Felix Porón Medio parked his pale yellow pickup under crisp fluttering flags strung between brick buildings in the city of San Miguel Dueña, Guatemala. Wearing a white T-shirt with a Café Felix logo plastered on the front, tan work boots and a straw cowboy hat, Porón unlocked a metal gate and swung it open. Behind it: 8,000 baby Bourbon coffee plants.
Porón, 44, planted his first coffee seed on his parents’ farm 20 years ago. He worked solely on the family farm until his marriage to Martha Eugenia Jerez.The couple worked their coffee craft to put a daughter and son through school.
“My work right now is to give priority to my children,” Porón said.
Porón left school after sixth grade, but believes in education. His 17-year-old daughter Evelyn will graduate high school this year to become a secretary and Eric, 16, studies agriculture with hopes of going to college for engineering. Porón wanted to sell coffee because of the high demand – starting in 1850 – but also because he loves the product. According to Antigua Tours tour guide Elizabeth Bell, coffee makes up 98 percent of Guatemala’s economy. Coffee was introduced to Guatemala in 1870, Bell explained. Large coffee farms had tax benefits because Guatemala needed to develop its economy.
“We chose to pursue coffee farming because we wanted to give our children what we could not have,” Eugenia said.
Porón’s coffee farm originally started with .01 acres of land, donated by his grandmother. Now, his operation consists of 33 acres through purchases made by Porón himself along with donations from family and non-governmental organizations.
.On an average day, Porón employs three workers on the mountain at the foot of Volcan de Acatenango. During harvest, Porón hires six to 15 additional workers.
“There is a high unemployment rate,” Porón said. “A lot of people just want a job and they do not care what it is.” Delfino Morales Godines, 46, has worked on Porón’s farm for one year. “I enjoy the diversity here [because] there are a variety of jobs within this one job,” Morales said. He works to support his wife and three kids. Morales, like many others, will work any job in order to support his family.
About 12 years ago, Porón and Eugenia joined a co-op of 30 contributors. Porón taught the group of low-income families how to grow coffee plants. “The perception was that you could prosper [in a co-op]. The reality is that co-ops do not do well in Guatemala,” Bell said. “Co-ops do not prosper.”
Today, Porón and Eugenia still participate with this co-op, but a majority of their sales are done independently − no middle man making a profit off their product. “Since the group is big, once the profits are divided at the end of the day, there is not much left,” Porón said. “Selling coffee independently benefits us because we gain a little bit more.”
On an average day, Porón spends most of his time working in Antigua, Guatemala, while Eugenia takes care of the home. When they receive orders for coffee, Eugenia tends to the beans. Much of the coffee-making process occurs in Porón and Eugenia’s household. “This is my workshop,” Porón said, gesturing to his home.
The coffee process begins on Porón’s coffee farm located in la Vuelta de los pinos, which translates to the return of the pines. Mature Bourbon coffee trees that produce coffee cherries. Once the fruit ripens, workers hand-pick the circular, red fruit. They transport cherries in the back of Porón’s pickup to his home.
The cherries then go through a classification process. Porón drops them in water and separates them depending on quality. The cherries that float are sold to locals, specifically in diners or at markets, and the cherries that sink − the good ones − are exported.
Next, a machine removes the cherry, which leaves behind two coffee beans. The beans are separated by size through the use of a machine. Porón needs to rent the $30,000 machine because he can’t afford it.
The fermentation process comes next. Porón places the beans in a cement tub for 24 to 30 hours, which allows them to warm. He adds water to the warm beans and separates them again. Floating beans are discarded − the rest are sold.
“We have the best coffee in the world,” Bell said. In the back of Porón and Eugenia’s home lies a concrete slab where the beans are tossed to dry for eight to 10 days. Eugenia rakes the beans every hour during the day and upon successful drying, piles them in 100-pound bags.
On average, Porón sells 4,000 pounds of coffee per year. One pound of coffee is sold for 60 quetzales, or $8, which equals about 18 cents per cup. “Professionals say that the flavor is very special,” Porón said.
Back home at the end of the day, Porón swings his legs out of his pickup, grabs his cowboy hat from the back of the cab, and begins to walk down the narrow, dirt path. Eugenia greets him at the door. He slides two chairs together and approaches the coffee pot, placing two mugs side-by-side.