We have been doing two straight days of coffee picking; This is one of the last rounds of early picking. Yesterday, I did my thing, put my bee suit on and picked around the hives. I need to get a bee suit in Indigenous size as it took me most of the morning but not sure they make them for very small adults.
Today, I was indoors making marmalade, but did my due diligence and went out to inspect the bags our Indigenous pickers had picked today. Oh dear. My pickers have been getting too many greenish beans and more importantly, too many with their stalks on - that means no flowers next year and no beans. Greenish, not so bad for this early pick that goes to the beneficio but they will weigh less and might have been quite good beans in a weeks time.
As I had been picking myself yesterday, I thought I had perfected the technique of picking without getting the stalks. It involves a rapid hard wrist action. It has to be done bean by bean not by the handful of beans. I think this is the problem for those paid by volume, picking beans individually is not fast enough.
So, I explained very nicely that there were far too many stalks in the coffee bags. I went on to say that although they were naturally the coffee picking experts, maybe they might like to see how I did it. Without waiting for a response, I was not getting any, I proceeded with a demonstration. Well I never seen the Indigenous laugh so much in all my years in Boquete. Not sure I find it quite so amusing and expect improvement in tomorrows bags.
Our early coffee is ripening here in Boquete. I have two bee hives on the farm and the pickers, understandably, won't go near them.
As I have a bee suit, I decided I would pick this coffee myself and use it as a learning experience. Wow, I learned more in an hour of coffee picking than I have in 6 years of seeing the coffee being picked.
The bees turned out to be a complete non-issue. Even though I was picking away right over the hives they ignored me completely. This is as expected, it is the rainy season here. They do not have much honey, not much to protect, they are concentrating on survival - stinging me right now would have been a waste of resources.
The coffee picking was extremely interesting. I conclude there is no way on this planet that you can ensure the very ripest best cherries using migrant labor and paying them by volume. YES. THAT IS RIGHT, this process is fundamentally flawed.
However, therein lies a tremendous opportunity. If you can crack this difficult problem, the quality of your coffee should leapfrog almost any other factor and make an enormous difference to your cup.
Today, the buyers and top roasters certainly do understand that ripeness is an incredibly important factor. I would put it to you all though, that what is touted today as the ripest most perfect set of red cherries is very far short of what could be achieved with a different process.
Yes there are many important contributors to taste: Altitude, varietal, processing and roasting. That said, the ripeness of the cherry seems to me the one with the single biggest untapped opportunity for improvement.
The best process in place today to guarantee the highest quality ripeness of cherries in Boquete is the one we are using. Most people do not use it because it is more expensive and there is no point if you sell to a beneficio: We pay pickers a bit more (sometimes quite a bit more for a lata) and get them doing the rounds every 8 days.
Here is what I found from one hour of picking coffee myself, with every intention to pick only the very best purple/red cherries and to go out there every couple of days until the job is done between now and around New Year (Harvest is going to be early this year)
- It is actually really difficult to only pick the ripest red/purple cherries, the ones that are so ripe they almost fall off the branches. These most desirable cherries are easy to loose in the undergrowth as they come off the little stalk they grow from rather too easily. Finding them on the ground is time consuming and does not happen.
- Even with cherries that have formed from the same whorl of flowers, there are lots of different reds and greens. It is not really possible to expect someone who is paid by volume not to just put their fist around the lot and get them all dropping into the bucket.
I was finding cherries today that would be perfect in a bout 4 days. Right now, these get put into the basket. That is the quality the beneficio accepts and it is quick pickings.
-Unless you use a very inefficient almost tweezer like movement with two fingers, then you are going to get other things in the bucket. Even with my strenous efforts, I got a few green cherries, some less ripe ones, a few old dried out ones that had been missed last time around etc. It is also very easy to rub off and destroy green cherries in the process of grabbing the branches to get them into reach.
Conclusion: We need to look into different ways of picking super ripe cherries if we are going to move from the beneficio market and win on quality.
Normally, to get a very high quality in a process like this one, you would want your own staff, build a pride in the job, have strict enforced standards and pay by the hour with some kind of profit sharing.
How to do this in the coffee world is the million dollar question. Work is seasonal, labor is motivated by volume and the profits are non-existent most years. Still, a problem worth pondering. As a very small farm, it is something I should probably be able to achieve much more easily than my bigger competitors. This could be turned into a strategic advantage.
Ideas welcome, I will be sharing some of my own in future posts.
We have started harvesting. Yesterday we took off 12 latas from the farm and today a bit more. In about two weeks we will be ready to pick more again. These are still low quality first cherries that are going to the beneficio. Peak harvest will probably be end Nov-around Christmas time.
The weather has been unusually warm this year and the cherries are ripening up much earlier than normal all across the Valley. This is very early for Boquete and we have a looming problem. Our pickers are Indigenous and come from the Comarca - which are the lands owned by the Indigenous. Usually, the men come first and scout out where the family will work. Which farms have good accommodation and good work etc. Then the ladies and the children come and the ladies help to pick.
This year the problem is that the harvest is starting before the kids finish their school term in the Comarca. So the ladies and the children will not be here soon enough and their labor is very important. This is a nightmare. Beatrice and I may be out there picking coffee - any one fancy a coffee picking holiday around Thanksgiving?
I am wondering who you really are? I know you are Noble Bugle and your ancestors were here long before the Europeans arrived.
You are not easy to get to know. At first I thought you were being quite rude and aloof when I introduced myself in Spanish. Then, it was explained to me that you do not speak Spanish. You can only speak to your own people, the only ones who speak your language.
You did not understand when I asked you your name but when you met my 4 yr old and shared her chocolate brownie, I learned a little more about you. You know how to do all sorts of tricks with leaves and flowers, how to make the impatience seeds explode and how to make a coleus leaf make a big popping sound. We were able to establish you have a daughter as well and she is 2 yrs and her name is Armaria.