By Andrew Cayer
Watcher of birds, chopper of wood, slinger of lattes.
Before Roger even sat down to talk to us, he was already telling his backstory. The interview had started before I even asked the first question. He began by talking about the man who introduced him to coffee. This man was the first producer in Nicaragua to plant 4000 trees per manzana (1 manzana = 1.74 acres). This man taught him the importance of cleanliness in the entire process of coffee production. Since it’s something that so many people drink, it needs to be grown and milled very cleanly. Most importantly this man taught Roger to be a steward of the environment. He talked about how Nicaraguans have a long way to go in caring for the environment preserving nature for future generations. He spoke at length about all of the birds he sees on his farm that wouldn’t come if he didn’t grow sustainably.
When I began the actual interview, Roger was very excited about every question, often going on tangents. It was obvious talking to him that he is incredibly passionate about what he does on his farm.
Don Roger, Andrew Cayer and Ben Weiner
Andrew: How many years have you been farming?
Don Roger: I have been working for about 28 years with coffee. The farm, we’ve had for about 12 or 13 years.
A: What made you decide to cultivate coffee?
DR: The opportunity came up – I’m an agronomist, and I worked with basic greens and vegetables. But I also had the opportunity to work with coffee and I liked it a lot. We started to get involved in coffee and the opportunity came up with my brother Alejandro, who now lives in Canada, to be able to buy this piece of land. I’ve dedicated myself to cultivating it.
I have all kinds of varieties: bourbon, caturra, pache and java. And a few little trees of geisha that we’re planting. I have a small wet mill. I have a system of tubing that is buried for the runoff water from washing coffee to go through so as not to contaminate nature. The water that I use to wash and to do other jobs in the field is very clean water. I don’t apply any type of insecticides. What I do is, to control broca [coffee borer beetle] more than anything, I do that manually. I collect the infected cherries, put them in hot water to control the plague of broca . We pick up whatever falls on the ground which would attract the beetle if left, and whatever’s still left on the tree, we pick that off. That is not to sell at all. Just for local consumption. The best of the coffee is what we cultivate to maintain the quality with you and maintain that relationship and friendship.
I don’t apply neumaticides [pesticides that kill nematodes] because that kills everything in the soil, including all of the decomposing bacteria. I want the organic layer of the soil to be alive, so I put down fertilizers that don’t contaminate the soil. The fungicides and nutritional sprays that we use are products that don’t harm the environment. Why do we do that? The water that we have on the farm is used for human consumption in the community. I am also trying to do a project with the mayor of Matagalpa and the community to make improved kitchens to utilize the parchment that comes from the coffee in order to cook so that people aren’t logging trees.
A: How did you start working with Gold Mountain?
DR: For me, for us, for our family, it was a blessing from God. My son Roger who is a cupper was friends with an agronomist in Matagalpa named Enrique who knew Ben Weiner. He introduced us in either 2010 or 2011. We started with just a little bit, but now, I sell the entire harvest through Ben. It is a marvellous relationship because it is a relationship of family.
A: How has working with Gold Mountain benefitted you?
DR: It has benefited us in a huge way and we have been able to help many people because of it. We’ve improved the conditions of the workers on the farm. We’ve been able to build a comfortable house there. I even give high quality coffee and food to the workers. I throw a party for them at the end of the year. We work as a giant family. We help the nursing home so that God keeps blessing us and you and the US. It is a marvellous thing, a beautiful friendship. We hope to continue growing and have this relationship for generations to come, as long as God is willing.
A: What experiences have shaped your approach to farming?
DR: This is something that has come with time, it’s not something you can learn in university. You can’t even learn it in the street. I’ve learned a lot from you. How to prepare coffee… So every year we improve and become more familiar with coffee. And that has been a marvellous situation. We learn through our experiences and through yours.
A: How many full-time employees do you have?
DR: There are times when I have four, there are times when I have five. This year, since I have a little bit more coffee, I have seven to eight permanent workers. That’s eight families that are supported. And families are large in Nicaragua. Here in Nicaragua, the people in the countryside still don’t have the education or vision to look far ahead. Sometimes they have four, five, six… up to twenty kids! But there are some programs and talks about health. People are living with more hygiene and care. During the harvest, I have fifteen to thirty workers for about 90-100 days.
A: Is it difficult to get your workers to follow quality standards?
DR: I always train them first. I educate them so I won’t have those problems. Since we’re a smaller farm, we all get together and talk and I explain that I have to pick the coffee well because otherwise no one will buy it. And the workers will lose their job if they don’t pick well. So the people take that advice and they do things as they are instructed. That is something that we value a lot. There are other farmers that work abysmally. They don’t have that vision to work better because they aren’t educated. Agriculture requires a lot of education in order to make sure that everyone does a good job.
A: How do you get information about market trends?
DR: The information I receive is through you guys. That satisfies and motivates me to continue improving. Those varieties that we have, we can’t get rid of them because you’ve established markets that ask for those varieties specifically. So we are working on always improving. Thanks to you we realize where we’re coming up short and you tell us a certain coffee has more demand, so we focus on that.
A: Where do you purchase your varietals, especially the less common ones like geisha?
DR: Years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and to Panama. So with the friendships I made and through other agronomists, we were able to get a few varieties that they gave to me. I started to experiment with them here. And after I planted them they tasted the quality of the cup and said to me “continue with this because this coffee is excellent!”
At this point, Ben mentioned that he had some roasted pache from Don Roger’s farm. It was with this same pache that Joe Bean won the Good Food Award in 2014. I took this opportunity to tell Roger that his bean is one of the most popular beans we sell every year which pleased him very much.
A: Do you have a favorite varietal?
DR: I’ve always thought bourbon and caturra are the best.
A: Are there any difficulties the coffee industry has presented to you?
DR: I haven’t had problems selling the coffee because Don Fran, who I used to sell to, used to pay a very good price. And since he passed, I have only worked with Gold Mountain and I’m very happy with the prices I’ve received. This has even helped us plan for the future. We hope we can continue this relationship because it’s challenging to keep up with the quality, but it’s an excellent market. It’s a very serious commitment we put into it to maintain this relationship.
A: What improvements do you hope to make in the future on the farm?
DR: What I’m trying to do on the farm is, if the tree is getting to the end of its productive life, I am planting new nurseries every year so that the same quality and quantity can be maintained of all varieties. We take care of the plants and feed them with things that are good for them and humans. We also are creating drainage for water. We plant bananas, plantains and some citrus fruits. Do you know the lemon taiti ? It is a citrus without seeds. I am going to bring you some so you can try it (a few days later, he brought me a huge bag full of what I later learned was Tahitian lime)! As for the coffee, you can improve the quality with grafting.
A: Can you expand on that?
DR: You have to plant the seed, it will be the base. Then you take the plant that you are going to insert. You can only do it with coffee when it’s in matchstick phase. So you take the base and the coffee you want to graft. They have to be planted one week apart from each other. The base has to be planted one week earlier. I cut the top of the variety I want to propogate, then I insert it into the base of the other variety. The base will be a more resistant variety to nematodes and roya [coffee rust] or rooster eye or other infirmities. The base also has to be a strong-rooted variety. There is a variety called robusta. It has very strong roots. There is another called nemaya. You insert the variety you want into these roots. I can insert caturra, pache, java, bourbon or geisha. That is the future of agriculture. Specialists are saying that this is what we have to be doing. I will be seeing if I can do that because climate change is going to affect coffee and with this approach, we might still be affected, but in a smaller way.
Don Roger, his son, Ben Weiner and I sipped the rest of our cups of coffee that I had brewed, chatted for a few more minutes. He got up to leave, but first thanked us immensely over and over for treating his coffee well and for helping his family and his community.
I had the opportunity to meet with him once more the next week, when he came to Finca Idealista to share some knowledge with the workers there about infirmities and better fertilization techniques. Roger is clearly an incredibly intelligent, caring and generous man whom I hope can continue providing excellent coffee for years to come.