Although La Mula does not have any official certification, the farm was designed to become a hallmark example for sustainability, both from an environmental perspective as well as from a social perspective. The farming philosophy that was designed originally, ultimately became the guiding principle for the development of the farm and for all farm operations.
Despite the potential benefits of being certified as a farm, the management of Finca La Mula has implemented a system of sustainable practices that exceeds by far the goals of basically all certification models.
As a result of the combined philosophies of Willem Boot and Kelly Hartmann, La Mula has become a sustainable farm designed to produce coffee in harmony with the surrounding rainforest, ensuring an absolute minimum impact of the farming activities on the biodiversity of the forest, including the diversity of native trees, the diverse wildlife and the extremely rich soil with its active population of micro-bacteria.
As was foreseen initially, the focus is on reducing inputs to an absolute minimum.
The policies of the farm have banned the use of herbicides and insecticides. Milder, biodegradable fungicides are used only in extreme cases when there is an aggressive fungus attack (which happened only once in the history of the farm).
During his early coffee career as a buyer for his family’s roasting company in The Netherlands, Willem observed how detrimental the activity of coffee farming can be to the environment. He saw farms densely packed with high yielding coffee trees in countries like Colombia and Costa Rica and he became appalled by the sterile environment of these open-sun plantations; leaving the coffee trees dependent on massive quantities of agro-chemicals and allowing no breathing room for insects and birds.
Also in Panama, a country known for its natural wealth, Willem observed how the impact of coffee farming and the intensive use of harmful herbicides like glyphosate depleted to some degree the soils in a well known area like Boquete Valley.
When he originally set his mind on becoming a farmer himself, he decided to establish an “out of the box” farming approach by seeking land outside of the Boquete area and in the proximity of the Volcan Baru National Park. When Willem visited his farm for the first time in 2006, he relied on a mule to explore the rugged terrain of the Baru volcano. On the southeastern slopes of the 3,500 meters high Baru volcano, he found a small abandoned farm with coffee trees over-grown with weeds and surrounded and shaded by the most beautiful native trees he had ever seen. The experience made him fall in love with the land, its splendid views and the beauty of the nearby cloud forest.
The idea for Finca La Mula (“mule”) was conceived during that same visit. The planting of La Mula started in 2006 and was concluded in 2007. Weeds were removed, the old (typica) trees were uprooted and overhanging shade trees were carefully pruned to allow more light into the farm.
For the purpose of preventing erosion, special deep-rooting Myrtus trees were planted in the farm to provide more stability to the soil.
The 6,500 coffee trees were planted with a lot of spacing to prevent long term depletion of the soils and to allow the coffee trees to blend in with the forest protecting them.
On purpose, it was decided to maintain the relatively secluded status of the farm and not to build any additional roads to the farm. There are currently two ways to get to La Mula; either on foot from a nearby situated farm or with a small 4x4 vehicle which requires a highly experienced chauffeur.
La Mula coffee is supplied directly by the farmer and producer Willem Boot. There are no middle men or other trading partners involved in the transaction. Price premiums are allocated to important causes like environmental conservation, living conditions for the workers and other important sustainable conditions.
There is a limited supply of Finca La Mula coffee given the size of the farm. Finca La Mula serves as a business and farming model for specialty coffee farmers who want to produce super specialty coffee using ecologically and socially sustainable methods.
Finca La Mula employs two permanent workers: Francisco and Leonardo. They have worked at La Mula for more than 5 years. In 2011, a workers farm house was built for the employees. In 2014, the electrical system and a tv was installed using solar panels. A special design energy efficient Onyl stove, minimizing the usage of firewood was installed in 2011. The management of La Mula has made land on the farm available for the production of beans, corn and vegetables. In addition to the permanent workers, there are up to 8 seasonal workers for the harvesting of cherries. These temporary employees generally live in the nearby town of Portrerillas
Finca La Mula pays workers well above the Panamanian minimum wage and includes health care premiums. For the sake of quality, the seasonal workers are paid premiums up to 200% for harvesting ripe cherries only; these premiums can amount to a substantial increase of the net income for the workers.
Although La Mula is not certified organic, the farm utilizes exemplary practices to minimize the impact on the environment by limiting the use of agro-chemicals. In addition, the management of La Mula has made soil conversation a key priority. Mulching and composting techniques have been implemented to maintain the unique soil composition of the farm.
The farm is densely packed with primary and secondary old growth trees. Finca La Mula is a safe haven for more than 160 species of migratory birds, many species of mammals (among others the Jaguar or Panthera Onca), all types of snakes and an incredible variety of insects.
The flora at La Mula includes a highly impressive collection of wild orchids and native ferns.
The conservation plan of La Mula involves drawing water from a spring located in the nearby cloud forest. The intensive shade keeps the ground moist and negates the need for irrigation. Currently, about 70% of the coffee is processed using the sundried natural processing style which doesn’t require any water whatsoever. The remaining 30% of the harvest is processed off-site at the mill of the Hartmann family, using the traditional fermentation technique. For this purpose, the Hartmann family built an ingenious system for the recirculation and filtering of the used water, preventing any contamination of the streams.
Organic and Conventional Fertilizers
To establish and maintain the productivity of the coffee trees, Finca La Mula utilizes a combination of organic and conventional fertilizers.
At least once per year, a quantity of approximately 1 pound of organic “bokashi” compost is applied to each tree.
The workers apply annually up to 3 applications of conventional N-K-P (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) fertilizer.
In addition, the annual practices at La Mula include up to 2 foliar applications of biodegradable fertilizers with nutrients like Calcium, Zinc and Boron.
The management of La Mula is currently reviewing the opportunities to replace the utilization of conventional fertilizers in favor of the application of natural fertilizers.
In exceptional cases, low impact fungicides are applied to prevent the spread of the aggressive fungus called “Ojo De Gallo” for which there is no biological remedy.
Until now, there has been an outbreak of this fungus only once.
Fortunately, geisha trees are highly resistant against the “Roya” (leaf rust) fungus and as a result, La Mula doesn’t require any treatments for this natural threat.
Plastic and paper are centrally collected and taken for recycling; compostable materials are composted.