Located near the town of San Cristóbal Verapaz, in the cool, rainy reaches of Cobán, Guatemala, Finca San Isabel is situated on 300 acres of high, but level, fertile land.
Finca San Isabel was first acquired by Luis Valdes II’s great-grandfather in 1875, when the land was granted to the Valdés family by Guatemala’s President; however, the farm was passed out of the hands of the family when it was inherited by a nephew who sold it to a third party. It took time for the farm to return to the Valdés family, who took charge again in 1960 when Luis Valdes I purchased it, bringing it back into the family. He started the coffee plantation in 1965.
Don Luis and his son – also named Luis (nicknamed ‘Wicho’) – manage the farm as general and agricultural manager, respectively. Now Luis IV (5 years old), Wicho’s son and Luis’ grandchild, spends his school holidays at the farm, much as his father did when he was young.
When Don Luis first planted the farm out in Bourbon, Caturra and Catuai, Cobán didn’t necessarily have a reputation for high-quality coffee, due in part to the fact that coffee from the region must often be mechanically dried because of the humid climate. Don Luis and Wicho, however, knew that the region had more to offer. By placing their attention on improved cultivation techniques and perfecting their drying practices, they succeeded transforming the quality of their coffee over the course of the last decade, even succeeding in placing Guatemala’s Cup of Excellence twice!
Wicho’s background in agronomy, combined with his passion for coffee farming, has led him to implement experimental practices that are paying off, as well, in the battle against coffee leaf rust. The farm’s innovative pruning schedule, which took some 15 years of experimentation to develop, has succeeded in greatly reducing the severity of rust’s impact on the plantation. Plants are pruned according to a five row/five year cycle that is further fine-tuned according to each plant’s need for aeration and light. This helps to minimize applications of chemical fertilizers and pest control – in some cases, reduced by half of what their neighbours have to apply – by reducing excess humidity and fungal diseases. Furthermore, frequent application of lombricompost (mostly the by-products of wet-processing) has enabled them to reduce their applications of chemical fertilisers by more than 15%.
Although almost 80% of the farm is planted out in Caturra, the farm is also experimenting with new varieties, such as Pache. Currently, Santa Isabel plants their nursery under shade using polyurethane bags starting in May and continuing through August. Young plants are planted 15 months later.
Soil test analyses are completed throughout the farm to promote effective fertilisation and pest control. Santa Isabel also has a weather station (funded by ANACAFE) on the farm, which helps to effectively schedule the application of fertilizers and, in general, helps Wicho manage the farm more efficiently.
The annual precipitation at Santa Isabel is around 3,500mm, with regular rainfall between nine and ten months of the year. Constant rain (much of it gentle drizzle) means that flowering is very staggered, with 8-9 flowerings per year. Due to this prolonged flowering season, coffee ripens at different stages, which means that up to 10 passes (with breaks of up to 14 days between passes) are needed to ensure that only the very ripest cherries are selected. Generally, as in past years, picking starts mid-November and continues through until the end of March.
After harvesting, the red cherries are taken to the farm’s receiving tanks by truck or – if at walking distance – by foot. They are then mechanically pulped. Coffee is fermented for up to 48 hours and is covered at night to maintain constant temperatures. After fermentation, the coffee is washed and then soaked in clean water for 24 hours to remove any traces of mucilage before being dried.
All coffee at Finca Isabel is dried for at least one day on the patios – though full patio drying is only possible towards the end of the harvest, when the risk of rain is reduced. Usually, after spending one day on the patio, the coffee is stored overnight in wooden boxes before being moved to the greenhouses to dry between 15 and 30 days, or until a minimum of 30% humidity is reached. Much of the coffee is then finished in guardiolas according to a very strict and controlled drying schedule. Coffee is rotated in these mechanical driers at no more than 40°C and is rested between dryings to stabilise humidity. Once the parchment coffee reaches a constant 15% humidity, it is rested for at least 21 days in the warehouse before being delivered to the dry mill for milling.
Santa Isabel trains and employees 40 permanent workers year-around; up to 500 seasonal labourers are brought in for the coffee harvest. Wicho has commented that although many farms in the region find it increasingly difficult to secure labour for the entirety of the harvest, Santa Isabel has a stable and reliable work force, despite their reputation for being very demanding with regards to selective picking. In addition to paying fairly, a picker at Santa Isabel can harvest up to 160 pounds of cherry a day, which means many of the same workers come back year after year!