By Michelle Fish
Five minutes after arriving at the house Raquel Giron Rosales shares with her husband Stephan Maurer, their two children Sebastian and Sophia, the provisions store they run, and their two cats, Raquel handed me her phone. On the other end of the call was Rachel, a young woman from Ohio that Raquel has known for at least a decade.
Rachel first came to Raquel’s community with her father on a mission trip when she was 13. Raquel, like she does with everyone she meets, opened her heart and her home to the young missionary, and soon they became fast friends. Rachel, in turn, fell in love with the people. She came back to stay with Raquel, whether there was a mission trip or not, as often as she could. And now, she’s getting ready to move to Honduras permanently to open a clinic that will offer more extensive medical services than have ever been available in Raquel and Stephan’s community. No longer will her friends, neighbors, and the people living in her town, have to drive hours down the mountain to receive live-saving medical attention in an emergency. That has been one of her life-long dreams.
Raquel and her son, Sebastian at home in their kitchen.
The Art of Connection
That is the essence of Raquel.
First, she made a deep connection with Rachel. Then she connected Rachel with the organization that opens these clinics. Then she worked her own connections, in this case her uncle, talking him into donating the land it will be built on. And now, she was connecting me with Rachel.
All because I asked her where in Ohio Rachel was from. Actually, it’s because I walked into her house and into her life. That’s just what she does.
When you enter her orbit, it’s like you launch into a fast-moving river, bouncing along amid the whitecaps, maybe not sure at all where you’re going. But there is so much joy in just being on the ride. She is a human vortex of passion, energy, and generosity. And she doesn’t do anything halfway.
Especially when it comes to her family, her land, and her coffee.
Octavio, Stephan, Raquel and Bob Fish
The Family Legacy
Raquel’s great grandfather came from the Olancho region of Honduras, and bought significant land holdings in Subirana, about 200 miles northwest of his home. I cannot understate the challenges of trying to work the land in this terrain. It is an achingly beautiful landscape. Steep mountain sides covered by dense tropical rain forest, replete with pristine streams and waterfalls, and a dizzying array of wildlife, particularly birds.
But it is steep. I mean steep. And this time of the year, it’s also very wet. I spent a not insignificant amount of time falling down on my behind as we scrambled both up and down the mountain side walking Raquel’s fields. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Her great grandfather built a successful coffee farm that he was able to pass down through the generations. In the time of her grandparents, it was Raquel’s grandmother who ran things, taking great pride in feeding all of the workers and the pickers three meals a day, a legacy of caring for community that Raquel endeavors to carry on today. Her father, Osmar Giron Castillo, earned his college degree in agronomy and came back to take over the farm.
Osmar was a towering personality who ran the farm like a fiefdom, in the best of ways. He loved coffee, the farming life, and people. Raquel, in turn, loved her dad, and wanted to spend all of her time doing what he did and working the farm.
Like his parents before him, he insisted that all of his kids go to college. Raquel, however, was forbidden from pursuing agronomy. He wanted to protect her from what he saw as the harshness and difficulties inherent in farm life. He wanted something better for her.
And for a while, she pursued other avenues. But always, the farm and her father’s love of it called to her soul. Eventually, she talked him into letting her run the office for him. Of course she did, she’s Raquel! And that is how she came to be working with him for the last few years of his life.
Raquel’s brother, Octavio
These days, Raquel and her brother, Octavio, both work the coffee growing on the plots of land they each inherited from their father. They have about 90 manzanas (roughly 90 acres) between them, although only a much smaller part of that is used for coffee. It was not a given that they would continue to farm, particularly for Octavio. There were a lot of family and social pressures on both of them to sell, or just do something else. Farming coffee is expensive, very hard work, and rarely lucrative.
Their approach is artisanal, and their methods are way beyond organic. The land they inherited is spectacular and abundant, with streams, rivers, a waterfall, and wildlife of all descriptions. It’s so magnificent and special that Raquel and her family have set aside a number of acres to be untouched natural habitat. In part, their dedication to natural methods is to preserve this truly verdant and abundant landscape.
But for Raquel, it’s more personal than that. Her father died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2016. She is sure to her core it’s because for years, in order to help keep the farm profitable, he took the shortcuts that so many coffee farmers do all around the world of using pesticides and herbicides to reduce labor costs. Raquel believes that’s what caused his cancer. And that is a loss she will never forgive.
Picking up the Pieces
By her own account, the passing of her dad was the darkest and most difficult moment of her life. In the months that followed, there were family squabbles over what to do with the land and a fracturing of familial bonds. It seemed the only thing that everyone could agree on was that they were getting out of the coffee business for good. But Raquel wasn’t a part of the argument. She was lost in her own grief.
And then one day, it’s like she woke up. The grief was still there, and probably always will be, but at last she knew two things with a deep certainty: she was never going to give up her land, and she was going to make a go of it with coffee. She had found her purpose, and she went after it with a zeal that is 100% Raquel.
Everyone thought she was crazy.
Kathya Irias, me, Kim Zahnow and Raquel. It’s worth noting how wet and muddy we are.
Those first few seasons of trying to rejuvenate the fields were tough. Every day, she made the half hour drive up the mountain from her house in town filled with grim determination.
Although she understood the business of coffee very well, her father had insisted that she know as little as possible about the actual work of growing it. In the months after her father’s passing, the tightly knit family of workers that had been with the farm for years scattered throughout the region. There was no towering central figure like her father to keep them together, and they needed to feed their families. Plus, they didn’t really believe that Raquel would be able to pull it off.
She set about learning as much as she could. Day after day, she would work the land, with the help of a few cousins who stuck around. Her brother, Octavio, helped her too. He had been like her father’s apprentice on the farm and has a deep knowledge of coffee production. The hours away from her husband and children were long, and the work was grueling.
Several years and several seasons passed. And though the voices of doubt among her family and friends were growing louder, Raquel never wavered.
She knew that her land was capable of producing exceptional coffee of the highest quality. In the Specialty Coffee world, that means the kind of coffee that would score an 85 or higher on the Q Grade scale. And that if she could just reach that kind of standard with enough of her crop, she would be able to earn a premium on her coffee that would make her farm economically sustainable.
And then it happened.
In 2019, she entered her crop in the Honduran Cup of Excellence Award competition, and it scored in the high 80s.
Stephan, Raquel and Kathya Irais and Paul Gromek of Spirit Animal Coffee.
The Partnership with Spirit Animal
That’s how she came to the attention of our friends Kathya Irias and Paul Gromek of Spirit Animal Coffee. That year, they purchased part of her crop at much higher price than she, or even her father, had ever been able to sell it before. For the first time, economic sustainability for her farm was a real and viable possibility. And her family took notice. Specifically, her brother Octavio.
Her success with the quality of her crop, and her ability to find a buyer willing to pay what it was worth convinced her brother to get back into the business. And now they work side by side in the fields. If you were to ask Raquel, she would tell you that getting her family back into the coffee business with her had been her goal all along. And as we already know, Raquel can be very persuasive.
Which brings me back to our muddy, slippery slide up and down the mountain side last September, traipsing through the coffee plants on Raquel and Octavio’s land. By the time we reached the farm, it was late afternoon. It had been raining off and on all day. And the red soil of the mountain was slick, like pottery clay.
We stopped in at the little house on her farm occupied by her cousins, Chon and Maie, who live and work on the farm with their family. Hens and their chicks were darting around, picking at seeds in the dirt outside the kitchen door. Raquel told me that she is working with her siblings to give their family a small plot of land so that together they can build a bigger, better house for them nearby. Just another example of Raquel working her connection magic.
We started the climb through the fields up to the wet mill that her brother had built several years before. These were beautiful coffee fields. The plants were healthy and a rich green. I saw a riot of little flying moths and hover flies in the vegetation between the rows of coffee. There were no signs of rust, and branches were heavy with unripened coffee cherries. This year promises to be a wonderful harvest.
What we talked about
As we walked and talked, Raquel would point out buildings in the distance. Over there, a house with a beautiful garden for an old family friend, Lila Eolilo, and the many children in her care. Lila’s first husband had left her and their eight children for her sister. Worse, he took everything they had together. It took her several years, but she fought through the courts to get it all back. She now lived in a house that was a gift from Raquel’s family. Lila remarried, and her husband is Raquel’s best farm worker.
Another building in the distance used to be the government run school. It closed after her father died, because there weren’t enough children. Raquel is determined to get it reopened.
We talked about the crushing poverty in the region, and the perils of illegal emigration to the United States. Generational poverty creates its own kind of self-sustaining mind set. Stephan said “the mentality here is that there is no tomorrow. Just today.”
That’s led many in her town to emigrate for economic opportunity. While the remittances that they send back to their families provide sustenance for the people they leave behind, they also create a system of dependency that stifles any kind of growth. And it leaves a trail of broken families. Raquel wants the success of her farm to be an inspiration to others that they can, in fact, make a living and a life in Honduras.
She told me about a project she and her cousin have been involved with together. In both January and in August, they had given away 1,000 chickens to local families in need. She has plans and dreams of doing more to lift up the community around her. Connections she can make between people and organizations. Change she wants to see for others’ lives. A thriving coffee farm will be the engine that helps her do it. And as we know, Raquel is nothing if not determined and persistent.
The light was fading, and it occurred to me that the trek we had just made up the mountain needed to be a roundtrip if we were going to get back to the car.
We started down, as quickly as we could. Which, for me, wasn’t very quick. There is no part of my being that could be confused with a mountain goat.
And then it started to rain. And then it started to pour. And then it started to thunder.
In the pitch black, I was scared, terrified even, and I fell a few times, but Octavio stayed by my side to help me down. At a certain point, our group started to laugh. And laugh hard. We were covered in mud, drenched to the bone, and we still had a ways to go.
At last, we burst through the door of Chon and Maie’s kitchen, looking deranged and feral, laughing from the bottom of our souls. Raquel got to work making the most delicious little snacks that I can only describe as Honduran grilled cheese sandwiches, on tortillas instead of bread, smoky from the wood stove.
We passed around glasses of warm coca cola, drinking it like it was the holiest of wine. I have to say, there’s nothing like thinking you’ve had a brush with death on slippery mountain side in a thunderstorm to make everything seem brighter and taste better.
I asked Raquel what growing coffee means to her and what she hopes to achieve. She said that she hopes that God puts a little something in the hearts of everyone who tastes her coffee. A little of the love and the joy that’s wrapped up in this piece of land that came to her from her beloved father.
I’ve tasted her coffee. And I can tell you I feel the love and joy in my heart.