The Santa Isabel Farm was founded in 1899 by Federico Keller and his wife, Isabel, and it is now operated by their grandsons, Alex and Martin. Positioned among a group of hills, lagoons and volcanic mountains in Santa Rosa, about 40 miles southeast of Guatemala City, 60% of Santa Isabel is planted with coffee under the shade of a native tree forest while the remaining area is a protected nature reserve.
Federico Keller was committed to sustainable agriculture with initiatives that ranged from reforestation and wildlife preservation to building a school, providing a health clinic and three meals a day for up to 1800 workers, and enhancing infrastructure outside the farm by maintaining roads and constructing bridges.
Alex and Martin have built upon their grandfather’s original vision by leading Santa Isabel to become one of the first farms in Guatemala with Rainforest Alliance Certification, and in 2005 they began the transition to 100% organic farming. They compost the pulp and waste to repurpose as fertilizer (at a ratio of two pounds fertilizer for every pound of coffee produced), use recycled water to process the coffee, and there’s even a canal planted with lilies that naturally treat the wastewater coming out of the coffee mill.
This area has been particularly hard hit by the pervasive, and very serious, coffee leaf rust (a fungus known as Roya) forcing Alex and Martin to make some difficult decisions. Over the next few years they plan to replant the entire farm, unearthing the stumps of each coffee shrub by hand and replacing them with seedlings. The first phase of this project consisted of replanting 50% of the farm which amounted to 700,000 plants.
Faced with the reality of introducing heartier and more rust-resistant varieties such as Catisik, Alex and Martin are proactively experimenting with processing and fermentation. Our Green Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman, was able to taste ten experimental samples on his last visit and was greatly relieved to discover a surprising sweetness and clean aftertaste in the cup, an auspicious harbinger of Santa Isabel’s future. They’re also planting a variety of grasses in between the new rows of coffee plants and welcoming a few herds of sheep to the farm which will help with fertilizer and weeding.
Every trip to Santa Isabel is a master class in biodynamic agriculture as Alex smashes rocks to demonstrate how microbiology breaks down the material to make minerals accessible to plants in the soil, or flips a log to reveal healthy fungi and illuminate its life-giving relationship to tree root systems. (On our next trip, we also hope to track down Federico Keller’s album that he recorded in 1973 entitled “Song to the Tree”.)
Irving Farm is incredibly lucky to have received a third of Santa Isabel’s viable harvest this year, and what it may have lacked in quantity it exceeds in taste.