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COMSA, here I come!

My name is Magdalen Ng and I’ve worked for Peace Coffee for five years. I started as a barista at our Wonderland Park shop on Minnehaha Avenue. It was there that I learned what “fair trade” coffee actually is, and how to properly dose and pull a shot of espresso. Now, I’m in a Customer Service role—I assist folks with wholesale and retail orders and occasionally have the privilege of taking our delicious coffee to grocery stores, college campuses, neighborhood events, and fundraising galas to hand out fresh-brewed samples and talk about what sets us apart from other roasters.

When I was pulled aside on a dreary February afternoon last year to learn that I had been chosen to visit the COMSA Cooperative in Marcala, Honduras, I was ecstatic. Fast forward three weeks to me on a plane at three in the morning, reviewing my Spanish phrase flashcards and chugging coffee, all the while grinning like a fool.

I arrived in Tegucigalpa and walked out of the airport into a wave of wonderful hair-frizzing humidity. Downtown Teguz was loud, dusty, colorful, and compact. Surrounding the tin-capped houses and dark paved roads of the city stood proud mountains, bathed in gauzy clouds. I met up with Jennifer Yeatts, director of coffee at Higher Grounds Trading, and Craig Lamberty, owner of Conscious Coffees. Erin, a COMSA farmer, and our gracious driver carted us off to what is known as the Finca Fortaleza.

We traveled east and soon arrived at the research farm and hotel, connecting with the rest of the tour group: Felipe Gurdián (sourcing manager, translator, and origin host of Cooperative Coffees), Mélanie Gagne ́ (owner of La p’tite Brûlerie), and Matt Damron (quality manager at Coop Coffees).

No Power, No Problem

Right when we arrived at COMSA we learned that a large pine tree had crashed and severed an electrical line in Marcala and that we would be without power for at least 24 hours. After digging flashlights and headlamps out of our luggage, we settled in and chatted while the moon slowly rose to hang like a magnesium flare in a deep blue, star-studded sky. 

Before long, our reverie was interrupted; we were spirited away in trucks and brought to the home of Doctora Carla, an important community member. Fires roared around the perimeter of the homestead, and a long table was lit with tall candles and a light run on a generator. Dr. Carla and her family had prepared a full meal for us and the COMSA directors and staff; from the first moment we arrived, I felt so deeply welcomed I could hardly muster a thank you for fear of my eyes brimming with tears—or was it the third can of Salva Vida making me feel so gracious?

Regardless of the source of my emotions, I was full of it and soon striking up a choppy conversation with the woman to my right. Her name was also Carla and she had a similar role to mine: working with customers, writing contracts for sale, and assisting with phones/emails/letters. With broken Spanish and the assistance of our phones, she shared pictures of her family and I shared pictures of my cats. Eventually, the fantastic dinner ended, we acquired a generator for the night and drove back to the hotel.

We awoke the next morning to bright sun and birdsong, a luxury I hadn’t experienced in snowy Minnesota for at least five months. Down on the wide patio overlooking the valley, we gathered around a large glass-topped table littered with fluorescent orange flowers. We ate a delicious breakfast served with a big stack of fresh corn tortillas and discussed the plan for the day: a tour of the research farm and the dry mill, where the beans are milled to remove parchment, tested for quality, and then sold in lots to different buyers from around the world.

Here are some quick COMSA facts I learned while touring the farm:

  • COMSA Cooperative was founded in 2001 by 69 producer members. Today, they have 1200+ members, and there is a waiting list to join the cooperative.
  • COMSA is made up of:
    • farmer partners’ privately-owned farms
    • a research coffee farm (Finca Fortaleza), cardamom farm, apiary, and restorative forest
    • vegetable and fruit gardens
    • a training/educational facility
    • a laboratory
    • a kitchen
    • a hotel
    • refuse/recycling centers
    • wet and dry processing centers 
    • a fertilizer-processing warehouse
  • Quality is the main focus of COMSA—farmers are paid based on the scores they earn on their crops and given tools and training to increase quality.
  • Technicians are employed by COMSA—they manage several farms and visit them regularly to establish trust and give thorough support to the farmers.
  • COMSA runs an International School that offers fair-trade-premium-funded education to the children and grandchildren of the farmers and affordable education to children in the community.
  • Composted fertilizer is processed on-site from cascara (the cherry/pulp of the coffee bean) and other organic materials, and is given to members for free. This potent fertilizer is extremely necessary both for the health of the soil and the quality of the coffee grown.
  • The basics of the compost/fermentation process are the 5 M’s:
    • Materials Organicos (organic material aerates the soil and also contains the necessary components to create rich new soil material)
    • Micro-Organismos (fungus, bacteria, and other micro-organisms that decompose the organic material in soil)
    • Molecules (the molecules and amino acids that form during fermentation to strengthen the soil and plants)
    • Minerales (minerals from the mountains around the farm)
    • Material Gris (grey matter, aka BRAIN POWER—all ideas start here!)

Building a Holistic Community

After our farm tour, a cupping session in the beautiful laboratory, and a tour of the dry mill, we ended at the farmhouse and ranch of a COMSA farmer named Montgomery Melghem. The ranch was very old, and the walls lined with photographs of great grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Outside of the kitchen was a small cement drying lot, and a stage set up underneath the stars. A live band played that night and, while I won’t name names, there were some dance moves I have definitely added to my repertoire since then. 

The next morning, we headed off to visit the wet mill where all the members bring coffee in a variety of forms. Partnering with a cooperative that offers milling options means the farmer can drop off product in nearly any stage: un-pulped whole cherries, dried pulp-on natural cherries, washed or partially-washed seeds, even dried product. This allows farmers who may not otherwise have equipment to still process the product for selling. We learned about the fermentation process and enjoyed a lunch at the cafeteria on-site, and then headed out to visit farms.

Each of the five farms we visited showcased not only high-quality coffee, but a dedication to holistic and mindful stewardship of the land, community, coffee crops, and family. Every decision was made with full awareness of impact. Not one piece of plastic or gallon of water went without purpose or intent. I was inspired of course and downright impressed when that thoughtfulness was directly applied to the community of Marcala, specifically in relation to the COMSA International School.

Learning Life Skills

On Thursday, we had the pleasure of visiting the International School. At the young student center, the first hour and a half of the day are open for the children to play; the playground is in the center of the facility and features an open-sky ceiling to let in the fresh air and the dazzling Honduras sun. The classrooms branched off the center facility, and children gathered into small groups for 10-minute learning sessions. Beats in between were for quick language lessons; the International School educators teach French, Spanish (grammar and usage), Japanese, English, and German. As I sat among dozens of grinning, energetic children eager to learn and share with us, I had an unoriginal but nonetheless important thought: The future of our world rests on the tiny shoulders of children. It’s a burden that seems too great to bear in this day of political buffoonery, campus shootings, agricultural pollution, and the collapse of ecological systems around the world. And yet, the children stood and declared in clear, loud voices who they are, and what they intend to do to change this world and improve their communities. 

We then visited the older student facility for those 6-18. Here, the message of pride and responsibility was strong. Curriculums at the International School are built around physical activity and play, positive reinforcement, and student led-sessions. Education is the main tool used by COMSA across the board to empower and enrich the lives of its community members. This method is centered around patience, acceptance, and open-mindedness. 

Real-life skills are rolled into projects, and students build business plans from scratch. To connect youth with the farming community, students research farming practices and share these innovations and technologies with the farmers themselves. Many of the farmers cited the change they saw in their own children and grandchildren, and how they found themselves looking up to them as models of hope and confidence.

Bigger Than Coffee

Since I started at Peace Coffee, I’ve felt like everything we do here is bigger than coffee. Over the stretch of land and ocean, our family at COMSA is doing everything bigger than coffee too. You see, COMSA nurtures every person as if they were a farm themselves. 

This philosophy deeply resonated with me. The soil of ourselves isn’t just physical—we exist in an emotional and psychic realm of incredible potential and innovation. Every single idea is not only on the table, but it is also valuable. Feelings, thoughts, and dreams are all possibilities as real as cupping scores for different crops, or the scientific analysis of components in the soil. In order to reach great heights, we must start with the soul-soil and nourish our goals by listening to the ideas around us, acting with intention and love within our communities, and honoring the earth.

In a day and age where we have every single piece of information available for ingestion at all times, choose the content that nourishes your soul and feeds your soil. Give time and resources to organizations doing important work in your community, and prune away the dead branches that don’t produce. Choose love and hope over desolation and cynicism, and strengthen your heart and mind with meaning and thoughtfulness. We need to make our shoulders strong to uplift the next generation so they can carry us when we are weak. We need to commit to education that benefits the community. Every choice we make matters, and every decision echoes across the ocean to all of our farmer-partners. When we choose fair-trade, we choose tuition for a student. We choose hope.

Coffees From COMSA

bag of fair trade dark roast coffee

Twin Cities

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Tree Hugger

Nutty & Adventurous