In Mexico, Coffee is a Family Affair

17 May 2023

Mexico is one of the world’s leading coffee exporters with most production concentrated in the South-Central regions of the country. Coffee is largely made up of the Arabica variety which grows especially well in 15 states, particularly Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla and Oaxaca.

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Children during harvest

As in many other coffee-belt countries, the means of production bears a strong family footprint. Men, women, and even the younger generation are all involved in cultivating and processing while schools are closed during harvest.

Josias Oltehua’s coffee 

Josias Oltehua is a 37-year-old coffee producer from the Sierra Zongolica region in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Because coffee arrived here at the end of the 18th century, even earlier than in Chiapas, the seed is deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and economy of local communities. For Josias’ family in particular, who are of Nahua descent, arabica coffee production (of the Borbón, Garnica, and Colombia varieties) is their main source of livelihood.

Together with his Slow Food community Bosque, Niebla Y Café, Josias joined the Slow Food Coffee Coalition in 2021 through his long collaboration and friendship with Stephany Escamilla, now an International Advisor to the Coffee Coalition.

Three men and six women work on the farm, while four children learn from their parents in the hope that, as adults, they will not abandon this land to seek their fortunes in the United States as many others from Mexico’s rural areas have done and are still doing.

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Oltehua women work together drying coffee on patio

“The role of women in coffee production is crucial,” Josias explains, “not only for the labor force, but to help foster the learning of traditional techniques by younger generations. We’re in danger of losing these traditions due to mass emigration taking place across the country.”

There are many reasons behind the abandonment of these coffee plantations. Fluctuating earnings is a major factor, related not only to coffee exchange prices and the costs of seasonal workers (who are often hired at production peaks for plantation cleaning and harvesting jobs), but so is the impact of climate change on the plantations.

Extreme weather events often destroy plantations, but even ‘normal’ rises in temperatures facilitate the extensive proliferation of diseases and pests, even at elevations that were previously unaffected. Add to this the rising prices of pesticides and fertilizers, and the numbers don’t add up to accommodate ‘conventional’ agriculture.

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Different varieties of coffee, which when perfectly ripe may be yellow or red

“Climate change affects everything related to coffee production,” Josias points out, “and harvesting and drying have changed drastically in recent years. Agroforestry is the most viable answer, not only to counteract climate change and respect our own land, but to produce quality coffee as well. And that’s what allows us to establish direct contacts with roasters and consumers, providing economic sustainability for the producers’ families.”

The Oltehua family manages everything on site: from the planting and cultivating, to the four stages of harvesting (depending on the degree of ripeness of the coffee, picked from the plant only when it is ready), the washing, and the drying, which varies according to the type of process.

Josias has recently been trying his hand at roasting and grinding coffee on his farm to encourage the consumption of local coffee among the inhabitants of nearby towns. Too often in coffee-growing places, what the population consumes is a conventional product of poor quality, because the higher-quality product is exported.

“I always tell my customers that for every cup of coffee they consume there are producers and pickers: We pay them a fair price, to value their work! It’s a long process, to understand how important it is, but I won’t get tired of it, and the Coffee Coalition is a key support. In particular, the process of creating the Participatory Guarantee System will help us give even more value to our coffee.”

The Slow Food community: Bosque, Niebla Y Café

Bosque, Niebla Y Café is made up of about 200 producers, most of which are households, in the state of Veracruz. Like the other communities participating in the Coffee Coalition, a Participatory Guarantee System is applied to certify that the coffee produced is good, clean and fair. Specifically, the Bosque, Niebla Y Café community pioneered the development of a Slow Food Participatory Guarantee System, which was subsequently applied at national level. The first bags from the Oltehua Velazquez family reached Europe at Terra Madre 2022, and were used by four different Italian roasters.

On his trip to Terra Madre 2022, Josias was also accompanied by Stephany Escamilla Femat, the International Advisor to the Slow Food Coffee Coalition. Stephany is first and foremost a third-generation coffee producer, and is in charge of certification for Cafecol, President of the Coffee Cooperative in Xalapa (Veracruz, Mexico). She is also a professional Q grader taster, and a member of the Alianza De Mujeres Productoras De Café.

Stephany is currently helping to create another Slow Food Community in Mexico, the Comunità De Productores De Café Sustentable Cuaxtla Sierra Negra, contributing to the growth of our existing network.

Want to learn more? Write to [email protected]

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