As a fourth generation coffee grower, Ricardo has been surrounded by coffee for all of his life. His personal trajectory in the industry, however, began 25 years ago when he graduated from the Zamorana School of Agriculture in Honduras. After graduating, he worked on his family’s farm before purchasing his own piece of land in the east part of Guatemala where he started from scratch, planting coffee and building the mill. Over this time, Ricardo has contributed significantly to specialty coffee, and has grown to be a huge asset to the industry.
Since his beginnings, Mr. Zelaya has moved on to manage and consult for many well-respected farms, including Santa Clara and Puerta Verde in Guatemala’s prolific Antigua region. After all these years, Ricardo has stayed in the industry because, “Coffee really is something that gets into your blood: once you’re in, you’re never out. I like the business very much, as it’s constantly changing, and these days are a lot better than when I started.”
“I think our coffees have a future, and we’re getting prices that make it profitable so that you can invest in the farm and be sustainable. These are better times for the prices and situation of coffee than when I started – then it was more commercial, lower grade, and there wasn’t as much differentiation in the quality of the coffees as there is now.”
Ricardo first saw the industry start to move away from commodity grade coffee in 1992/3, with the arrival of specialty coffee shows, and also with roasters travelling to meet farmers in an effort to purchase and promote quality coffee.
One big challenge that is a constant within specialty coffee is price, both the price the coffee is bought for and the price it takes to produce that quality. While it’s excellent that buyers are willing to pay higher prices for specialty coffee, there are often significantly higher expenses incurred for the farmers that often aren’t considered by the consuming market.
As Ricardo outlines, “You just can’t try to save money in key parts of your farming or process… producing quality coffee is a lot more expensive, because you have to be more careful, and you have to maintain the quality and the name that you’ve built after many years of work.”
“The coffee price crisis was very tough for the producers, because in that time we didn’t have the specialty prices or the differentiation from commodity… those years were very hard, because you struggle, you’re in debt, and then you have to pay back with interest, and sometimes you can’t go on.”
Zelaya believes that a key concept to preserving a level of quality in specialty coffee is looking after your workers, “It’s a higher cost to produce high quality coffee, and I think that you need to make sure you maintain your workers—because 80% of the cost of coffee is labour—you need to depend on a lot of people. I think that if your people are earning a good salary, if they have good conditions and if they’re happy, then they’ll do a better job, and with more will.”
As for the future, Ricardo believes that, “the challenge is to keep up quality, try to improve always, and get the right buyers for each of your coffees and the quality that you produce. Then, hopefully, you’ll get a price back that will make you sustainable and make it profitable for you to keep going with your business.”
All photography and articles © Eileen P Kenny