This piece was written by Monika Firl, director of sustainability with Cooperative Coffees, the green coffee importing cooperative of which Cafe Campesino is a part-owner.
I first met Oscar Omar Alonzo Aguilar and visited his coffee field, “Cual Bicicleta,” during my initial visit to Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. de C.V. (COMSA) in Honduras, together with my CoopCoffees colleagues “Equipo Feminino” in early 2013 .
That harvest Oscar was already getting yields of more than 60qq per hectare of high quality, organic and fair trade certified coffee from his fields. But it wasn’t just that Oscar had managed to achieve such great yields that rocked me. It was that he was able to achieve this during the peak of the leaf-rust crisis, while being surrounded by utter and complete devastation in the plots of neighboring conventional and natural farmers (photo above).
But for some reason, the leaf-rust fungus was side-stepping his fields in order to attack his neighbors’. And in the process, Oscar was proving false every assumption mainstream research was telling us about how the leaf-rust crisis MUST be managed. What I learned that day completely blew the chemical “conventional discourse” out of the water!
While hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent to promote more persistent fungicide spraying and buckling down for the “dirty-but-necessary” war against the leaf-rust fungus Hemileia vastatrix ravaging the coffee lands, Oscar had reverted to a simple, yet intensive, plan to strengthen natural systems.
Standing there in the middle of his fields, grabbing a fistful of soil teeming with life… I was dying to discover his secrets! What I got was something of a mix between inconvenient truths and a class in remedial micro-biology.
- We must work WITH nature and not against her;
- Lasting positive results take work and perseverance, and repeat;
- Expert theories must be tested against real-life experience;
- Most chemical inputs recommended to farmers to improve yields and profits, in the long-run actually do just the opposite.
- The soil is like the living and breathing skin of the Earth;
- The most important dynamics are conducted by an army of micro-organisms invisible to the naked eye;
- Every minuscule piece of this puzzle is interconnected to a myriad of other moving pieces.
What Oscar achieved is not miraculous. He is just an extremely energetic, curious and determined guy, who got the right information at the right time and a little support to get things started. And then he ran with them and did everything right!
Increasing the quantities of organic matter, strengthening the quality of his compost with locally produced, beneficial bacteria and fungi – “Efficient Micro-organisms” or “EM”s, spraying compost teas to cover vulnerable leaf surfaces, and mulching with water-logged coconut husks to support soil life with stable humidity, are examples of his regular field maintenance. The results of his efforts speak for themselves.
For me, this has unraveled even the super-solid foundation I thought I had with organic theories. Over the course of some 25-plus years of promoting organic practices, I always understood plants to be in constant competition with each other for nutrients, and that we must be extremely vigilant about putting back into the soil what the current harvest is removing. That is, in part, true.
But my enormous blind spot was revealed once I could see the difference between “presence of nutrients” versus “plant available nutrients” in the soil, and then grasp the critical role of beneficial bacteria and fungi in liberating nutrients in the course of their own, short, life cycles.
I maintain my fascination, since learning some 20 years ago, of the exponentially better quality of compost/humus when worms have predigested your organic matter. But now, recognizing the similar role that beneficial bacteria play in the soil has literally multiplied my “fascination-factor” by a million-fold!
Seeing Oscar’s fields functioning as a natural, living-system, has moved me from perceiving the world from a perspective of “nutrient scarcity” to one of potential “nutrient abundance.”
“To dedicate yourself to organic production is an act of faith and perseverance in the hopes of achieving positive results for ourselves and our family,” Oscar says. “Organic production is a way of taking responsibility for the construction of a better world for our children. It gives them the opportunity to grow up healthy and have a better education and recognize the need to take care of our environment, so these same natural resources may still be available to others in the future.”
Witnessing the work and dedication in the fields of Oscar Omar Alonzo Aguilar has reinforced my convictions and beliefs that organic, small-scale farmers are the true leaders in this race for ecological balance. At CoopCoffees, we have moved quickly to build a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with COMSA and have already relied heavily on their knowledge-base to share experiences with our producer partners across Latin America…. more details “coming soon” on those experiences!
Read more about COMSA from Monika’s Cooperative Coffees’ blog posts: