rust really started three years ago, but this year it has been especially bad.   œPeople are scared,  he said. œSome want to leave their land.  He told a similar story about the planting of new crops, one that didn’t make me feel particularly happy that farmers were growing several things at once, even if that is a step in a good direction in terms of sustainability. œWe have to grow our own food now. We used to be able to grow coffee and buy food from what we made. Because of coffee rust, we can’t depend on one thing anymore. We have to introduce other things. I’ve been a part of this cooperative for 18 years and the president the last 5. They’ve been the hardest 5 years.    With strength and help from PRODECOOP, Perez said, we can make it. And as Velasquez described, œOur base cooperative is PRODECOOP. There is no PRODECOOP without us,  he said. œWe’re all one big family. 

Back in the city of Esteli, as I was walking back to my accommodations for the night, a grown man walked ahead of me wearing a forest green L.L. Bean backpack that said Catherine on it, which I assumed he must have gotten in a neighborhood thrift shop. Catherine was a swimmer. You could tell because above her name she had embroidered two stick figures which looked like they were swimming, or diving, or maybe both. Even though it was just a silly unwanted backpack, it was a reminder to me that Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and that now, more than ever, the coffee universe needs to be as much a part of the solution to the rust crisis as the farmers and cooperatives themselves. Even if it is just for our morning coffee that we depend on these farmers, depend on them we do, and I believe they should be able to lean on us right back. If not for the simple love of coffee, then for the love of all mankind. These farmers have mouths to feed, and one patch of kale just might not cut it.


Nora photoNora began working in the Nicaraguan coffee lands in August 2013 as an intern for Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, where she evaluated a women’s empowerment initiative supported by Dean’s Beans, ETICO: The Ethical Trading Company, and Social Business Network. She is currently reporting from cooperatives both in Nicaragua and Peru with a focus on development programs. She hopes to connect more roasters, importers, and coffee shops to projects they can directly support in order to strengthen existing relationships throughout the supply chain.

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