Rina Paguaga, coffee producer
For Rina Paguaga, coffee is life. Her father started multiple coffee farms in Nicaragua—and his father had a farm before that. She grew up running around coffee plantations, helping out with harvests and cupping fresh brews. In 2011, she moved to Sacramento and realized there was a new way she could help her family’s farm from afar: create direct relationships with local coffee roasters. At 7:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, Paguaga sipped a cappuccino at Old Soul Co., shared her family’s story and explained the plight of coffee farmers.
So, coffee doesn’t keep you up at night?
No, it does not. (Laughs.) I grew up drinking coffee.
When did you start?
I see my nephew now who is 4 years old, and he loves to drink it. You know tea rituals? In Nicaragua, we have a 2 or 3 p.m. coffee, where you sit down and have your coffee with pastries or a cookie. My nephew wants to be part of it. … I look at him and I think, “Yeah, I used to do that.”
How would you describe your role in the coffee industry?
I started in coffee more as part of being a family producer, but I think I really started to appreciate my role in coffee when I moved here to the United States because I became more of a consumer of coffee. Part of the thing that really got me into the thing I’m doing now is I’d tell people, “Oh yeah, my family grows coffee in Nicaragua.” And they’d say, “Where can I get your coffee?” At that point, I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea where our coffee is.” … My role is really about traceability and connecting the dots between what we do in Nicaragua—what my family has been doing for generations—to what we’re doing here right now, sitting down at a coffee shop.
Is your family making more money now that you have these relationships?
We are definitely able to get more money than the regular seed market, which is really not sustainable—you can barely cover your costs as a coffee producer. There are so many things farmers have to deal with. Global warming does exist. There are pests you have to treat. The commodity price doesn’t cover all of the costs. Most farmers are just living day to day. For us, because we are making these direct relationships and they value what we’re doing, and thankfully our coffee is really great quality, we are able to get some money.
I’ve heard coffee farmers only get paid once per year. Is that true?
It’s very true. … Your harvest usually lasts three months. So after that, you sell it, usually to an importer, and the importer pays you. That’s your paycheck, once a year. Then you need to make that last, because the farm doesn’t go dormant. You need to work on the soil, give it nutrients, cut all the weeds. The minute the coffee fruit produces a flower, nine months later the fruit is going to come, so you need to nurture it. It’s cost, cost, cost. And you don’t know what you’re going to need. I always say, Mother Nature is really the one who dictates what happens.
How is your family adapting to climate change?
La roya, the rust disease, is a great example of how global warming is working. It’s not that it didn’t exist—it did, in the lower elevations. Our farm is the highest one on the mountain, it’s about 5,000-6,000 feet high. Because it’s getting warmer, the higher [la roya] is. Now the pests that only used to be in the lower, warmer elevations are reaching high elevations. So, we realized coffee trees can last a really, really long time, but we have many older trees that were not as resistant to the disease. So we do pruning … making sure they’re well-fed. It’s like building up their immune system.
How big is your family?
We are five siblings: four sisters and my brother is the youngest. My brother and I are the ones involved in coffee. My sisters all have different things. My nephew in Miami—I have 10 nephews and nieces—started his own roastery. … My brother has a 4-year-old son and we’re hoping he will also follow.
Given global warming, are younger generations in coffee families starting to think, “Maybe I don’t want to do this?”
Every generation tries to improve for the next generation. Traditionally, coffee has been handed down from generation to generation, and this is the time where there’s really a question mark. Is the younger gen really going to want to do this? It’s a lot of work. With global warming, even more work. It’s even more unpredictable. A lot of farmers don’t really know if everything they’ve been working for is going to get passed down. My dad is 92 and he really built the coffee business. His dad had a farm but back in the day, you had a family farm, it wasn’t really a business. It was great until everything was taken away from him [because of civil war]. He’s had to start from scratch three times. I see that and he’s worked so hard, given us so many opportunities. It’s really painful to see—everything he’s worked so hard for, it might go away.