Nicaragua has historically undergone periods of turmoil that have hindered the development of the coffee sector in the country. Many experienced coffee farmers fled during the years of Sandinista rule, during the late 1970s to 1990s. When the political scene changed and many of those farmers returned, and Nicaragua’s production escalated. However, the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch and the prolonged world coffee price crisis created further giant-sized hurdles for a country that can, and now does, produce some extremely desirable coffees.
Coffee contributes considerably to Nicaragua’s GDP, providing 40,000+ coffee farming families with livelihoods, and many thousands more with regular, permanent work. In a country with a 50% unemployment rate, and where 80% of the 6 million population live on $2 a day, coffee provides substantial social impact. The medium and larger, industrial sized coffee plantations that exist often have integrated processing facilities, alongside living quarters for the hundreds and sometimes thousands of farm workers that are hired during the harvest season, between October and February. Conversely, the rural smallholders who cultivate coffee rely on family groups for labour and 95% intercrop coffee with subsistence crops – such as corn, beans, bananas, oranges and mangoes – on less than 3 hectares of land.
Similarly, 95% of coffee production is shade grown: cultivated underneath the leafy canopy provided by native and exotic trees. This type of shade-grown coffee cultivation promotes the country’s rich indigenous biodiversity, a fact particularly pertinent in Nicaragua, where deforestation has been an issue in recent years, leading to soil erosion and water contamination in some areas. Government restrictions on deforestation have meant that producers are unable to remove indigenous forests to plant crops; consequently farmers must plant coffee around native vegetation, which provides shade and improves soil quality. The majority of coffee grown in Nicaragua is organic, though not regularly as part of a certified organic program. Often farmers choose to grow organically through economic necessity, when faced with a choice between fertilizing their crops or using the money to feed their families.
Most of Nicaragua’s coffee is grown at altitudes between 800 and 1400 metres, falling in to the Strictly High Grown (SHG) categorisation used in several Central American countries. Key growing regions include the mountainous areas of Matagalpa and Jinotega, though it is Nueva Segovia that is heralded as Nicaragua’s premier growing region, particularly the Cordillera de Dipilto – a mountainous area which runs along the Honduran border. This region regularly produces Cup of Excellence winning lots, for the farms here are blessed with altitudes of up to 1500 masl and excellent climatic conditions. The close proximity of the mills to the farms in this region also proves to be highly advantageous in terms of maintaining quality. Producers are now starting to focus on alternative processing methods such as honeys and naturals in order to add value, with the standard washed coffee not having the same distinctive characteristics that other origins do, and not commanding the same prices. Many producers are also planting new varietals, such as Pacamara and Geisha and replanting Java – an Ethiopian varietal originally brought to Central America in the 1800’s.