Growing and Selling Coffee in Guatemala-- an article on coffee from the March 11, 1888 New York Times

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The New York Times, March 11, 1888, p. 10:

GROWING AND SELLING COFFEE.

    Though Guatemala and all the Spanish-American republics boast of their production of fruits, sugar, and chocolate, their principal source of wealth is coffee; and being directly connected by steamship lines by way of the Isthmus of Panama with all the important ports of Europe, and via San Francisco and Guaymas with the United States, they are enabled to ship their coffee to the highest market with great facility.

    In altitude the coffee plant thrives anywhere from the sea level to a height of 5,000 feet, and all other conditions of soil, humidity, and climatic influences being equal, the best results have been obtained at about 3,000 feet.

    All the coffee of Guatemala grows to the west of the Sierra Madres and is divided into three main districts, namely:
    — That to the north, or Tumbador district, bordering on Mexico and having the port of Ocos as its natural shipping point.
    — Immediately south of this is the Costa Cuea district, having Champerico as its outlet, and,
    — The Costa Grande, still further south, and bordering on San Salvador, having the port of San José as its outlet.
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    The shipments to Europe first rendezvous at Aspinwall and from there by either the English, German, or French line they go directly to Liverpool, London, Hamburg, and Havre. All for the United States go by the Pacific Mail to New-York or San Francisco.
    It seems strange that no advantage has been taken of the port of Guaymas, thence by way of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad, to supply the immense central and southern parts of the United States. By this route, coffee could be placed in St. Louis, Chicago, St. Paul, and Kansas City at a much lower rate than these cities can now obtain their supply from New-York or San Francisco. Recently a line of steamers has been started connecting the Pacific ports of Central America with Guaymas, and soon we may see this natural line of supply utilized, not only with advantage to the producer and carrier, but also to the consumer.

    He who makes up his mind to create his own coffee estate or "finca" must also be prepared to endure from four to six years of the hardest work. In clearing he must chop wood, cut away underbrush, and weed his land. He must be ready to work from sunrise to sundown... It is true that he may hire native labor to assist him, but that labor cannot be depended upon should he turn his back upon it.
    In selecting the ground it is best to choose a well-drained surface, so that the heavy rains of the wet season will not prove too much for the trees and rot them. It is not necessary to have one general slope, but hillocks and hillsides give as good results as any other surface; in fact, it has been my experience that the more inacessible the point the better grows the tree.

    After his ground is well cleared he starts his nursery by planting coffee twigs, which for three years must be carefully nurtured and attended to, when they are transplanted to their proper places, each being eight feet distant from its immediate neighbors. At the close of the fourth year comes the blossom, closely followed by the fruit. Then may the proprietor complacently contemplate his growing fortune; the beautiful, "tube-rose-like" white flower, showing against the dark, lustrous green of the leaf, passes away; then appears the green berry, ripening gradually, first a delicate pink, changing by degrees to a dark cherry red, when it is ripe and ready to be gathered.
    The management of a finca requires experience, great activity, and attention to details. As few are better able to care for children than a mother who has raised them, few are more competent to manage a finca than he who has cared for it since its very birth.

    All the labor is performed by Indians, called in Central America mozos. It is paid very low, and great tact is necessary in its management. The demand for mozos is not greater than the supply, but the mozo laborer can find enough work to keep him alive almost anywhere, and as he requires very little, even less than a Chinaman, he will not work more than is necessary for his own comfort. He well knows that his class of work is paid low, and he recognizes that he cannot acquire sufficient wealth to hire others to work for him; that is, he is a laborer for life. Thus, having no ambition, he will suffer nothing that may seem to him to be hard or unjust treatment merely for the purpose of earning a few dollars more.
    A tacit agreement exists among finca owners on the rate to be paid for labor, which is very generally agreed to, and which is necessary for their own protection, for, should they bid against each other it would, as a rule, increase the cost of production, and, in consequence, decrease profits, and as life on one finca is life on any other, and as wages and the cost of living seldom vary, the only prize the mozo can draw is the decent treatment of a good master.
    The average mozo character is composed of few virtues and many vices... His principal food is the tortilla, a slap-jack made of ground corn and water, raw sugar cane, baked plantain, cinnamon, and all the whiskey he can get.

    The important work on a coffee estate is to keep the "cafetal," or coffee tract, "clean;" that is, the ground well cleaned of weeds and the trees themselves freed from moss and all parasitical growth which thrives in the damp localities. This weeding every three months not only adds to the richness and abundance of the berry in the ensuing crop, but the ground being clean the berries which ripen and fall during the gathering can easily be seen and saved by the coffee pickers.
    The value of the berry is so great that many precautions are taken to prevent the workers from stealing it. For this mozos of a higher class are employed, designated as corporals and paid salaries; each corporal is placed in charge of a squad of pickers, and it is his duty to see that no thieving occurs and that those under him work. But even this sometimes fails, and not seldom these corporals are discovered to be in collusion with their subordinates.

    The picker is paid in proportion to the amount of coffee he gathers, a good steady hand being able to earn 50 centavos per day in Guatemala, or about 35 cents in American gold. Few, however, earn so much, for the mozo is a "devil-may-care" fellow; he will laugh and talk instead of attending strictly to stripping the tree in front of him, and will be satisfied if he earns 2 "reals" per day, or 25 cents.
    In other walks of life his character is the same; he will sit in the plaza all day long under a hot sun, chatting away with his neighbors, making 5 or 10 cents net profit a day, selling native soap or corn, and he will decline many jobs which might net him a dollar a day...

    The immediate management of the finca is in the hands of the Administrador, a position of trust and hard work. At night he gives his orders for the next day; with the picture of the entire estate always in his mind's eye, he knows in what localities the coffee must be gathered on the morrow, what places are most in need of cleaning, and at the same time sees that the product is being properly prepared for market by the machines. He is in saddle at 5 A. M. starting his men to work, riding from point to point all day long; nothing should escape his observation--the growth of weeds here, the ripening of tbe fruit there...

    In an estate of from 10,000 to 20,000 acres one can easily see the responsibility resting on the Administrador... He must always have a sufficient number of resident mozos, those whose homes are on the finca, to enable him to keep the trees clean, and he should have contracts made in advance for enough others to gather the crop. In addition to this he should have a quantity of corn laid up, sufficient to supply all his hands during the gathering season, for one cannot retain mozos without keeping corn for sale at a certain and low rate.
    To be without sufficent mozos to gather your crop is to lose the fruit of a years' labor; the berry drops to rot, or, what is worse, dries up on the tree, and ruins the next years crop.
    Finally, the Administrado must appear to the mozos to be "one of them;" he should say "no" to a request so discreetly that the Indian will walk away almost as well satisfied as if the answer had been "yes;" in every way he must impress upon his subordinates that he "is in the same boat" with them, and at the same time their master.

    At the close of the day the gathered coffee is brought by the pickers to certain designated and convenient points, where carts are sent to carry it to the warehouse. The amounts each individual has gathered is measured by a responsible party, the picker receiving in return a metal check, which is redeemed at the finca office at the close of the week, the holder receiving in silver coin the amount due him.

    The surface of the coffee berry is like the smooth surface of the acorn, and when taken from the tree is called "cereza," or cherry, by reason of its color. This on the same day is put into concrete water tanks, and is well stirred by men with wooden rakes and shovels in order to separate the good from the poor. The poor or light grains rise to the top of the water and float away on the surface, through a small gate, to their own tank. This soaking also swells the outer shells.
    It is then worked in machines called "despulpadores," which remove the outside heavy sheath, allowing the twins to separate, for there are two grains in a pod, except in the rare highest quality, in which there is but one spherical grain.
    It is now called "cascalilla" or "pergamino," each grain being clothed in a thin shell, which when sun-dried becomes crisp and brittle, and is easily removed in mortars; the coffee is then said to be in "oro," or gold, from its yellow color, and is practically ready to be toasted and ground for table use.
    After this it is revolved in the "separadores," or hot cylinders perforated with small holes, to grade it according to the size of the grain, and it is then placed in sacks to be shipped to market. Heat is necessary in the grading process only; all of the other manipulation is done with water power.

    The profits on coffee are very great. The cost of creating a finca up to the time of gathering the first crop may be estimated at 50 cents per tree, in Guatemala currency; this includes every expense and is a high estimate. Many fincas have not cost mroe than 30 cents per tree.
    Let us take, for example, a finca of 100,000 trees, which, at 30 cents per tree, would represent a value of 30,000 Guatemala dollars. Any finca in an average season will produce at least 1˝ pounds of coffee in "oro" per tree, making 150,000 pounds of coffee or 1,500 quintals, a quintal being 100 pounds. Ready for the table and on the finca, it costs $4.50 per quintal to raise, and it may be laid down in any market of the United States or Europe at a further cost of $4.50 per quintal. That is to say, it costs $9 in Guatemala money to raise and deliver to any market 100 pounds of coffee.

    Selling at, say, 18 cents per pound, or $18 American gold per quintal, and adding to this exchange at 30, your 1,500 quintals bring you $27,000 in American gold, or exchange at 30, they bring you $35,100 in Guatemala coin. That is, coffee that cost you $13,500 you have sold for $35,100, and made a net profit of $21,600, or, on your first crop you have made a net profit of over 66 per cent. or two-thirds of the total value of your finca.
    This is a fair estimate of coffee growing profits. The estimate of 1˝ pounds per tree, per year, would be laughed at by many "finqueros"--and it is well known that many fincas produce from three to five pounds per tree, but I have purposely estimated low, and given the result that may be depended upon as an average for a term of years.

    Coffee was so low 10 or 12 years ago that finca owners were offering to sell out at almost any price. Fincas that cannot be bought to-day for $50,000, could not find buyers six years ago at $14,000. This is owing to the at first gradual rise and big jump of 1887 in the price of coffee.
    In 1885 coffee rose to $14 per quintal, in 1886 it rose to $17, and in June 1887 it rose to the great price of $24 per quintal, the cost of its production always remaining the same. Comparing this price with the selling price given in the above example, the immense profit may be easily estimated.
    The Brazil crop has a greater effect on the market than any other, and it was the failure of this crop in 1887, causing a scarcity of coffee, that ran the price up to $24. Of course in this rise the coffee growers realize handsomely, but the greater profits went to the dealers who had received early information of Brazil's bad prospects--bought at comparatively low prices and held on for a rise.

    Business houses of all parts of the world send agents to Guatemala to purchase coffee, the home office keeping its agent informed by cable of the condition of the market, that he may buy to advantage. Then, again, many houses have branch stores in the republic, and, though they realize much on sales of merchandise, their main business is buying coffee and advancing money on the coming crop, and as they are "on hand," so to speak, for every rise and fall in price, the advantage of such a branch establishment is obvious.
    This keeping of a store inspires a finca owner with confidence that he might not have in a traveling agent, and he will often refuse to enter into negotiations with an agent, but will travel many miles to sell his crop at one of these branch offices or stores. This may seem to be a rather ridiculous prejudice, for he will be expected to sell to the highest bidder, but it is not so. Very often the coffee is sold, part payment being in cash, and the rest being at order for machinery, sacks, belting, or other finca supplies. The house buying the coffee then does a commission business for the finquero.
    Last year a traveling buyer for a San Francisco firm bought coffee and engaged to buy merchandise for the finquero. He swindled his customer by overcharging him. This year the same coffee buyer again appeared on the scene; he was unable to buy any coffee; the story of his commission business had preceded him. This man's conduct reflected on many American agents, but fortunately those agents are of such reliable stuff that the ignominy of the transaction now remanins where it belongs, on the offender himself.

    Last November reports came that the Brazil crop would be but 2,000,000 quintals. This news, to the coffee world, meant that coffee of the running class would sell surely at $22 per quintal throughout the year. Finca owners, after selling their crops last year at $16 per quintal, had seen dealers selling the same coffee, two months later, at $24, and they hailed this news from Brazil with joy, and instantly declined to sell under $19 and $20 per quintal.
    In the middle of January news came that the Brazil crop was not a failure, but would be about 8,500,000 quintals. Coffee dropped point by point until on Feb. 3 it was $14 62˝ per quintal. Notwithstanding the daily cablegrams of the lowering market you have the amusing sight of the finquero asking $20 per quintal for his coffee, when that same lot cannot be sold in New-York for that price.

    The future of the market depends upon the truth of the reports from Brazil. It is not unreasonable to presume that the report of 8,500,000 quintals is too large, and it may be safely estimated between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000 quintals. This would put coffee to about $17 per quintal in New-York, and this is the price that may be expected in the middle of March next.
FRANCIS J. A. DARR.   
 
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