MEET OUR FARMERS
Our Meet Our Farmers series provides a glimpse into the history, legacy and dedication of the farming families whom we partner with. When you purchase San Francisco Bay Coffee, you are joining our efforts to improve the lives of our farmers and those in their communities around the world.
June 1, 2022
Fernando Chaves, Nicaragua
Fernando Chaves, fourth-generation owner and coffee farmer of the Palacio Estate.
The Palacio Estate traces its roots back to the fall of 1894, when Transito Chaves acquired 870 acres of high-mountain farmland in the hills of El Palacio, Nicaragua, and in doing so, began a farming tradition that has stayed in his family for more than a century.
Growing up on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, in the district of Leon, Transito fell in love with the mountainous region of El Palacio, about 100 miles inland near the lower shore of Lake Apanás. After acquiring the land, his family started from scratch, developing and building a road structure to be able to access their farm and get the farm’s produce out to market. They built housing for their seasonal workers and planted coffee varietals, beginning a legacy of coffee-growing in Nicaragua that has stood till this day.
Transito Chaves, circa 1894.
The initial farm system that began with Transito was later passed to his son, Ricardo, creating the second generation of family stewardship. Between the decades of 1930 and 1960, Ricardo acquired a second parcel of farmland, establishing the footprint of the Palacio Estate as it is known today. In the mid-1960s, Transito Ricardo (Ricardo’s son, Transito’s grandson) began the third generation of Chaves coffee growers, adapting the farm and incorporating the changes necessary to stay on course with the standards of coffee production in the region. Then in 1993, Fernando Chaves stepped in to lead the fourth generation of family involvement, updating the farm even further. With his family by his side, Fernando and his aunt, brothers, cousins, wife, their two children and nephews continue great-grandfather Transito’s work, driven by the passion of their family’s legacy – bringing coffee from beans to buyers, from cultivators to consumers. When you drink a cup of coffee from the Palacio Estate, you taste the essence of a family’s century-long dedication to this industry.
Ricardo Chaves, second generation of the Palacio Estate family.
As Fernando describes it, the Chaves family has had to adapt throughout the past century to weather the changing climatic, social, economic and political environments of Nicaragua. With the overthrow of the Somoza regime in the late ‘70s through the Contra War of the ‘80s, Fernando remembers being outside of the country living in Chile, because his mother was Chilean. In the early ‘90s, he returned to Nicaragua and integrated himself into the activities of the Palacio Estate. With his father’s passing in 2008, Fernando took over as the general manager of the coffee farm. Since that time, the Estate has gone through many changes and greatly improved the conditions for its workers, increased the farm’s production, grown the acreage of coffee planting, diversified its crops, and found both productive and commercial stability.
Now Arturo, Fernando’s son, is beginning the fifth generation of the family legacy. He has been working at the Palacio Estate for the past three years, after completing his university education. Arturo will now learn how to manage a farm of this size, with all its challenges. Like his father before him, and Fernando’s father before him, all the way back to Transito at the turn of the century, Arturo continues his family’s passion, dedication, discipline, and hard work; meeting challenges, evolving and adapting to current market fluctuations and demand. He will learn about the Palacio Estate’s place in the coffee chain from those who’ve come before, and he’ll learn firsthand the processes of the family’s farm, all the way from a planted seed until his product reaches the San Francisco Bay Coffee Company.
Fernando Chaves (left) with Transito Ricardo Chaves (right), third and fourth generations of the family, early 2005.
The Palacio Estate has lived an extraordinary existence since its foundation. Located in the convergence of several natural forest reserves, the Palacio Estate is a little under a mile into the sky and surrounded by mountains with virgin forests, mountain springs, and a special microclimate which makes the ecological and topographical conditions perfect for growing. In total, the farm holds 1,800 acres of land. Six-hundred thirty acres produce coffee, while 330 acres are dedicated to livestock, avocado, farm infrastructure and internal roadways. Another 840 acres are annexed to the forest reserve as a measure to protect the environment, combat climate change, and preserve the specific microclimate of the area.
It’s currently flowering season on the farm, and tasks include shade regulation, cleaning, liming, and nursery preparation. One-hundred fifty-five permanent employees work the Palacio Estate. A little over 50 workers reside on the farm year-round, yet during the harvest period, the numbers grow to 800. Workers are housed both on the farm and in different communities in the area in family homes. On the farm, housing is provided for groups of three people per room, with basic services including water, electricity, showers, toilets, laundry, school, recreation areas, kitchens, and a dispensary.
Employee facilities at the Palace Estate.
Every new year of coffee growing can teach a farmer a multitude of lessons. Fernando and his family have learned a collective century’s worth. They continue to grow, adapt and innovate as they produce each year’s crop. The farm has completely renewed its coffee plantations on several occasions, and they observe an ecological balance to preserve the area’s mountains and water sources. Soil is tantamount in coffee production, being the main resource for stable production. Each generation of family farmers makes certain that there has been no degradation of fertile, plantation soil. They use agricultural amendments and other biological products to control pests and plant diseases.
Fifth-generation farmer Arturo Chaves (left) with his father Fernando Chaves (right).
Currently, the Palacio Estate grows mostly Caturra berries along with smaller crops of Sarchimor, Parainema, Marsellesa, Castilla, Mara, and Java. According to family history, Palacio was established with Typica varietals, but today these do not exist on the farm. Transito and his descendants have gone through many varieties, and they now produce only the berries that have adapted well on the farm. They know how to manage these varietals, maintaining quality, productivity by area, industrial yield, and cup consistency. The Palacio Estate is committed to responsible growth and sustainability for the well-being of the family, the farm, and their entire community.
Fernando and his family have had a relationship with San Francisco Bay Coffee for more than 11 years. At the outset, they learned about commercial stability and focusing on the actual work of the coffee farm and how to optimize production costs. Through these deeper understandings they’ve been able to protect themselves and their investments in workflow – improving the conditions for both their temporary and permanent employees, creating work opportunities in the communities surrounding the farm, and fostering stronger and more nurturing relationships within their family. The Palacio Estate wants their future generations to continue to provide coffee to the Rogers Family. What began with smaller percentages of yields being delivered to San Francisco Bay Coffee has now grown into 100% of the Estate’s exportable harvest.
Their relationship with San Francisco Bay Coffee has allowed Fernando and his family to provide better attention and care to his employees and their families. Fernando considers all of his employees his family, and supporting them is supporting the entire enterprise.
The costs of producing coffee have increased in every way imaginable: fuel, fertilizer, imported materials, increased exporting costs, and global inflation. Securing reliable labor for the harvest is a challenge every year, since food costs, overflow lodging, and salary levels governed by national law must be guaranteed to ensure the most efficient production. Other challenges for the industry are always present; conservation, adapting to climate change, maintaining high standards in soil nutrition and water preservation, managing pests and diseases, recycling byproducts generated by harvest, improving productivity, and redesigning planting protocols – these all take more and more money to solve.
Vermicompost production for the Palacio Estate.
Fernando Chaves standing in the Palacio Estate plant nursery.
Every year, the Palacio Estate invests to improve worker conditions and the efficiency of the coffee plantations. Diversification brings a new kind of productivity into view, as the Estate is establishing avocado plantations to anticipate the demand of the national and industrial market in the coming years.
Fernando shares what he prizes most about his farm. “Here we are, all proud of each other because there is a symbiosis between all of us, with our team of collaborators who are like our family, and for many of them, three generations continuously being by our side in the ups and downs of this passion of growing coffee. I’m proud of my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my parents for preserving this legacy for more than a century. I consider it my responsibility now, and that of my wife and children, siblings, and other relatives who have made up this society for many years, to have the conviction that what we have created will remain for the following generations. We have created a productive, financial, commercial chain to produce excellent coffee on a continuous basis.”
Fernando is grateful for the Rogers family and the San Francisco Bay Coffee team for believing in his family and his entire crew at the Palacio Estate. With San Francisco Bay Coffee’s help and support, he and his family have been able to implement necessary changes to their farm and participate more fully in the national coffee industry. He explains, “San Francisco Bay Coffee Company has given us the opportunity, the trust, and the friendship to participate in ‘Growing the Largest Family in the World’.” And his sentiment is no surprise, given that his own family business stands for the same core values – “El Palacio Estate, for more than 128 years, in constancy and perseverance, growing coffee in the same family. It is our passion.”