On Katia Duke

On Katia Duke
October 28, 2019 Summit Coffee
In Blog

Two weeks ago, Donovan and Andrew had the opportunity to visit Finca San Isidro, just outside the small town of Copán Ruinas in southwestern Honduras, nestled between the mountainous border with Guatemala and an impressive Mayan ruins site dating back to the the 5th century. Finca San Isidro is owned and operated by Katia Duke, who graciously hosted, drove, fed, entertained, and – most importantly – taught Donovan and Andrew for two days as part of their week-long trip visiting coffee farms and producers in Honduras.

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I tried to take a picture but the washed out road was not cooperating. It’s the tail end of rainy season in Central America, after all, and the previous day’s rains had further eroded the already bumpy mountain road that winds up the mountain leading out of Copán Ruinas, Honduras. Four schoolchildren, neatly dressed in crisp white and blue uniforms, contrasted sharply against the background of farm animals, tin roofs, and jungle. We were riding in Katia’s old red Toyota pickup truck. “I could have bought a fancy truck by now, but I invest everything back into the finca,” Katia tells us as we make our way through one jarring ravine after another. She does so without a hint of regret, just pride. Two years ago she used profits from her coffee to buy her own milling equipment so that part of the process could be done onsite, and most recently she had built out and weather-proofed a storage building to house the finished product in better conditions than it would otherwise have in a shipping container. Our half-hour ride up the mountain is full of these tiny truths about her life and operation, from which we begin to understand where our coffee is coming from. And from whom.

At a certain point, not at the top but high enough that the deciduous trees began to yield to the coniferous, we stopped and exited the truck. “Welcome to Finca San Isidro!” Katia greeted us again. We peeled back a wire fence to take our first steps onto a real coffee farm. Neatly organized rows of coffee trees lined the slope, a steep drop between two ridges, a black diamond at higher latitudes. Interspersed between the coffee trees were the larger trunks and crowns of other species, which give shade, nutrients, and protection to the coffee. “This is Obata and Catuai,” Katia explained the coffee varietals as we made our way between the rows. “The Obata protects against La Roya,” she added. Roya, or Rust as we would say in english, is a fungal disease that infects coffee trees and can wipe out entire crops, and has hit Latin America particularly hard in recent years. Just a few years ago, and only a few years after she had started producing coffee, nearly 70% of Katia’s trees were affected. That wasn’t the only adversity she’s faced, though.

In 2011 when she purchased her first parcelas — a few hundred acres worth — from her father, it was nearly harvest in late December and Katia thought she had inherited forty pickers to help harvest the coffee. Katia held up two fingers before saying, “Two. Only two showed up. Two women. My only employees. The men wouldn’t work for a female farmer. They said, ‘Your daddy’s the patrón, not you’.” A combination of anger, sadness, and determination filled her voice. “It was hard. It was hard. But now they have no problem working for me. I pay good wages.”

Katia holds her pickers to high standards. She has taught them to only pick the ripest, red cherries. “They get paid by the kilo, so it took a long time to get them to change,” Katia recounted. “But now they know and they hold each other accountable.” By picking only the ripe cherries, Katia immediately improves the quality of her yield. She knows that the higher her coffee scores, the better prices they will fetch in the market, and the more money she will make to invest in her farm and her employees. She has them meticulously prune each tree, increasing its yield in subsequent years and creating year-long employment opportunities beyond the December – February harvest. “It takes a lot of pruning, but it’s worth it. I’m trying to get my dad to do it now, too, on his trees. One step at a time.”

Katia is involved at every step of the coffee production process. Throughout our time with her, she rattled off one project after another that she was currently working on, had just completed, or was planning for in the near future. She got her degree in agronomy to better manage production at the farm. She learned to roast coffee so that she could sample her lots, and she spun that into a business as well, opening a small coffee shop and wholesale coffee business in her hometown. She is actively working on building more raised beds for her natural- and honey-processed coffees, and plans to experiment further with lactic fermentation during this year’s harvest. Most recently, she splurged for windows in an old farmhouse which will be converted into a coffee lab and office for her and her team.

“What I’m most proud of, though, is that, right there,” Katia pointed across the rest of her crop to a modest but sturdy wood cabin. “We built a school for the local indigenous children, a lot of the adults here haven’t had any formal education, some to a first-grade level or so.” Katia’s voice dropped as her gazed fixed on the school. “But around here, you solve one problem, and you just find more. Now the kids have school, but they don’t have lunch, and many of them suffer from malnutrition. Next, I want to build a kitchen next to the school, so that the children can go to school and have at least one meal each day.” Now I know why those children were wearing uniforms.

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The journey of Katia’s coffee culminates for us with Summit’s newest offering _Finca San Isidro_, a mixed lot of Obata and Catuai. The coffee goes through a triple fermentation for a total of 36 hours, an experimental process that Katia is still refining: 12 hours in sealed plastic “GrainPro” bags after harvest, 12 hours in a concrete tank before depulping, and another 12 hours after depulping before the rest of the washed process. In the cup are notes of wildflower honey, roasted hazelnut, apple butter, salted caramel, and chamomile, with a rounded body and a building sweetness and acidity. Proceeds from Katia’s coffee go to improvements on her farm, quality wages for local workers, and charitable efforts such as a school and kitchen for impoverished children. Hopefully one day they’ll go toward a new truck.

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