We pulled the plastic chairs from the top of a tall, dusty stack in the corner and placed them in a loose semi-circle of a few rows. The late afternoon sun was still baking the red dirt roads and as the farmers came into the low concrete building, they dusted off their jeans and their impeccably pressed shirts before shaking hands and finding a seat.
Although Tal had traveled to Metapan many times, this was our first meeting with this specific group of farmers from the Lagunetas micro region with Alejandro Valiente, our knowledgeable and experienced employee in the area. Over the last 8 years, we had seen these farmers struggle through the usual challenges of growing coffee: inconsistent yields, the devastation of coffee leaf rust, and opportunistic coffee buyers offering unreliable prices. Fortunately for us, Alejandro had been working with these producers directly for the last three years and the strong relationships and trust in the room was palpable.
For us, the pacamara, pacas and bourbon varieties that grow here between 1400 and 2000 meters are some of the most remarkable, directly purchased coffees on our menu and we were thrilled to be finally sitting down with the farmers to thank them, ask questions and discuss the harvest. While all of the farmers had worked closely with Alejandro on everything from plant health to wet-milling and drying practices, many of them had been losing money selling their coffee for $.90/pound in previous years. We had paid between $2.15 and $3.65/pound directly to the producer for the lots that Alejandro had carefully built throughout the harvest and the farmers were very interested to meet us and see if we were really going to be sticking around, doing this work and paying these prices for the long run.
We talked into the early evening, with Alejandro's wife, Rosemaria, translating the complexities of our conversation. We heard about the importance of consistent, timely payments and discussed the hard work required to achieve the level of quality that we were all hoping for. Because Alejandro grew up in these mountains and many of the farmers had worked with us over the years, we found ourselves on common, trustworthy ground--something that is often difficult to establish in even a handful of farmer meetings.
As we drove out of Metapan in the back of Alejandro's truck that night, Tal and I talked about the coffees that had stunned us on the cupping table when we arrived in El Salvador. Our favorites were bright, clean and sweet, but the coffee from this group of producers in the Lagunetas area haunted us with its complex structure and elegance. It had been grown with great care and fortitude, and now we hoped, with a framework of trust and communication between farmers and buyers, both in it for the long haul.