Finca Palin is a third-generation, woman-managed coffee farm just outside Tacuba, El Salvador. Combining traditional and modern processing methods, owner Carolina Padilla is a female coffee producer and a master of her craft. She creates quality product we’re incredibly proud to have on our shelves. Learn about Carolina as she shares her experience of being a woman in coffee, the challenges she’s faced, and the sustainable practices she utilizes on her farm.
Q: Describe a day in the life as a woman in coffee; owning and managing a coffee farm.
A: One thing about coffee farm life is that an average day is never average! Days always start early, sometimes around 5am. Activities on the farm depend on the time of year. For example, the beginning of the year is harvest season and has its own series of activities:
- Deciding when a plot of coffee is ready to be picked consists of ensuring the cherries have reached optimal maturity, usually when deep red in color
- Picking the coffee by hand requires many people distributed in teams to tackle a certain plot or area on that day
- Sorting the beans after picking to make sure only the best cherries make it to the de-pulping phase
- The coffee is left to ferment for at least twenty four hours depending on the process selected before the next task begins
- After harvest comes the pruning of coffee trees and shading to get ready for rainy season
There are different activites every few weeks throughout the year to make sure every tree is taken care of before the whole cycle begins again.
Q: What challenges have you faced as a woman in coffee/female coffee producer?
A: I took the reins of the farm after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006 and was unable to continue working. I was in my early thirties and faced the fact that coffee is seen as a man’s industry with the average coffee producer in El Salvador being a 59-year-old male. It was hard to be taken seriously at all levels as a producer; even at the farm itself. The farm manager thought that as a woman I did not know much about coffee. It was initially hard to get people to believe in me and it was even harder getting anyone to teach me better practices. Coffee prices were low and most people around our farm had abandoned coffee farming – not just because of coffee prices in 2012 when coffee rust hit all farms hard, but also because of gang violence and insecurity in the region. I still managed to go to the farm by myself and knew that If I wanted to be successful, I would have to learn to produce quality coffee and find a buyer outside of El Salvador to help maintain and grow the farm and be able to keep workers, make the farm sustainable, as well as help with my father’s medicals bills. After my father’s passing, I began to slowly separate coffees and experimented with processing. My first coffee produced about 5 bags of honey [a type of coffee process] that was purchased by an Australian coffee shop. Since then, I have grown little by little in production and quality and we are able to provide our beautiful coffees to the world.
Q: You cultivate red worms to create humic acid and produce a more natural fertilizer for your coffee. Can you explain why you chose this sustainability approach? What other sustainable practices, if any, do you utilize on your farm?
A: Since I was a little girl I have always been fascinated by worms. I would watch them during a hard storm and was fascinated at how they would come out of the ground. Using them in coffee production was something I had wanted to try ever since I heard about how they could make the soil better for the coffee and use less chemicals to be more sustainable for the environment. There are studies that show how humic acid influences plant growth positively and produces significant increases in overall plant productivity, independent of nutrient uptake.
We are constantly made aware that we need to contribute to save our planet. I believe we need to go back to basics in some of the practices used and using humic acid helps in this way; to provide a more natural and more sustainable source of nutrition for our trees – plus, they are so cool. Beside that, we have a more regenerative approach to farming; trying to only use what the soils needs, doing soil testing every couple of years to ensure we are only using what is needed. We also try to be as creative as we can by using natural supplements like lime and natural silicon as they naturally decompose with the organic acids in the soil making nutrients available for plants. This helps to make the soil’s PH levels more balanced and also helps to give back everything that’s been stripped away for so many years due to the use of intense chemical fertilizers. Additionally, we do not use chemicals for weed control; everything is done by hand. This year we also freed biological control for coffee borer [a small beetle and harmful coffee pest]; hopefully we start to see more improvement this year.
Q: What sets your coffee apart from others in the region?
A: I am very passionate about what I do and very passionate about my heritage. I get very close and personal with what we do; very involved in the whole process from tree to cup to consumer. I believe that a more artisan approach to coffee will yield the most beautiful tasting coffee from my region, Tacuba. We run a personally detailed small farm operation with very traditional/more artisanal processes like those that El Salvador has done for the past 100 years. Everything is slow sun dried and monitored to ensure a uniform drying from the inside out, using raised beds to ensure quality, preserve flavors and improve shelf or warehouse lifespan.
Q: What has changed in the coffee industry over the years?
A: Coffee is an ever-changing industry and I think it is what makes people fall in love with coffee. It is so broad, never boring and you can always learn something new about coffee. There are more ways than ever to be able to enjoy the drink through different processes, methods of preparation and even hot or cold. Recently, there is definitely a more conscious approach to the environment and how we impact climate change. We see more and more people interested in drinking better quality coffee and drinking as a single origin with more brewing methods available than what we are used to. There is more interest in gender equality and female participation in the industry, which is always good. Furthermore, awareness of all those involved in the process of the coffee industry results in a more prosperous income as the human aspect is at the forefront. When it comes to hand picking coffee, roasting, selling and buying, roasters and end consumers understand why a quality cup of coffee costs more. I think now there is a more holistic approach to the whole process and all those involved and definitely increased appreciation. Processes like honey and natural that are friendlier to the end consumer and to the environment because they use less water and I love that there are more people willing to appreciate these types of specialty coffee. Education is always key to both producers and consumers about the direction that the industry is taking.
Q: How do you market and sell your coffee, both locally and internationally?
A: For the most part, there has always been a great coffee community. Through the years I have met some amazing people in every link of the value coffee chain and this is just a beautiful network where I have found people that love my coffee and form a lasting coffee friendship, with some for more than ten years. I also have an Instagram account, where I share both my own coffee journey and share the working partnerships I have created. This modern marketing approach has also helped identify new customers all over the world that appreciate what we do. Internally through friends, family and neighbors that know we roast once a week. I am considered the coffee girl next door.
Q: How has your community been impacted by coffee farming?
A: Where I come from is a town agriculturally known for coffee farming. Through the years we have seen it negatively impacted by coffee prices, farm disease and abandonment due to war and insecurity. At some point in the past, my home area was considered as a rural town with the second highest rate of poverty and malnourishment in the country. Farms were mostly abandoned and there weren’t many jobs; this was another reason why I had to find a way to make it work because I had at least three families and fifteen people that had worked with us for many years and relied on the farm as a their only source of income. I believe now, with the country being safer, and the government implementing programs to assist small farmers for replanting varieties that are rust resistant, farm training on better practices and quality with programs like MOCCA, [and] lowering the prices on agronomical supplies to help with the high cost after Covid, we see producers coming back to coffee farming to invest in and enjoying El Salvador a lot more. I think we will see a lot more of El Salvador specialty coffee being served and enjoyed around the world.
Q: What advice would you give to a woman in coffee who is interested in starting their own coffee farm
A: My father always said that it was through helping others that we could grow. I would love to be an example to a younger generation of women and farmers in general and demonstrate that it is possible to make coffee farming sustainable if we put our skills to the test. Start small and educate yourself about the trade, the market, quality and processes. Most of all, enjoy it. Anything done with passion will work!
Q: You utilize both your family’s traditional practices as well as modern processing methods to produce your coffee. Can you tell me about these practices?
A: As I mentioned before, we use very traditional practices, no big equipment. Coffee is picked by hand in small natural fiber baskets made in the town and hand sorted. We then float the coffee in a small basin to take out floaters and then manually place them on the beds and stir every few hours for about 3 weeks. I have a small motorized de-pulper, that for now is enough to cover our whole production. Most of the work is still very manual. It is not until the dry milling process that more mechanized methods are used; for sorting, cleaning, and separating only the best quality beans for the preparation offered. I have always tried to hand paint a bag for each lot sold and my customers seem to love it. It’s that personal touch of inspiration that I get to add each year.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your job as a woman in coffee?
A: I get to drink coffee every day and meet wonderful people that I get to learn from or share my own experiences. I get to be and work outside and see greenery, breathe fresh air and be with the street dogs; the famous ‘Chuchos de Finca’. To think that a whole year’s work ends up in a coffee shop that I know is very rewarding. A lot of farmers never see or know where their coffee ends up. Being able to have that closer relationship to a buyer is almost like being there when that cup of coffee is being served. My hope is that the barista can pass down a little bit of our story and passion to the consumer. It is a coffee/love story.