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Voices of ACES Blog

Love of coffee leads to helping farmers in Guatemala

View of the Atitlan volcano from one of the coffee farms in Yepocapa, Guatemala.
View of the Atitlan volcano from one of the coffee farms in Yepocapa, Guatemala.
Photo by: Heidi Asensio Allen

I’ve been around coffee for as long as I can remember. I was born in Guatemala, and I’ve enjoyed many sunsets at my family’s coffee farm in the town of Antigua Guatemala. As kids, my cousin and I spent countless hours playing hide and seek between the rows of coffee plants and made paper boats that we released in the coffee mill water channels where the coffee grains were washed. As I grew older and started my journey in higher education, I always knew what reward was waiting for me at the finish line of graduation: going back home and working for my family in the coffee farm that played such an important role in my upbringing. Little did I know that six years after leaving the comfort and familiarity of the farm, coffee and I would meet again at the University of Illinois where it would become the main focus of my Master’s degree.

Whether it’s at family reunion on rainy Sunday afternoon or a work meeting at 8 a.m., the beverage of coffee has always been a symbol of bringing people together in my life. I was lucky enough to find a fellow coffee enthusiast 2,500 miles away from home: my advisor Dr. Andrew Margenot. As a matter of fact, our shared interest for coffee, not only as a drink but as a crop, was the perfect conversation starter the day I first interviewed for a position in his research lab. We talked about the possibility of working with soils in the context of coffee production, the impact that this type of research would have on the industry and how we could work on a research project that would benefit smallholder coffee producers. The rest is history.

The adventure began in December 2019 when Dr. Margenot and I started working on the proposal we would submit to the ACES Office of International Programs (OIP) to apply for the Fall 2020 Global Food Security Graduate Fellowship. The research project was set to take place in the coffee-producing community of San Pedro Yepocapa in Guatemala. Beginning in 2018, Dr. Margenot’s lab worked at the same community describing soil profiles and collecting soil samples. The first chapter of my M.S. research built upon that sampling effort, and I focused on classifying soils, describing depth-wise nutrient distribution, and determining SOC stocks. As a next step, we framed that the OIP proposal build on the previous work by implementing on-farm fertilization trials to test how nutrient inputs via mineral fertilizers can be used to maximize profitability for smallholders.

The specific objectives of the on-farm trials are to evaluate the effects of N and K fertilization singly and in combination on soil fertility, plant nutrient status, and coffee yield and cup quality, establish soil and leaf test thresholds for Arabica coffee yield and cup quality, and determine agronomic and economic optima of N and K fertilization for yield and cup quality. Ultimately, these results will enable evaluation of cost-benefit tradeoffs for smallholders. I was extremely happy and thankful to ACES OIP when I received the news that the proposal was awarded the fellowship, but, due to the pandemic, we would have to wait until international travel restrictions were lifted.

In April 2022, I traveled to Yepocapa, Guatemala and began my work. The first item on the agenda was giving the results from the soil profile analyses to the farmers and asking them if they would like to be part of the on-farm trials. Communicating results is fundamental if we want our research to have an impact on society. Personally, I found this experience to be extremely rewarding, motivating, and humbling. I was able to share with farmers the knowledge I have acquired at the lab by working with the samples from their fields, and in return they shared the knowledge about coffee production that they have acquired through their life experiences. During this first visit to the community, I established the on-farm trials in 22 fields, each belonging to different smallholders. On each farm I had to select the plants that would be part of the treatments and apply the fertilizers that we had previously weighed. It was a fun and very productive week, driving on dirt roads, spending long nights weighing fertilizers and sharing stories with Juan Charuc, who lives in Yepocapa and was hired as local help for the project. In August I returned to Yepocapa to sample soil and leaf samples from the 22 on-farm trials. I also met with the farmers to discuss the results of the soil analyses I did on the samples I took in April.

meeting with farmers
I met with farmers to give them the soil test results and talk about the on-farm trials.

The next and final step of my research project is to harvest all the coffee produced by the plants that are part of my on-farm experimental treatments. Due a small delay caused by a tropical storm, our local collaborator just started harvesting this week. We expect harvest to be completed by December or early January. This is a challenging activity since coffee is handpicked and the farms, located on steep slopes in a rugged mountainous landscape, can only be accessed by foot. Nevertheless, cumulative quantification of the produced coffee will be extremely valuable data. The outcomes of this research project will be an estimate of the yield potential of these coffee producing systems, soil test critical values and foliar critical values (which are the target soil and foliar nutrient levels that promote optimum growth and development for coffee) calibrated for this region, and accurate fertilizer application recommendations based on nutrient exports form coffee harvesting. Additionally, I will analyze foliar, fruit and soil nutrient content and obtain cupping scores form professional graders to explain yield quantity as well as gauge effects of fertilization on yield quality.

I would like to use this space to recognize and thank Dr. Mirjam Pulleman from CIAT (Center for Tropical Agriculture) for her contribution as my international advisor for this project. I am deeply thankful to ACES OIP for giving me the opportunity to pursue my research interests and for allowing me to work on a project that transcends borders by helping generate knowledge that has a positive impact on the coffee production of smallholders in Guatemala. I would like to also thank and recognize the hard work of our local collaborator Juan Charuc, without his help this project would not be the same (Gracias Juan!).  And finally, a big thank you to my PI, Dr. Andrew Margenot, for his guidance and support. Stay tuned for more updates on my research project! Thanks for reading.