Proyecto Xinabajul (pronounced She-nah-bah-hool), named for the ancient Mayan name for the Huehuetenango region, works with small-scale farmers in Guatemala.
Hundreds of samples were cupped to identify small producers who are producing quality coffee in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountains. Many of these coffee farmers are situated atop the high ridges and steep slopes of this dramatic landscape. In the past they sold their coffee to the large coffee processors down in the valleys. Big farms have the prime flat lands making for easy to harvest crops and staked out waterways allowing for easy processing of the coffee. Buying these higher-altitude coffees from the surrounding small farms improved the quality of their coffee, and increased the amount they could sell to exporters.
This system didn't return great prices to the smallholder farms since they were selling a raw product, coffee cherry or partially processed parchment coffee, rather than selling a more finished product direct to an exporter or buyer. When the highest grown coffees, upward from 1700 meters to near 2000 meters, were blended in bulk processing with the lower grown coffees from the valley floor, the resulting prices paid tended toward the lowest common denominator.
This situation presented a win-win opportunity; for us to get better coffees with distinct cup characteristics from small farms, and for the farmer to get a consistently better price for their coffee from a buyer they knew on a first-name basis. The benefit is that we will be there in person every year, and we will consistently pay a premium for dried parchment coffee, no matter what the market basis in New York is.
Further benefits of a program like Xinabajul is that we have direct input. We are setting parchment prices ourselves, cupping each sample down to 40 kgs (less than half a bag of coffee), mapping all the farms, and developing a hands-on understanding of the variables in quality. On that point, we are not only able to build bonds with farmers that have the best coffee deliveries, but also troubleshoot picking and processing problems with those that have potential but whose problems are showing up on our cupping table.
Just in the first year of actively working the project, it was apparent that the prices we are paying for quality, and our presence and consistency in buying, has made an impact. Farmers that started out with some hesitancy because we were unknown in the zone are now delivering all of their coffee. Beyond price, we are also paying on a sliding scale based on cup quality. So once a farmer has proved they can score in the top ranks (showing not only the native potential of plant material, soil, altitude etc, but also the consistent hard work of pulping, fermenting and drying coffee according to the best methods) then they are incentivized to work with us in the future as well.
We are terribly proud of the work we put into Proyecto Xinabajul, the work of our partners in Guatemala and the trust the farmers have shown in us. There are many fine coffees from Guatemala, but with these lots we are giving farmers access to the high specialty market to farmers who have never had it before. And for us we get to offer fantastic coffees from unique sources. It's a rewarding project, and we look forward to growing and improving it for the benefit of all.