Coffee: Finca El Tambor, Guatemala

The view toward Guatemala City. Finca El Tambor is in the foreground.

The view toward Guatemala City. Finca El Tambor is in the foreground.

Finca El Tambor is located about an hour and half northwest of Guatemala City in the municipality of Palencia, near the town of El Duranzo. The producer, Victor Calderon, sold his house and car to purchase the farm, which was in a sorry state and leased by a mining firm at the time. The mining operation was relatively unsuccessful and the firm did not have the proper notarization to be using the land for this purpose, so Victor was able to use this loophole to his advantage in negotiations to purchase the land. When he acquired El Tambor, the farm only produced around 130 bags of coffee.  Victor and his team have grown the production of El Tambor to approximately 330 bags since the farm has been under their care. The altitude of El Tambor is around 1500-1550 masl.

El Tambor means The Drum, which refers to the sound of underground water that surged through the land in years past.  The pounding of underground water had subsided in part due to the ever-expanding needs of the population of nearby Guatemala City, and in part due to the mining operation that once monopolized the land’s resources.


El Tambor is the first farm I visited in my recent coffee sourcing trip to Guatemala. I was taken not only by the beauty of the farm, but the obvious thought put into every aspect of the farm’s sustainability in terms of the land itself and the livelihood of the workers who live there year-round. There are 10 houses on the property, where manager Juan, the workers, and their families reside. 10% of the farm is given to the workers to farm in order to provide year-round vegetables for their families. Each family is also given a horse of their own for transportation to nearby El Duranzo, as well as for hauling the coffee harvest to the wet mill after a day’s pick.

300 hectares have been left as natural forest; and while the underground water no longer pounds through the property like a drum, there are 28 springs which provide all the water for the farm’s production. They have begun to plant bamboo on the creeksides in an effort to conserve water, as bamboo soaks up water during the rainy season and slowly releases it in the dry season.  Victor has planted avocado, and other fruit trees as shade trees for the many varietals that inhabit the farm.  In fact, Victor has planted so many avocado trees that he joked as he was inspecting his avocado trees that he could go into a secondary business of avocado farming and be quite successful.  All farming practices utilized on the farm are organic, with the exception of some chemical fertilizers used in the coffee nursery.

The farm’s major coffee varietals are pacha rojo, pacha amarillo, red bourbon, caturra, with our coffee drawn from bourbon and caturra. Roya, or coffee rust, has hit Guatemala hard this year, and the country, along with those surrounding it, is struggling to combat this devastating disease which attacks the coffee plant’s leaves and makes them fall off, thereby inhibiting the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.

While the governing body for Guatemalan coffee, Anacafe, has recommended a chemical form of combating the rust, Victor has not found success with this method. In fact, he experimented by using the recommended chemical sprays on one plot and his own natural concoction of the land’s natural clay dissolved in water as a spray on another plot.  The reasoning behind Victor’s use of the clay as a natural spray to combat rust is that the area’s unique clay soil is constantly kicked up along the side of the roads and covers the surrounding plant life almost completely.  Those plants remain completely healthy in spite of being covered with clay.  Furthermore, many people use clay like that found on Victor’s farm as a natural form of sun protectant as well as for restorative skin masks, removing impurities and improving skin moisture.

Victor’s experiments with clay have proven very successful.  Since the coffee rust is a fungus that settles on the surface of the leaves, the clay acts like a barrier between the fungus and the leaves.  The rust simply wipes off.  Furthermore, what little rust that has managed to find its way through doesn't seem to effect the integrity of the coffee leaves.  To further prove his point to us he gathered some clay from the ground, diluted it in water and made us all slather it on our hands and faces and drive into Guatemala City wearing it!

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