The 2020 forest fire that nearly destroyed the San Lazaro Coffee farm in Honduras was not an accident. While it wasn’t clear what or who had started the fire, it was very clear that it had been intentionally set. The same was true with the fires we put out in 2021, 2022, and the fire that we put out just a few weeks ago in the spring of 2023. All of these fires were set during the last few weeks of the annual dry season when the countryside is like a tinderbox, and the mountain slopes of our coffee farm are covered in dry pine needles, where just the slightest spark can start a blaze that is nearly impossible to control.
The reason for these fires? Coffee prices.
When we bought our farm in 2006 I didn’t know anything about coffee, really nothing. Nothing about a good cup of coffee and especially nothing about farming coffee. The past 13 years have been an incredible adventure into an interesting commodity, culture, and industry oftentimes controlled by cartel-esque companies that make it nearly impossible for the actual farmer to prosper, even in years with record coffee prices around the world like what was seen in 2022.
In the southern region of Honduras there is only one viable option for a farmer to sell their harvest, which is to the local coffee cooperative. And not knowing any better, that's where we sold our coffee after our first harvest back in 2007. Our 100% organic coffee was bought from us for $0.90 per pound - far less than what it cost us to grow, harvest, and mill it. I was shocked and decided then that we would never sell to the cooperative again, that we’d figure out how to sell our coffee in the US on our own. This journey has not been without heartache, failures, setbacks, and financial loss. But by the 2019/20 harvest we had finally started to gain momentum, and to increase the volume of coffee that we had available we offered to buy coffee from the women who work for us on the farm. Almost all of them have small parcels of land growing coffee by their houses, maybe only a quarter of an acre, just something to help subsidize their family’s income. Starting with the 2019/20 harvest we offered them a 25% premium over what the cooperative would have paid them and they were more than willing to sell their coffee to us. In fact, they were so excited that they told their neighbors and soon the word had gotten out across the villages on the mountain where our farm is located. For the neighboring coffee farms, owned by wealthy families in the region, this only added insult to injury. They were already feeling the pressure on their wallets as word of our commitment to pay thriveable wages to our employees had spread across the region. Now, what had historically been a source of cheap coffee to add to their annual harvest numbers was disappearing as well. Our goal had never been to disrupt the predatory coffee industry’s buying practices in our region. Our only goal was to bless as many families as possible with a truly thriveable wage for their labor and a fair price for their coffee.
When it was time to see who wanted to sell us their 2020/21 harvest we were blessed to have enough demand in the US that we could buy from other producers on the mountain who did not work for us but who were our neighbors, our friends, and who had learned about our commitment to pay a premium for coffee over what the cooperative paid. Once again our farm was set on fire, but we were fortunate: the wind cooperated with us and the fire was quickly controlled. It was painful to do, but we couldn’t afford not to, so in 2021 we invested around $20,000 in cutting a network of new roads across the land our farm sits on to serve as firebreaks, a process that took a large bulldozer nearly a month to complete. These breaks, averaging 12 - 14 feet wide, would hopefully slow the advance of future fires as well as allow us to get closer to any future fires with our trucks, tools, and equipment.
When our farm manager Nohelia went to sign contracts to buy the 2021/22 harvest she returned concerned. The farmers who had previously sold us their coffee reported that the coffee cooperative was now matching our rate. I let her know that this was not a problem, that this was a good thing, that our little farm was now affecting the price being paid across our mountain. In response we raised our price per pound by $0.25. Once again in the later part of the 2022 dry season the farm was set on fire, and once again we were fortunate to be able to get it controlled before it reached our rows of coffee.
With the 2022/23 harvest season approaching Nohelia once again went to visit farmers to sign contracts to buy their harvest. To our surprise once again the coffee cooperative had increased the price that they were offering to pay farmers for their coffee and once again in response we increased the price that we would pay. The gratitude that was expressed to us by every farmer was touching. They felt that they had a future, that they had dignity, and that they were no longer invisible. At the same time the cooperative had not only offered higher rates for coffee on our mountain but also throughout the coffee growing region of southern Honduras. And to our surprise we received an amicable phone call from the cooperative manager who stated, “you all truly are paying a fair rate for coffee.” He then went on to inquire if we’d be interested in sourcing coffee from the cooperative, to which we politely declined. I felt a great deal of satisfaction knowing that it would take many years of growth for our farm to bless the entire coffee growing region of southern Honduras with a fair rate for their coffee, but that our commitment to those we were working with our farm had been the catalyst for a cascading effect on the coffee growing economy throughout our region. That every farmer, no matter how small, who sold their coffee to the cooperative was now getting a much more sustainable rate for their coffee.
It wasn’t a surprise when this year once again a fire was set on our farm. What was a surprise was the proximity where the fire was set to our rows of coffee. The arsonist had been brazen in risking being seen when the fire was set. What they didn’t take into consideration was the effectiveness of the firebreaks that we had put in a few years ago. And while we had hoped that they would be effective at slowing a fire, they had not yet been put to the test. When I arrived at the farm last week, only a few days after it was controlled, I was overwhelmed by sight of the scorched mountainside and fallen scorched tree trunks but at the same time thankful to see that the fire had followed the edge of the new fire breaks without ever crossing them. This year’s fire got to within about 300 yards of our rows of coffee but once again our farm was spared. We thank God for that.
We also thank God for everyone who purchases our coffee. We recognize that it’s not the cheapest option around but neither is it the most expensive. And we hope that you recognize that your purchase of San Lazaro Coffee is truly having a lasting impact on the families that are represented in our faithful crew of 21 women who work our farm day in and day out. And amazingly enough, your purchase has, is, and will continue to impact every coffee farmer in our region of southern Honduras as they have now been given a voice to demand more for their coffee. Thank you for believing in our company and our commitment to Bring Eternal Worth to Light through a coffee farm in southern Honduras.
This blog post was written by San Lazaro Coffee founder, Jarrod Brown. Click here to see a video he took from the farm.