Coffee production in El Salvador

One thing I’ve found bloging shows is that I’m a little bit obsessive. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not but hey. I’ve spent the weekend searching through some files on the computer a little spring cleaning early and found the article below about my current obsession El Salvador coffee production. I remember the author saying I could share it with whomever I like, so I want to share it with you.

Coffee Production in El Salvador

Industry Structure

There are close to 20,000 coffee producers in El Salvador. Small and medium-sized holdings of less than 120 hectares account for about 65% of production. Producers accounting for about 25% of total production are grouped in marketing co-operatives which together form the “Union de Co-operatives Cafetaleras de El Salvador” “UCAFES” (Organisation of Coffee Producing Co-operatives of El Salvador). A land reform carried out in 1980 led to the creation of the “Union de Co-operatives Productoras y Beneficiadoras de Cafe”, “UCRAPROBEX” (Organisation of Land Reform Coffee Producing and Processing Co-operatives). UCRAPROPBEX groups small farmers who before the reform didn’t have access to land and accounts for 10% of national production. Other organisations include the “ Association de Beneficiadores y Exportadores de Cafe”, ABECAFE (Association of millers and Coffee Exporters), which groups the majority of the 99 coffee millers and exporters; and the Association of Coffee Producers of El Salvador, representing all producers.

These four coffee Organisations along with four government institutions form a policy-making forum called the “Consejo Salvadoreño del Cafe” (Salvadorian Coffee Council). The Consejo is also engaged in coffee promotion, statistics gathering and international cooperation.

Economic Importance for El Salvador

There are approximately 165,000 hectares devoted to coffee in El Salvador, close to 12% of the nation’s arable land. Although grown in 7 of the 14 provinces of the country, most of the plantations are found in the western and central provinces of Santa Ana (34% of total production), Ahuachapán (17%), Sonsonate (10%) an La Libertad (21%). Most of the coffee land in the eastern part of the country is located in the province of San Miguel (10% of the country’s total) and Usulutan (6%).

Currently representing 3% of the Gross National Product and 22% of the agricultural product, coffee has traditionally been an important source of hard currency. In 1997 it accounted for 22% of total exports. With improved local investment and a stable political climate, production in the 1990`s has stabilised at around 2.3 million 60kg bags, a 2.3% share of world output. El Salvador is currently ranked 11th in production terms amongst the 55 producing nations.

Coffee is an important source of employment, generating close to 135,000 direct jobs, which account for 25% of the agricultural sector and 7% nation wide. In 1996/97 total exports amounted to 2.85 million 60kg bags, with a value of US$506 million. The bulk was shipped to Germany (45.3% of the total), the USA (18.55), Belgium (13.2%) and Holland (5.9%). Gourmet coffee exports have shown a steady increase from 13,535 60kg bags in 1993/94 to 55,796 bags in 1996/97.

Botany & Ecology

El Salvador producers the Arabica species only. The main varieties found are Bourbon, which comprises 80% of the existing plantations, Pacas accounts for 15% and the rest includes Pacamara and dwarfs varieties such as Caturra, Catuaí and Catisic.

In most of the best coffee-growing regions rainfall is significantly above 71 inches annually and is well distributed throughout the year with a drier period of four to six months. The rainy season in El Salvador normally begins in may and lasts until the start of October with an average annual rainfall of 79 in. The effects of temperature and altitude are mitigated by the presence of shade trees, which reduce light intensity and help to retain soil moisture.

Shade trees create a forest-like environment that protects the local fauna and serves as a temporary refuge for migratory birds. According to the Audubon Society, taken together, Mexico, Central America and The Caribbean provide the yearly destination for more than a third of all migratory bird species that breed in the United Estates (200 or more different kinds of them).

Coffee plantations in El Salvador have been officially classified as forest. Researchers at the National University found 66 species of trees and shrubs and 73 wildlife species on a single farm. Although the current trend in most countries is to reduce shade and to assist growth by greater use of fertilizers and irrigation, in El Salvador the shade tree plantation has proven to be the most appropriate system of production.


El Salvador classifies its coffees according to altitude. The main classifications are:
 Central Standard: Produced between 1,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level. In 1995/96 Central Standard accounted for 18% of exports.
 Central High Grown: produced between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level. In 1995/96, this quality accounted for 34.5% of exports.
 Central Strictly High Grown: produced between 4,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. In 1995/96 this quality accounted for 30.6% of exports.

Harvesting and Processing

The harvesting period in El Salvador starts in October in the below lying areas and extends through March for the high altitude areas. The bulk is harvested from late November to early January. Selective hand-Picking is the prevalent harvest method; the unripe beans are separated before sending to the mills. The fresh cherries are transported the day they are harvested for immediate pulping in order to prevent fermentation. This is made possible thanks to relatively close concentration of coffee regions, the fact that mills are well distributed in this areas, the existence of more than 460 collecting points and an adequate network of feeder roads.

Coffee is wet processed in El Salvador, so cherries must be picked at their optimum stage of ripeness, when they exhibit a bright red colour. Producers don’t engage in any of the delicate processing activities which are carried out by millers who are integrated from the souring to the export activity. These millers normally have a capacity to process from 1,000 to 5,000 quintals daily (one quintal = one 46kg bag) of green coffee, volumes that assure a homogeneous product. An abundance of drying decks and sunlight allows a significant amount of coffee to be sun-dried.

A coffee harvest is normally concentrated in a three-month period, whereas exports are spread over the year. Coffee is therefore stored in parchment in exporters’ warehouses in areas where relative humidity does not exceed 70%.

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