Casimiro García López of Pluma on Community Origins & Modern Challenges

We were excited to be able to interview Casimiro García López of Pluma de Oaxaca, as well as his son Omar, face-to-face in Oaxaca. A second generation coffee farmer, Casimiro and his wife Reyna Petronila Luna farm 20 hectares (an unusually large farm for the Pluma region) just outside San Agustin Loxicha en Aguacate, a community growing both coffee famous for its malic character and avocados. Casimiro’s older children support in both farm work and marketing, contributing agronomic knowledge learned in local courses. In the off-season, the family works as blacksmiths. He’s been one of the most consistent parts of our Oaxaca coffee community year over year. In this interview, translated from Spanish, Casimiro and Omar talk to us about the history of their family in Pluma, the origins of the unique Pluma Hidalgo variety, and the biggest challenges they face in the present. 

Adam: Mr Casimiro, thank you for coming. I would love for you to tell us a little bit about the story of how your grandfather started to produce coffee in Loxicha and how he managed the fields. I think this story is very interesting.

Casimiro: The origin of our coffee and our work here started about 70 to 80 years ago.The plants came from the community Pluma Hidalgo. We got them because the community here in Loxicha, where I am from, was very poor. The people didn’t have good quality of life, the most they had was two or three heads of cattle.

What happened was that a community member suggested that the community switch from cattle farming, which was very cost intensive and unprofitable, to coffee farming, from which they could make more money and improve their quality of life. That’s what led the grandparents of our community to go and bring coffee plants back from the community of Pluma Hidalgo. Back then, there was no transportation, there were no paved roads, there was no way to transport the plants, so they had to bring the plants on mules, however they could, even just carrying them in their hands; and that is how they started to sow.

From there, my father continued working, and so did my generation, and my children. Now, we are very thankful to be working with Red Fox.

Adam: And how many days did it take to bring the coffee from Pluma Hidalgo to Loxicha en Aguacate by mule?

Casimiro: Well, it was two days going there, and two days coming back.

Adam: Walking?

Casimiro: Yes, walking, cars didn’t exist. The big road from Miahuatlan to Pochutla had cars, but not like the cars we have today. We were ranchers, we couldn’t go by car, so the mules were the only transportation we had.

Adam: And this is the same variety that you still produce up to date?

Casimiro: That’s right, exactly. That is the variety “Pluma” that we have.

Adam: Can you explain to me how your communal system works? How many family members do you have around? Do they bring you cherry? How do you coordinate and work with your relatives and neighbors?

Casimiro: In our area, the vast majority of our relatives are coffee producers. Some neighbors too, they are a bit further away. Each person has their own plot, each plot has its own coffee. The harvest starts in December, around the 15th, the 20th, people start collecting their coffee. 

Our method is letting the coffee ripen well so the coffee can turn out well after processing. I saw that people in other communities would start collecting the coffee when the fruit was still yellow, and the coffee isn’t good like that, it has to be ripe. Then we harvest, and in the afternoon, we depulp together and leave the coffee to rest all night long and for part of the next day. Between 15 to 20 hours, give or take. Then we wash the coffee and take it to the drying patio, for six to seven days. We manage watch over the drying. And that’s it. 

Adam: What is the biggest challenge you face in producing high quality coffee, like the cost, finding employees, etc?

Casimiro: Well, in times of harvest, first of all, we need people. If we don’t have people, then we can’t work. So, for this, the most difficult part is to have money to be able to pay the pickers.  

Adam: But you have work all year round, no? Like now, it started raining, so you told me the coffee was starting to flower, so what happens in the season when there is no harvest? What is the work then?

Casimiro: After the harvest, the work that we have is to grow seedlings and prepare the farm. To plow the trees, to get coffee, and prepare the starts. And then in June, we start sowing, it is time to plant new seedlings. After that, we start cleaning (weeding and pruning),then cleaning. We start harvest after that. So, during all that time we spend, we manage money to invest. 

Adam: Omar, I am not sure if you want to comment, since you are Mr. Casimiro’s son, and you also have your own kids. What is your vision to keep producing coffee? What do you need to keep producing coffee and to make it profitable? To have a good life?

Omar: To continue in the coffee industry, I believe that the most important thing is to have passion for coffee, to keep moving forward, because today, we have many obstacles, mainly with the coffee leaf rust. But I believe the coffee industry is something beautiful. On a personal note, I would like to own my own farm in the near future so that I can continue working, continue innovating, and with time maybe adapting new processes to improve the quality of the coffee. When we improve the quality, there’s a bilateral benefit for both parties, it’s good for the consumer and for us as well. 

I would also like for my kids to continue with the beauty of being coffee producers, and for them to have their own plots, their own methods, for them to continue innovating, and to continue this beautiful life, and to continue well.

Adam: Do you drink your own coffee? Do you roast and drink your own coffee from the one you produce?

Omar: We do consume it, but in a very traditional way, I mean, in our case, my mother, when she prepares coffee, we have a manual coffee grinder. The way we roast it is in our traditional way, we have our clay pot, our stove, and my mother roasts the coffee there. The moment when she sees the coffee is ready, she grinds it in the manual grinder, then she brews it, it is a very traditional method. 

Adam: It is very interesting to be able to taste it in different roasting and brewing methods, right? To be able to understand the results based on the changes in the processes, in the harvests, and the effect that it has in the cup, no?

Omar: Yes, exactly, the different results would teach us things, to see the difference of a long drying time as opposed to a short drying time. In that aspect, it would be really interesting to do it.

Adam: Is it important for you that, the variety Pluma, that your great-grandfather brought, that it still has the recognition in the market? Is that something that motivates you? Or is it just what you have and what you continue producing?

Omar: Well, I would tell you that for the coffee Pluma, or even more so, before knowing you, the recognition was practically zero. Before, we only delivered the coffee, we got our payment, and no one would tell us anything. Throughout the years we met Red Fox, we met you, and you let us know that the quality of the coffee is very good. The Typica variety, and you have let us know that you found very nice notes in our coffee. Like chocolate notes, hazelnuts, and all notes that can be found in the Pluma coffee. And it is a huge satisfaction that this coffee is well known, not only in our state, but also in the USA where you are, if not the world. And that people recognize the quality of our product—it fills us with pride and satisfaction, and it motivates us to continue to work, to continue improving and to continue producing quality coffee.

Adam: That’s so great, it makes me really happy. Because we have clients that were buying specialty coffee in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and they always speak about Pluma Hidalgo, I believe it had a name back then and it had gotten lost in the last 20 years. So, for us, it is something interesting and also important for the new generation of roasters in the market that they can also know a very special coffee. Because Pluma Hidalgo, the Pluma variety, is different from the Typicas of other regions. It has a very unique flavor.

For us being able to meet you, and be able to build a relationship, and to know that this variety works for you is wonderful. We’ve seen your farm several times and the plants are very healthy, it is productive, it is well kept, To us, it is important to reflect that profile and carry it on in the market. It is interesting to be able to continue and recover a little bit of the history. To know that your great grandfather brought it from back in the day, and that it continues producing, for me it is an important part of the specialty coffee and to maintain the story. This is the link to the ancestors.

Is there anything that you want the consumers or the roasters to know about your work, or about the relationship we built between Red Fox and your family?

Omar: Yes. Four years ago, we met the company Red Fox, I believe before we met you all, the recognition that our coffee got before you was practically zero. Sometimes we received only the payment and that’s it. We wouldn’t hear from them until the next harvest. Then we met Red Fox. You recognize the work we do on the farm, all the coffee processes, the drying, the fermenting, the washing, and I think that you have recognized our work, I think you leave satisfied with all the processes we all do. And that relationship, in all areas, administrative and coffee production-related and financial, it is a good relationship, and to carry that on that is my father’s wish. Our wish and the wish for the farm. To continue working, to maintain the relationship, and to keep it for as many years as possible.

Adam: Thank you so much for coming, for talking to us and for always investing more and strengthening the commercial relationship that we have. We’re looking to come back again with the new harvest to be able to visit your ranch, and you know we have a house here; you are welcome whenever you would like to come.

Omar: Thank you! Thank you very much Mr Adam, you know you and everyone at Red Fox have a home at San Agustin Loxicha and in the community of El Aguacate. In San Agustin, in Pochutla, whenever you decide to visit us, it will be a pleasure, our honor to have you with us, you are all invited to our house, and we would love to have you all there next year. And during the harvest so you all can really see the work we do there.

Adam: Yes, thank you so much. It was very gratifying to take my kids, for them to get to know the farm, so they can also know a little bit about our work and have the experience of getting to know you. They are always talking about your son, and the time they spent there on the farm.

Omar: Yes, it is gratifying year after year, when you go, and not only the same people, but new people come over. Sometimes a roaster comes, sometimes another person that works for Red Fox comes, or families. During this harvest you brought your wife and your kids, and my son got really excited to have new friends. Now he says that he has friends from the USA, so we are all very happy, and we hope the relationship continues for a long time. And whenever you want, you have a home there.

Adam: Thank you, thank you very much.

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Decentralization & Community in Oaxaca Coffee Sourcing

What makes Oaxaca unique? 

The Oaxaca sourcing landscape is uniquely decentralized, presenting both challenges and opportunities for us as a sourcing company and for the communities and families we work with. Our starting point in Mexico, it’s where we decided to build our Mexico HQ and expand our work to be on the ground year-round. Where our work in other key origins like Peru or Colombia involves the central supply chain links of producer associations acting as organizers of far-flung groups of smallholder producers, the sourcing landscape in Oaxaca is different, centering small communities or even individual families working together to put out superb coffee, leading us to take a larger role at the center of the supply chain. 

As we continue to deepen our work in Mexico, we look at why Oaxaca is so different. Why aren’t associations or cooperatives as integral of a structure there as they are in so many other parts of Latin America or even Mexico? What, if any, structures function in place of them? Are there any benefits to this decentralized sourcing structure? How does this change the work we do as a sourcing company?

2021: A perfect case study

The 2021 Mexico harvest and shipping has been an ideal showcase for the situation in Oaxaca: not just the immense quality of coffee they can produce, but also how the decentralized sourcing structures there change the nature of our work and escalate our workload. 

For a frame of reference, compare our most recent season out of Peru to our current Mexico season. Out of Mexico as a whole, we’re shipping about two-thirds as many bags as we did out of Peru in the most recent 2020 season. This Mexico volume is nearly double what we did last year, but it’s still substantially smaller than our latest Peru season. As far as groups go, in Peru last fall we worked with a total of 15 producer associations versus about nine, much smaller groups in Oaxaca this season.

So with a smaller volume and about half as many different groups in the mix, you might expect Oaxaca to be substantially less work than Peru—not so. Even though we’re processing less coffee, our workload is substantially larger. The difference is in the details: the sourcing steps that fall under our purview specifically in Oaxaca that are taken care of by producer associations in Peru. 

What’s the difference?

While our sourcing work is still very hands-on in Peru, there’s a ton of organizational work producer associations take care of before the coffee even reaches us. Prior to the coffee’s harvest, many associations help producers with agronomic assistance, including needs like seedlings and fertilizer. Once producers’ coffee is harvested, associations manage all the receiving and intake work, pulling samples, calculating yields based on delivered volume, and collating information about the producer, lot size, varieties, etc to hand off to sourcing companies. They also make advance payments to producers at that stage and take control of selling the coffee. By the time the coffee gets to us, the association has often done a prescreen as well as filtering out defects, prepping samples, and packaging them in a way that conveys all the information we need. Where we step in is cupping the coffee, making the selection, coordinating all the logistics of getting the coffee from the field to the dry mill, overseeing the milling and exporting, and then selling it. 

In Oaxaca, we step in much, much earlier in this process. Rather than associations or cooperatives, we work with producers in key communities who voluntarily act as point of contact for their community, coordinating details and acting as a go-between. For example, in San Pedro Yosotatu, Madelina López López takes the lead, or in Miramar, Cecilio Perez fills this role. Whereas in a coop or association this is usually a paid position in an official business organization, in the decentralized groups of Oaxaca it’s just someone with seniority and experience who wants the producers in their community to be able to access Red Fox prices (as opposed to coyote or local prices) without necessarily having the same level of experience. It’s far from the organizational structure of a formal association, although hopefully it will move in that direction over time as the communities build confidence in their product and supply chains. 

These leads communicate near-constantly with the Mexico sourcing team throughout the season. Through them, we figure out convenient times for producers to bring their coffee down to us, or when we can send a truck to pick it up. We then take full possession of the coffee in the way the association or cooperative would. We receive the coffee at the dry mill, something an association would usually do, and we weigh the coffee, peel the samples, project the yields, and work hard to keep track of all the producer information to guarantee total traceability. All of that detail, and the risk of taking the coffee into our possession at an earlier stage of the screening process, falls under our purview rather than that of an association. 

Once the coffee gets to the lab for intake, roasting, and cupping, we also see key differences in the workload each offer sample constitutes: while in Peru we receive many offer samples that represent very little volume (sometimes just one bag of parchment), we see this in Oaxaca on a even smaller scale. In these instances Oaxaca is even more work than Peru not just because the samples themselves represent less coffee, but also because we get a field sample (which the producer sends from their house to see if we are interested in the coffee), and then a second sample for the same coffee when it arrives at the warehouse in Oaxaca—meaning those offers are all processed into the lab, roasted, and cupped twice at the offer stage. 

We do have certain trade partners we work with for specific services including help coordinating transport, financing, and milling in certain regions. It’s very different than working with producer associations, because for the most part we pay for these services to be done on our behalf. But, moving forward, we plan to continue to work on a smaller scale and figure out these pieces ourselves. 

Financing is one of the most challenging parts of this system both for us and for producers. When working with associations in other parts of the world, they pay producers an advance when they deliver their coffee; when the coffee ships, we work with finance partners to pay the association the full sum and they send the difference to the producers. In Oaxaca, we’ve used specific trade partners to help with this part of the process where we can, and coordinated third party services where needed. In general, the gap between when we take possession of the coffee and when the coffee ships is about two to eight weeks, but many of Oaxaca’s producers have been mistreated in the past by larger organizations making promises that they would pay later (as we’ll get into below), and many don’t have the ability to wait that long, even once we’ve built that trust. This is a tricky piece of the puzzle, one which we’re still working to find the perfect solution. 

Why is Oaxaca like this?

The reason Oaxaca’s larger cooperative structures either dissolved or were abandoned by producers is primarily mismanagement on the part of the cooperatives there. What emerged from that dynamic was a push by producers to find trustworthy buyers directly, and eventually to find higher prices for their coffee within that model.  

Interestingly, the idea of coffee cooperatives organizing and selling under a certified model (using certifications like organic and Fair Trade to get higher prices) actually started in Oaxaca in the ‘80s. Over time, a small number of those coops grew to the point of overstretching, selling at prices only a tiny bit higher than what coyotes (coffee buyers who will pay on the spot, although typically around the C market rate—not the best rate a producer can get for high-quality coffee) were paying and not paying producers reliably, leaving little incentive for producers to sell to the cooperative rather than getting paid on the spot by coyotes. Mismanagement on the part of the coops has hit the trust of the producers, who prefer not to form cooperatives and don’t want to wait for results and pay in the future. Our first transactions with new producers will usually involve them offering us a small amount of coffee to establish the relationship and see if we’re trustworthy or not, trust we’re working hard to earn back over time. 

Our ever-expanding sourcing work in Oaxaca has been part of a large push by producers in the last five or six years to find buyers directly and get higher prices for their coffee. National quality competitions as well as regional competitions held by Red Fox have helped bring more attention to their coffee as a specialty product, as well as increased producer confidence that their coffee is valuable and should be treated as such. Mexico also has a very developed specialty cafe scene, which helped provide a local roasting market that was able to go out and buy coffee, which helped change the dynamic between producers and buyers. So all those factors led to producers looking for buyers like us: ones who would pay high prices for their coffee, pay exactly as we say we will, and provide consistency year after year. 

Rebuilding that broken trust has been the hardest part of our work. There have been so many buyers over the years making promises of high prices, but the issues have been in the delivery. That’s why financing is such an important piece of the puzzle: more than anywhere else, Oaxaca’s producers are incredibly sensitive to the idea of trusting buyers to pay them later. As we’ve lived up to our word year over year, we’re starting to see that trust increase, which is incredibly rewarding and has caused producers to bring their family, friends, and neighbors into the fold. That’s why we see the level of voluntary community organization we see: the communities we work with have been waiting for an honest buyer who treats their product properly, and we’ve worked hard to be that buyer. 

Are there any benefits to Oaxaca’s producers? What are the downsides?

While the associations we work with in Peru are the best of their kind, independence does have some upsides to it. Being part of an association or cooperative can mean that a portion of the money you make goes to the group or leadership rather than just you. Associations or coops can have corruption at the leadership level, and/or they can fail to pay or keep their promises, as we see in the reasons why these producers abandoned their local coops to begin with.  As free agents, producers we work with are 100% free to express their disagreements and seek solutions that feel appropriate to them, rather than needing to answer to a board or leadership structure. 

On the other hand, the positives of working with a well-run organization can’t be overstated: producers in these structures receive sales security, agronomic and technical assistance, state support to create new marketing chains, support from field technicians or engineers, purchase of low-cost fertilizers, revolving funds to benefit the plots, etc. In general, their risk is lower inside of an organizational structure.

Are there any benefits for Red Fox? What are the downsides?

While this system presents a lot of challenges for us, the greatest benefit for us is that it’s fully transparent. In other regions like Peru we have ways of verifying exactly how much producers are getting paid and we feel confident in those systems, but it’s not the same as literally doing every step of it ourselves. It’s also been a huge learning experience for us—there’s a huge value to learning and understanding exactly how much happens before we even get samples, and how much value that hard word adds. 

In terms of downsides, there’s obviously a lot of extra work that goes into every step of the process. Our risk, just like that of producers, is higher without the central structures of associations. One of the challenges of working with these small, informal groups is that they can easily disintegrate and put at risk the agreements that we have reached for the harvest season. One benefit of the people in the middle of the supply chain is that everyone’s good at something. Banks are great at providing financing, agronomists are great at agronomic consulting, etc. Everyone plays a valuable role. In the case of Mexico, many of these small, loose groups may eventually grow into more formal structures. Until then, we’re happy to be in the middle of it all, appreciating the work that goes into every step. 

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.