Coffee has historically been one of Honduras’ leading exports (alongside bananas), and since the mid-2,000s total annual production has grown in leaps and bounds. During the 2009/10 crop year, Honduras produced approximately 3.6 million bags of Arabica coffee (already a big increase over 1999/2000). By 2014/2015, the country had become Central America’s top grower (and number 7 in the world), with a yield of over 5 million bags (all Arabica varietals). With the highest production per capita in the world and various business drivers keeping the industry growing, experts agree that it wouldn’t be surprising for the country to reach 8 million bags in the foreseeable future. All in all, the story is clear: Honduras is a big coffee producing country with a lot of untapped potential for specialty lots.
Until relatively recently almost of all of Honduras’ production was aimed at the commercial market, and the country was seen primarily as a low-price commodity exporter. Throughout the 1990’s, while its Central American neighbours became known for producing high quality lots, Honduras was left behind when it came to specialty production. The country, without a doubt, had the growing conditions, with fertile soils, altitude (most farms lies at 1,000m plus) and agreeable microclimates; however, lack of processing and quality control infrastructure gave the country a bad name with quality buyers. This was compounded by damaged caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998: the storm decimated 80 percent of the country’s agriculture, and even as recovery efforts were made in subsequent years, farmers saw little benefit in marketing their coffee as Honduran – deciding instead to smuggle their coffee into Guatemala for higher prices. For the most part, only the lower qualities were sold on as Honduran in origin.
A government tax on coffee exports implemented in the late 1990s/early 2000s slowly helped channel much needed funding into Honduras’ coffee infrastructure (in particular roads in remote coffee growing areas) and fiscal incentives for coffee producers. Fuelled also by improved markets during the first half of the noughts, the country began to see a positive impact on production and quality.
Today, more than 100,000 families across Honduras are involved in coffee production. 95% of these are small-scale farmers and 70% farm on fewer than 2 hectares (representing some 30% of the country’s total production). The vast majority of farmers (95% or more) rely on family labour for all aspects of agricultural and harvest labour. Perhaps most notable (and unusual for Central America, where an aging population presents real challenges to long-term sustainability for coffee), the average age of producers in Honduras is falling. With an average of 46 years old, the composite Honduran coffee farmer is 10 years younger than they were 10 years ago. Barring the Benjamin Button effect, several factors have aligned in keeping younger people in coffee, including investment and promotion by the Honduran Coffee Institute (IHCAFE) and Honduras’ success in accessing speciality markets.
In addition to internal and external promotion, IHCAFE offers technical assistance and training to farmers, helps with establishing nurseries and greenhouses, has established innovative pest management and early warning systems, and has been working on a project to provide producers access to low interest loans to buy processing equipments. In 2004 it helped to set up a national cupping school, which provides comprehensive training for cuppers and gives young people the opportunity to build a career in coffee quality control.
Further initiatives launched by IHCAFE, including the country’s first Appellation of Origin in 2005 and participation in the Cup of Excellence program, have gone a great distance toward solidifying the country’s reputation as a producer of exceptional quality coffee. Indeed, things have improved rapidly. Even the coffee leaf rust crisis that hit the country so hard in 2011/12 has been largely contained, with many farmers being driven to renovate and plant far more than they lost.
Honduras also struggles with high rainfall and drying is a real issue for many producers. The country’s rainy climate makes using drying patios very difficult in some, with coffees being prone to over-fermentation. Instead producers are encouraged by IHCAFE to use polytunnels (known as ‘domos’) or solar dryers to dry their specialty lots.
Honduras has been divided into six well-defined regions. Each region has its own IHCAFE-sponsored cupping lab, which offers farmers a free cupping service. These six main regions are in turn split into various micro regions, demarcated by geography and cup profiles.