An interview about Nicaragua with: Janet Utecht

Written by nema on Aug 10, 2011 in BLOG |

Janet Utecht, executive director of Cooperative Coffees (center), with producers and Joe Lozano from Third Coast (left) in Nicaragua, July 2011.

Janet Utecht recently traveled to Nicaragua for Cooperative Coffees as a part of a United States Agency for International Development project that brings technical assistance and business training to coffee producers around the world.    She was joined by Joe Lozano of Third Coast Coffee, a roaster member.

The purpose of the trip was to lead workshops on cupping and help producer cooperatives learn to manage risk in the current market.  Their visit lasted for 10 days and took them from Matagalpa, Nicaragua, the headquarters of CECOCAFEN, an umbrella organization that processes all of the Nicaraguan coffee that Cooperative Coffees buys, to the farmer-owned offices of Prococer that are located in Jicaro, Nicaragua,  to coffee producer’s homes and coffeelands located  further north of Jicaro in Jalapa, Nicaragua.   See destinations here.

During the interview Janet shared some impressions of her fast moving busy trip.  They include the following:

  • Fair Trade premiums have helped to fund secondary school scholarships for many of the producer members of PROCOCER, a farmer-owned cooperative under CECOCAFEN
  • Social development programs for education and medical screenings help give cooperatives leverage when trying to convince farmer-members to sell their coffee to the cooperative rather than coyotes.  Coyotes, or the middlemen in the coffee trade, can be appealing buyers to coffee farmers, because they will pay in cash at the moment the coffee is purchased.  The amount will likely not be as high as the cooperative pays a farmer, but the farmer gets it more quickly.  Janet noticed that social programs like the secondary school scholarship program instituted by PROCOCER offers farmers an additional incentive to participate in the cooperative (and ultimately sell their coffee to the cooperative).
  • Convincing farmers to produce organically continues to be a challenge for CECOCAFEN.  Only 20 percent of their production is organic, Janet said.  While farmers can sell their coffee at a higher price if it is farmed organically, many producers argue that they can increase their yields with synthetic fertilizers to the point that they can earn as much money as they would if they were selling organic coffee.  Cooperative Coffees only buys organic coffee from CECOCAFEN.
  • Climate change continues to be a problem in the Nicaraguan coffee harvest.  Instead of having a defined season where coffee plants flower, then bud into cherries, coffee plants are flowering more frequently throughout the year, so a plant could have flowers and ripe cherries on it at the same time.  This is causing the plants to age more quickly, she said.  One development from the trip was that Joe from Third Coast was able to connect CECOCAFEN with some climate change research that is being conducted at Texas A&M University.
  • Strong relationships between buyers and producers continue to be important, Janet said, explaining that this was one point that they emphasized as a way to manage risk in a volatile market.  Maintaining quality and consistency are also important ways to manage risk, but direct relationships are key, Janet said.  Direct relationships and face-to-face meetings help to build trust, but they also encourage farmers to sell to their cooperatives.  “They told us that the farmers have more incentive to sell to the cooperative now, because they know who their buyer is,” she said of a conversation she has with the CECOCAFEN staff.

CECOCAFEN is an umbrella organization that processes coffee from about 12 producer cooperatives across Nicaragua.  It was founded in 1997 and  represents about 18,000 people in the country.  All of the Nicaraguan coffee that Cooperative Coffees purchases comes through CECOCAFEN.

This visit was one of several that Cooperative Coffees will make to coffee producing countries this year as a part of the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program.  Workshops are planned with coffee producers in other countries including Peru, Uganda and Mexico.  Earlier this year Cafe Campesino’s Tripp Pomeroy volunteered on a USAID trip to Bolivia.  Learn more about that trip on Fair Trade Wire.

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