Finca San Jeronimo Miramar is located on the side of the Atitlan volcano, and is the coffee producing branch of an old family estate that originally started out as a dairy farm called Finca La Parma. The story of the farm goes back to northern Italy in the late 1800’s, when Giorgios great great grandfather Valentino made the tough decision to leave his home, his wife, two daughters and an unborn son, to search for work as a stonemason. He found an opportunity to travel to America to work in railway tunnel construction, and worked his way across the country from the east coast up to Colorado. As his contract was expiring he met a man who told him of an opportunity in the Guatemalan railways, and upon his arrival there he immediately fell in love with the country. Again he worked his way from the east to the west coast, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a small property.
While he was working in Guatemala, the distance became too much for his marriage to last. His wife in Italy met another man and decided to move to San Francisco with him. Valentino went back to Italy and found a place for his son Cesare, now 7, in a good boarding school to ensure a good education for him. Inheriting his father’s sense of adventure, Cesare fled the boarding school at age 16, went to Belgium, and eventually found himself in Stanford England studying English. After mastering the language he went on to America to find his father, finally joining him in Chipo, Guatemala. Reunited and with a new excitement for their future opportunities together, they decided to sell Valentinos property and start over on a new plot of land on the west coast. They bought cattle and joined forces with a Czech immigrant who knew how to make cheese, launching a gouda making business.
By now the 1940’s had come around, and as war was breaking out back in Europe the Guatemalan government decided to side with the allied countries and declare war on Germany. Part of this process was expropriating property from German land owners. In Atitlan lived a German called Luis Steinberg who decided it was best to sell his coffee farm and seek asylum elsewhere, and he made contact with Valentino and Cesare to see if they were interested in his property. Money being tight, Valentino and Cesare didn’t have the cash to close the deal, but an arrangement was made where Luis would get a 20% downpayment and the income for 5 more years worth of coffee sales. Since this meant all the income from the existing farm crop had to go to paying off the land, father and son moved across their cattle business to generate enough cash to maintain operations. Cheese production started up again, and in time, the dairy production became the family saving grace as the coffee crisis hit. Had it not been for the dairy they may have had to replace coffee as a crop entirely, or at least make significant sacrifices to their quality and operational standards.
To this day the dairy production at Finca San Jeronimo is a vital part of the farm operation. The coffee side of the business is currently being looked after the by two of the six 4th generation Bressani brothers and sisters, Giorgio and Gina. They have taken the coffee, and the development of the specialty side of the coffee, as their own project for ensuring the future of their land and family heritage. They have implemented new systems and invented new processes to explore the possibilities of their product, and are continuing to experiment with varieties, processing and drying methods. The family also make honey, grow Guadua bamboo, exotic fruits (a range of jams are in the pipeline) and manage a large section of their land as a natural reserve. Never content to stop innovating, they’re even starting up a cocoa plantation and will soon be growing vanilla, cinnamon and sugar cane as well.
Part of the reason why they are able to have such a diverse range of crops and products is not just their history but also their location, positioned on the southern slopes of the Atitlan volcano. On the other side of the peak is Lake Atitlan, which with no real exit rivers drains under and through the mountains around it and creates several natural springs on the Bressani farm. The fertile, mineral rich soil combined with a steady supply of rain throughout the year is a perfect recipe for abundance, and when you walk the farm you do have the feeling that you could throw anything on the ground and it would grow. But in the face of our changing climate another important factor is their philosophy and approach to preservation of their unique eco system.
This was driven home very clearly as we hiked to the lush virgin forest at the top of the farm a couple of days ago. To get back down we crossed through a section of their neighbour’s farm, where the visible effects of the dry season were in start contrast to the conditions at San Jeronimo. Where San Jeronimo is full of shade trees that shield the coffee and the soil from scorching sun, rainwater evaporation and strong winds, the neighbouring farm was scarce on shade, and the soil was dry and dusty, clouds of brown dust swirling up around our feet as we walked through. With no soil binding plants along pathways and steep slopes, erosion was crumbling away the earth around many coffee tree roots, exposing them and slowly taking away the very grounds for their survival. It was clear that this neighbour also used herbicides to keep weed growth at bay, further removing the protective layer of the earth and perpetuating a vicious cycle. Shade is such a vital part of preserving the soil and the wildlife diversity, but even the shade trees themselves can be a secondary revenue stream if you plan carefully. Over the next few years, Giorgio plans to slowly replace many of the existing shade trees with hardwood trees such as oak and cedar, that in 30 years can be sold as timber for as much money as 30 years’ worth of coffee harvests would bring in. the hardwoods will be chosen carefully for the mulch they will provide as well as the root systems they will form, adding to the nutrients available to the coffee rather than depleting them.
A lot of the work that take place at San Jeronimo is about finding ways to create a healthy, low impact and closed loop resource systems that allow nature to have a balance and sustain itself, helped by natural input from its human custodians. The use of herbicides is one element of this. San Jeronimo stopped using them about a few years ago and have seen the return of both plants and wildlife that hadn’t been seen in years, such as wild boars, who help to maintain the natural balance of both flora and fauna. Instead they cut the weeds back by machete, and while it take 4 times as many people to clean the farm this way, the payoff in soil health and organic matter for mulching makes it worth the while. An avid bird watcher, Giorgio and his fellow enthusiasts have spotted 213 bird species on the farm, and 9 new ones just last year.
Another way they find new methods to solve typical coffee farm problems is more advanced, such as the very successful work that takes place in their parasite lab. It sounds unappealing but they have found a way of breeding a tiny, tiny wasp that exists naturally in the environment and is harmless to humans, but deadly to broca, one of the most common coffee pests there is. These micro wasps lay their eggs in the eggs and the larvae of the broca beetle, effectively killing them before they even reach adulthood. To deal with the adult bugs, the lab cultivates a fungus that also exists naturally on the farm and is harmless to everything other than the broca, should they try to attack a tree that has been sprayed with the diluted fungus solution. For those who do evade the spray, there are simple plastic bottle traps filled with methanol and ethanol hanging from trees all over the farm. In the parasite lab, they collect and record the number of brocas lured into and perished in these traps, measuring the effectiveness of their efforts to keep the broca away without the use of harmful pesticides.
In every area San Jeronimo focuses on addition and supplementation of the soil rather than resorting to removal and depletion. The ability to take this holistic approach is helped by the present of the dairy cows, who both contribute to and benefit from all the moving parts of a farm. As an example their pastures are carefully planted with grasses and flowers for bees, grazing for the cattle, ingredients for custom recipe silage, and they contribute in turn with free manure for soil improvement. Even their compost piles have full traceability, kitted out as they are with temperature and humidity meters that make sure they reach the 160 Farenheit and above that they need to maintain for at least a week to kill the rust fungi and any weed seeds. This year they will produce a staggering 3.5 million lbs of their own compost, nearly doubling last year’s amount. Making sure what they produces is of the best quality, San Jeronimo have invested in sophisticated soil analysis machines and are able to look at both green coffee nutrient contents, soil microbiology and root structure development to best implement their fertilisation programs. There is a wonderful sense of traditional knowledge and cutting edge science working in harmony to provide the best opportunity for growth on the farm.
The coffee trees themselves are obviously part of this equation. While the majority of the farm is planted with the more traditional Caturra and Bourbon trees, they have around 46 varieties in total on the farm. Not all produce significant volume but all are picked and collected separately, even if they harvest less than 1kg of any one. The experimental plantings are important for developing healthy, resilient, high yielding but also delicious tasting coffee, that will prepare the farm for the future. Between the nursery and the new plots some of their varieties include Catuai, Heirloom Bourbon, Bourbon Chocola, Pacas, Bourbon 300, Venecia, Anacafe14, San Juan, Pacamara, Maragogype, Heirloom Typica, Geisha, Java, Ethiopian heirlooms, Catimor , Colombia, Marsellesa, Pache Colis, Rasuna, SL28, Moka, Sarchimor and San Isidro, and the list goes on. At the nursery, they carry out the ‘injerto reina’ graft that they commonly use, splicing the soldier of an arabica onto a robusta codyledon root. Or more experimentally, the ‘injerto tonales’, grafting the tip of a 3 year old arabica tree onto a liberica root. Even the way the delicate sprouts in the nursery are shaded is done with consideration. Instead of plastic nets they grow sprawling beans as a cover, providing protection for the small plants as well as free food for the nursery staff.
Everything at San Jeronimo is picked separately with detailed day-lot traceability, and it is not uncommon for them to have upwards of 400 different day lots in store during the harvest. Throughout the farm they have several small collection stations for cherry, so the pickers have less distance to cover in a day and the collection station at the main mill is relieved of some pressure. All these lots are processed at San Jeronimo’s own wet and dry mills. At the wet mill, which is supplied by water from their natural springs, daily lots of cherry is sent through 6 pulpers, 14 fermentation tanks and 3 soaking tanks, transformed into parchment and dried on patios or in guardiolas. Recently they commissioned a local carpenter to design and build a greenhouse that houses 396 individual small screens to manage their small and experimental lots. They have even repurposed some old cardamom pod drying beds to experiment with their small batch coffees, circulating fan assisted air through a layer of parchment coffee resting on a fine mesh.
The dry mill that strips the protective parchment layer off the coffee bean and prepares it for sale is also run on energy from the springs, via a water wheel that connects to a generator and to a complex network of wheels and cogs and moving belts. Some of the pieces in the dry mill are the oldest working equipment I’ve seen, such as the wooden 1928 screen sorter, and the 4 original Pepe Guardiola mechanical driers. Pepe was a farmer from the Chocola area in Suchitepéquez, who developed the technology and later sold it to the Germans and Brazilians who developed into the guardiaolas that are still very much in use today.
They even have an impressive range of coffee roasters in every size and shape, as they often used to get paid in machinery for work they’d carry out for their neighbours. They never used to roast and cup their own coffees, relying on the Guatemalan coffee organisation to give them feedback and guide them in their work. But feeling unsatisfied with the resources made available to them, they recently fired up their sample roaster and built their own cupping lab. Giorgio has now been cupping coffees for about 5 years, and they have recruited their team of lab assistants and cuppers from the exisiting field and milling staff.
It takes a lot of people to manage a large and complex operation like this. At San Jeronimo, a whole community has grown on and around the farm, and they currently run three schools for the local kids, as well as provide healthcare, places of worship and financial services. In numbers, a brief summary of the farm would be 600 hectares of land, 200 hectares in coffee, 800.000 coffee trees, 60 hectares of pasture, 8 hectares of fruit and veg, the rest of it virgin forest, criss crossed by wildlife corridors for deer, ocelot, puma and the aforementioned recently returned boar. San Jeronimo has about 200 full time employees, rising by anything from another 300 to 800 people during harvest. 800.000 coffee trees do not harvest themselves, but there is currently a dramatic shortage of pickers not just at San Jeronimo but in most coffee producing regions and countries I visit. Giorgio has an extremely sophisticated system for tracking flowering and maturation rates and volumes across the various sections of the farm, which allows him to accurately forecast how many pickers he needs to employ at any given time, but he can’t always forecast how many will be available to hire. As people migrate to cities and leave the countryside behind, there needs to be a willingness throughout the industry to pay more for coffee so that the coffee will be produced at all.
It’s truly a pleasure to learn about the work that Giorgio and Gina do at their farm, and to be inspired by their vision and dedication to the land and the coffee industry. It’s an honour to share their products with our customers, and we look forward to many more cups of coffee shared.
AUTHOR: ANETTE MOLDVAER