Hacienda La Esmeralda | Boquete, Panama


Sustainability is something that all farmers practice – to some degree. That degree depends on their ability to obtain a price for their product enabling them to be proper stewards of the people they work with and the land. But first, let me describe how we farm at Hacienda La Esmeralda.

Hacienda La Esmeralda is a farm in the mountains of western Panama. Coffee is grown from 3,300 feet to 5,000 ft in several owned or controlled parcels, half of which are either in forest reserve or National Park. Hacienda La Esmeralda in Palmira has 134 ha. of coffee in production. Pequeña Suecia in Jaramillo (50 hectares, about half in production) is jointly owned with the Peterson family and a Bennett cousin. La Lorenita (18 ha. in production) is jointly owned with the family of our friend, Roberto Motta. The farms employ about 45 people on a permanent basis, swelling to 300 during the coffee harvest. Including families, this means that over 1,000 people depend directly on the farm for sustenance. Farm direction has been in the hands of the Peterson family for the past 35 years and is now into its third generation.

To sustain the people, the land, the owners and the environment is not an optional matter. These things have, do and will depend on the ‘sustainability’ of our farming skills. After not only three generations of owners, but also of employees, we all work for sustainability.

First comes sustainability of people. Our business practices must always be such that our products will readily sell at a level which will keep everyone (owners and workers) fed, clothed, educated and in good health. Beyond that we strive that everyone has a degree of security in their lives to permit a home and a pension at retirement. When this degree of sustainability of people is defined, the rest tends to follow as day the night.

Just as you cannot poison your farm and expect it to continue producing at high yields for 35 years, you cannot fail to replace the phosphorous, calcium and potassium removed from the soil and shipped away in coffee to California. The need for replacement applications of fertilizers is just as much a part of sustainability as is avoiding the use of pesticides that will kill people. Both are things that naturally follow if you first decide you want to sustain people. Enormous tracts of virgin forest have little to do with sustaining people, but maintenance of forest along watersheds has everything to do with sustainability. A producing farm undoubtedly has a higher animal biomass than virgin forest as well as a higher photosynthetic rate. It is ‘producing’ – it is not in a resting equilibrium as is a forest. That certainly does not prevent it from being sustainable. Three millennia of agrarian development has to have taught farmers something. – if nothing else, it has taught them to ‘sustain’.

With the above serving as a preface, I would like to describe what we do at Esmeralda to be ‘sustainable’.

First we strive, consistently, to produce a very high quality product such that it will produce the needed revenue to sustain people and land at the level described. This is done through continuous training, education, seminars and, in our case, certification (ourselves writing the manuals) of both milk and coffee with ISO 9002. This has enabled us to have a product that has been appreciated and for which a premium is paid in both products. This premium, in turn, enables us to do some things socially, which have been rewarding.

THE PEOPLE At coffee harvest, families usually arrive in poor nutritional condition. One of our first innovations was a day care center for kids. Usually kids under 5 are either locked up in the workers quarters while the parents are away harvesting or, in the case of infants, slung in a hammock (chacara) from a tree limb during the day, exposed to sun and rain. We have replaced this with a day care center where the children (up to 80) are cared for, and fed with ‘super’ (high nutrition) cookies and milk to restore a normal nutritional plane. We have also been fortunate in getting the community to help them with socialization and education. This program is backed up by a visit every Saturday from a physician, dentist and well stocked mobile pharmacy. This is real ‘shade tree’ medicine – but effective. Normally the physician sees over 100 patients per day (with families, we normally have over 1,000 people living on the farm during coffee harvest). Since the harvesters are generally young and healthy, severe medical problems are rare. Nearly everyone has intestinal parasites, which are easily treated. Occasionally we see severe diarrhea and dehydration and usually about 4 or 5 cases of tuberculosis each year.

Once these two programs were launched, we then moved on to a more general nutritional program where we supply packages of rice and beans, or rice and sardines to every adult in the family (not only the pickers). The children in the nursery (and for that matter, any child in the area, as well as mother’s with infants that are still breastfeeding) receive a full cooked meal for lunch.

Over the years, we have learned that ‘sustainability’ requires competent people to farm the land. From this has grown a program where we supply the lunch program and all didactic materials for two local elementary schools. Every child of the farm is entitled to a ‘scholarship’ for both elementary and secondary school as well as a full scholarship to the University of Panama.

Finally, for the coffee harvesters, experience has taught us that they leave our farm at the end of the harvest (March) with some money in cash and return to their homes in the mountains. When the rains come in May they plant some corn, beans and root vegetables. These are ready for harvest in August. By June or July their cash is exhausted, nothing is ready for harvest, and a time of great trial begins. This is the time when nursing children tend to starve and maternal health reaches dangerously low levels.

In order to help at this point, we go to the area where our workers originate (San Felix) on the first of June and distribute an additional bonus of between 10 and 20% of the earnings gained during the harvest (depending on how good a year it was for coffee). During the harvest we always pay on a par or a little more than our neighbors. This is often enough to make the difference between life and death until their own harvest comes in.

Due to the premium we receive for our geisha, we are able to pay the geisha pickers 3X the average price paid for harvesting. As you can imagine, harvesters line up for this privilege, and are extremely careful, making sure to pick only ripe fruit. The geisha pickers also receive a higher bonus at the end of the year. Unfortunately, the geisha is currently approximately 3% of our total crop.

THE LAND Our soils are volcanic with high levels of organic material, poor in minerals and with pH values of 4.5 to 6. Mostly, we try to supplement the minerals and otherwise keep them as they are. Structurally they are excellent and drain very well. Due to the good drainage, erosion is minimal. However, we continue to plant various trees and grasses as well as strict contour planting to keep it that way. We generally have more than 75 large trees per hectare that we prune twice a year. These help with shade during the dry season and provide a wealth of organic material in addition to the litter falling from the coffee trees. This pruning is generally timed to be both before and after our local bird nesting season (Feb. through June) The coffee pulp is drained out on to the dairy pastures (not streams) where it provides needed fertilization and irrigation.

When we detect a fall in pH values, we apply lime to both correct the problem and restore calcium and magnesium removed by the coffee. Likewise, fertilizer applications are carefully calculated to replace the quantity of minerals removed by the previous crop (per hectare, 450 lbs N, 450 lbs K, 40 lbs P, 60 lbs Ca, 25 lbs. Mg, plus small amounts of B, Zn, and S) plus an additional 10% to account for minerals washed away by our annual rainfall of about 160 inches. To not apply adequate mineral fertilizers, I consider a criminal failure of land stewardship. After repeated crops of tobacco were farmed in the southeastern US, the land become mineral depleted, abandoned, ruined, and farming ‘unsustainable’. This sort of error cannot be allowed to repeat itself in the name of ‘organic’ farming.

With pesticides, we again look to sustain first the people and a logical, minimal use of safe products then follows. Pesticides are divided into three categories – herbicides (weed killers), insecticides, and fungicides In the dairy pastures, we have confirmed that “grass is the best weed-killer”. By maintaining vigorous stands of aggressive grasses at reasonable heights, we have arrived at a point where pasture cleaning (once an enormously time consuming job) takes care of itself and neither machete nor herbicides are used. Because grazing dairy cows return between 75 to 80% of ingested phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium to the pasture through excretion, replacement fertilizer requirements are quite modest.

In adult stands of coffee, there is almost no weed growth due to the shade provided by the coffee itself. As part of coffee cultivation, the trees are pruned every four to five years, row by row. The row that is pruned will usually allow weed growth during the following year and this does require cleaning – three times per year in our case. The first is done mechanically with machete, the second with glyfosato (aka Round-up and about the most innocuous weed killer known) and the third with machete.

Coffee does suffer terribly, in Central America, from fungi – two or three varieties account for 95% of the problem. Fungal resistance, introduced from traditional genetic breeding methods, has had marginal success. In the most notable cases resistance to roya has resulted in either very low yields (var. Geisha) or poor cup quality and susceptibility to other fungi (var. Colombia or Catimor). As a result, the most commonly used pesticides in coffee are fungicides. As more stringent measures have been taken to remove dangerous chemicals from use, the better fungicides have also disappeared. Those which remain are but marginally useful, expensive and require frequent application. Both the use of fungicides and the fungal problem could be eliminated by introduction of fungal resistance through genetic manipulation – a truly ‘organic’ solution to the problem. However, the ‘Organic’ purists have rejected this approach. One thing that does help to relieve the problem is better ventilation of the plantings. Heavy shade would obviously counteract that effect.

ENERGY In Order to be both energy conservationist, as well as efficient, we at Esmeralda use both hydroelectricity and sustainable wood burning. Two hydroelectric turbines generate 50 kw of energy which operates dairies, housing and some parts of the coffee beneficio. Nearly all coffee drying is done with wood fired ovens and rotary driers. In order that this be sustainable, 15 years ago we began planting eucalyptus trees along the internal roads of the farm. These grow rapidly, provide a needed windbreak and have high caloric value, as well as rapidly re-sprouting after cutting. With the 3,000 trees we now have growing we will be indefinitely self sustaining in firewood without having to touch any native forest.

THE BUYER These are among the things we do to sustain our lives, farm, and land. They are nothing extraordinary – just good farming practice and a respect for people. Without a good price for what we produce, both would be difficult to sustain. In a time of low prices, as we now have with coffee, it would be impossible under two circumstances: (1) that we had no diversification and (2) if we sold our product to greedy buyers. Esmeralda is blessed in that we are somewhat diversified, but more that we have dealt with buyers who share our concerns about the sustainability of people and land.

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