The Biggest Little Coffee Farm - Ecuador El Manantial

By Oscar García | |

If you've ever dreamed of starting your own coffee farm, you might imagine a place like Finca El Manantial. The name means Farm of the Springwater Source. It's surrounded by a lush multi-story forest with many large native trees. The elevation ranges from 1,500 to 1,700 meters above sea level. It's located in Pocaron, Palanda in the Zamora Chinchipe province of Ecuador. The harvest season in this part of South America begins in June and runs through October.

The coffee plants at Finca El Manantial (foreground) are surrounded by native forest (background).

Living the Dream

Like the idealistic and brave farmers in the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, Mario Guerrero has put a lot of work, planning, and love into his farm. It's tiny - just 1.5 hectares - but it's a bold experiment in how to raise the quality of Ecuadoran coffee.

Mario is serious about making Ecuadorian coffee better.

Most coffee grown in Ecuador goes into instant coffee. As explained in this country report, more than 80% of Ecuador's exported coffee is soluble. The coffee harvest has been declining due to low productivity, plant pests, and an economic crisis that forced the country to abandon its currency and move to the dollar. As a result, young people have moved away from farming, and emigration out of rural areas has increased.

Mario and some of his friends are swimming against this tide by recommitting to small, sometimes abandoned farms. (You may remember delicious Ecuadoran coffee from Agua Dulce that we carried a few years ago, grown by Mario's friend Cosmel Merino. More about that below.)

Hybrid Coffee Experiments and Issues

A major development project, funded by and in partnership with Nestle, worked to create new varieties of coffee that could withstand pests and increase yield while offering good flavor. Rather than splicing genes in a lab, the project involved small farmers growing and crossing a range of coffee varieties from Ecuador and Ethiopia. These kinds of cultivar crosses between the few commonly grown Arabica varieties and more genetically diverse wild coffee plants are known as "F1" hybrids. They are believed to be the key to beating the threats of climate change and pests to coffee worldwide.

This hybrid coffee plant is highly productive, with densely packed cherries ripening on one branch.

In 2019, Ecuador presented the world's first commercially available F1 Arabica hybrid coffee seeds. The seeds are sold by Coffe Proyect, but because the method of developing this hybrid was traditional cross-pollination of varieties on working farms, many plants and seeds from plants used in the experiments are on farms. Some F1 plants have propagated into the F2 generation, resulting in a wild hodgepodge of plants on farms. Some plants are freakishly tall, others are dwarfs even though their seeds came from the same coffee plant - because the second generation (F2) reverts to the characteristics of parent varieties! As a result, some of those second-generation plants will be less resistant to disease than their parents.

Twisted roots after three years of growth doomed Cosmel's farming dream.

Another casualty of the project is the fate of people like Cosmel. He received dozens of "free" coffee plants leftover from the experiment. His first couple of harvests were fantastic - sweet and bright! We loved them, and hopefully you got a chance to try some of the coffee grown on his Agua Dulce farm. But those sweet coffee cherries were death-throes. The plants, which had been kept in pots for too long, were root-bound. The roots had been confined for so long that they couldn't spread out and thrive. In 2019, facing withered leaves and a plague of ants, Cosmel cut down all his coffee trees and abandoned the farm.

Mario is well aware of the risks of coffee farming. A carpenter by training, he brings a precise, innovative, and passionate focus to the farm project. In addition to coffee, he also cultivates bees and harvests honey. He is cautious. Finca El Manantial is rented land, and the 1.5 hectare parcel is a tiny pilot project.

Mario planted three coffee varieties: Typica Mejorada, Bourbon and the experimental Ethiopian hybrid. We bought his entire first harvest - just 12 bags. (It has increased steadily.)

Thanks to the Ethiopian influence, this coffee tends to be very bright - with notes of tangerine - and yet mild - think dark chocolate and cashew flavors. Its profile has a shimmering quality, like a brisk iced tea with brown sugar.

What's Next

It's a huge privilege for me (left) to visit with courageous farmers like Mario and his family. I hope to bridge some of the huge distance between the coffee farms and customers, so that together we can make big dreams like this little farm a sustainable reality.

Now that he knows he can grow and sell his coffee, Mario is ready to buy his own farm. It will also be small - just 4 hectares. He plans to plant Typica Mejorada and the Ethiopian hybrid, and to maintain a generous portion of the farm as native forest to bolster the local ecosystem. We plan to keep buying his coffee, because every Biggest Little Farm needs reliable customers who can help keep the dream growing.

Ecuadoran coffee is not as well known as coffee from Colombia or Guatemala, but it's really an insider tip - outstanding coffee that grows more interesting each year. This particular coffee is a tiny shipment from a really small family farm that we know personally. It may be about the most singular "single-origin" offering you can find on a coffee shelf in Seattle!

Many thanks to Seattle Coffee Works' Bryn Garrehy for contributing to this blog post!