Colombia 2016

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This year we’re coming back to Colombia to catch up with the farmers. Returning this year was really interesting. Last year we started our fixed price program in Colombia and now, a year later, it’s time to evaluate on the effect and outcome of this type of the structure. Our hope is that the fixed price program will create more price stability for the farmers, which will allow them to better plan ahead. If you haven’t yet read our blog post from last year’s visit, you can read it here: https://coffeecollective.dk/2015/09/colombia-2015/

The farmers we visit in Colombia are hard working and passionate people, who all seem very content with their lives, but who, like most of us, strive to improve and enhance their standard of living. The amount of land they own is fairly limited and producing great quantity is not really a logistical option. However, improving their quality is. But producing coffee at a high level is a difficult and intricate craft. Duver Rojas explained it to us like this:

It’s a constant development. You have to devote yourself completely to your work and seek to improve everyday. It’s important to always be on the look out for new ways and methods to be able to adapt to the constant changing of the environment. Specialty coffee requires more work than conventional farming, and you can’t just be in it for the money.”

Colombia‘s economy is growing rapidly. Combining that with changing climate you are bound to experience issues in the agricultural sector. This year they experienced 9% inflation in the month of July. This was due to a drought caused by El Niño, which forced Colombia to import more food than normally. Colombia is an incredibly fertile country and is deeply dependent on their export of fruits and vegetables, coffee included, which makes these climate changes very significant. This is an issue that the farmers are very aware of and this year has affected them more than usually. We have been chatting with the farmers about these issues.

This year, we are introducing a new and interesting farmer to our Colombia line-up. His name is José Ignacio Pardo Torrés and his coffee is amazing, but we will get back to him later. First, let’s chat with the guys we bought from last year.

 

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Duver Rojas checking on the drying beds.

Duver Rojas

The first farmer we went to visit was Duver Rojas. Duver is a visionary with a lot of ideas and thoughts. He’s spent the last 9 years focusing on specialty coffee and he has a very honest perspective on the industry. As we chatted with him, we got great insight into the current situation in Colombia. Answers are paraphrased.

What, if any, effect have the fixed price had?
“The fixed price contract provides security for me, and I have more money available now than before, but because of the growing costs and the ever-changing conditions it has also become a necessity. Other people have offered me more for my coffees, but I really value long-term relationships and the stability they provide. I think of myself as a loyal man. I really don’t think you can do this type of work just for the profit. You need to have a certain pride in your product and be fully invested.”

Which, if any, changes have you made since last year?
“This year I’ve been experimenting with a new fermentation method. I pulp the first batch and let it dry-ferment for 24 hours before pulping a new batch on top of it. Then I mix the two and leave them for another 20 hours. I’ve been able to speed up the fermentation process by adding new nutrients to the already existing bacteria.”

What are your plans for the next year?
“Because of the climate there are constant challenges. I’ve been experimenting with new varieties to deal with them, such as Geisha, Java and Yellow Colombia. I hope to create a more resistant environment and also improve my quality, and to incorporate my brother’s land into my crop. My brother has been sick, so he hasn’t been able to maintain his farm. I really hope this will enable us to produce more high-grade quality coffee for next year.”

Last year, one of the biggest issues was to find cherry pickers. How has that been this year?
“This year has been less difficult than last year, when it comes to hiring pickers. But the training and knowledge base is still a big issue. I want to to pay more for quality, but the pickers are having a hard time putting it in to use. They don’t feel like they do a good enough job if they don’t pick at high volume. It’s a cultural issue.”

Do you have anything you would like to share?
“This year we’ve experienced a very long and hard period of drought, partially due to the El Niño. Brocca thrive when harvests are postponed. And when the crop becomes less and less resistant to diseases each year, it’s getting increasingly difficult to farm. To adapt to this I’ve been working with various methods. I have around 20 different shading trees, that each serves different purposes. But despite this, I’ve had to invest in more effective and expensive fertilizers. I really hope our hard work will pay off, but it’s just hard to tell in these conditions.”

 

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Edilfonso Yara and his wife Mirabel Martinez de Yara

Edilfonso Yara and Mirabel Martinez de Yara

Our next stop is the farm of Edilfonso Yara and Maribel Martinez de Yara. These two are a younger couple committed to improving their product. They don’t have the same experience as Duver Rojas, but they are learning as they go, and it was really cool to see the strides they had made since last year.

What, if any, effect have the fixed price had?
The fixed price contract provides financial security for us, and they allow us to pay the pickers more. It helps with the scheduling of the harvest helps us make better projections for the outcome, and income. Before the fixed price contract, we used to either rush the production through or stall it, depending on falling or rising market prices. But it’s impossible to create good quality without the patience it needs. You have to let your crop do its work.

Which, if any, changes have you made since last year?
“We haven’t changed much this year. But we are better organized and have a better understanding of the division of quality. We also changed our fermentation process [like Duver Rojas]. We slow down the development of yeast and alcohol by immersing the coffee in water. This way we have better control of the fermentation.”

What are your plans for the next year?
We really want to renovate our crop for next year. There are many older trees which are harder to pick and the yield is lower. So we stump the trees and grow new ones out of the stump.”
This way they utilize the existing root structure to provide nutrients to the new tree – similar to what we see in Kenya.

Last year, one of the biggest issues was to find cherry pickers. How has that been this year?
“We’ve only been able to hire one picker this year. We had a lot of issues last year, and we are feeling that this year. My [Edilfonso’s] brother also helped us from time to time, but we did most of the picking and sorting ourselves.”

Do you have anything you would like to share?
“There are new challenges every day. It’s very hard to produce quality coffee these days. My dad used to plant trees when he was a kid. The trees grew and hardly any maintenance was needed. Now pesticides are a necessity.” Maribel adds, ”It’s all about patience, passion and love. Never give up and you will get your reward.”

 

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Jaime Casallas in his fields

Jaime Casallas

Jaime Casallas is a seasoned coffee farmer and compared to the two above-mentioned farmers, his farm is totally different. Jaime Casallas Sr. has been working with coffee for over 50 years, but didn’t start doing specialty coffee until about 4 years ago. He’s located at a lower altitude and has almost twice as much land as the other two. He is a family man and his commitment to specialty coffee stems from him wanting to live and work with his family. He is now looking to retire and is leaving the responsibility of the family farm to his oldest son Jaime Andrés Casallas. Jaime Andrés Casallas is a young, energetic guy who is committed to improving the quality of their coffee and the finances of the family business. It was great to see him stepping in to this role and taking it very seriously – we need more young guys to get involved in the coffee growing game.

What, if any, effect have the fixed price had?
“The fixed price contract has enabled us to live more comfortably, and has allowed us to restructure our farm. “

Which, if any, changes have you made since last year?
“We improved infrastructure, paid our pickers more and have been able to buy a car, to get our crop to the storage unit at Gigante. We used to only get our coffees out on Sundays, but now we can control the whole process and transport our coffee when we want to.”

The Casallases are learning how to taste coffee. They have done a cupping class at SENA and want to be more involved in that process too, so they can gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t back at the farm.

What are your plans for the next year?
“We expect next year’s harvest to be smaller than normal, and we are pruning a lot.”

Last year, one of the biggest issues was to find cherry pickers. How has that been this year?
The year has been tough. The drought has postponed our harvest and a lot of the coffee was underdeveloped. We have gone under projected income, but we are working directly with Caravela’s PECA team to adapt to the changing climate and to learn new techniques to improve quality and consistency. And finding qualified pickers is still a big problem.”

Even though Jaime is paying more, the high standards he requires are enough to scare them off. His trees are very tall and his sorting very strict, so the pickers often opt to choose an “easier” place to pick – let’s say less difficult. That’s one of the reasons they are now looking to renovate their crop. The tall, old trees are less resistant and nobody wants to pick them, so, they will stomp them, keep the existing root structure, and grow new trees from there.

They are working with a couple of new varieties, Tipica and Geisha, and expect to get a good harvest out of them next year, but their main focus is Caturra.

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Jaime Casallas and his son Jaime Andrés Casallas

Do you have anything you would like to share?

“Most of the years I’ve been in the coffee industry have been a struggle. I’ve come very close to shutting down a few times, but I just love the work. This is a family business and I really value having my family close. The challenges are growing, and they are constant and plentiful, but there is a lot of satisfaction in the work and I can now see it paying off.”

Jaime Casallas is looking to retire in the near future. Fortunately his oldest son, Jaime Andrés, has shown interest in taking over and continuing the progress they have had the past 4 years.

 

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José Ignacio Pardo Torres and his son Juan Gabriél who helps out at the farm.

José Ignacio Pardo Torrés

Last but not least, we would like to introduce to you guys José Ignacio Pardo Torres. Since this is the first time we met with them, we didn’t interview them, like we did with the other Colombian farmers.

The quality controller (QC) at the Caravela storage in Gigante, Joana Melo, recommended him to us. On the cupping table his coffees really stood out and out of all the four farmers his coffee had the highest scores in average across the board. So, of course we were super excited to go and see his farm and meet him face to face.

His farm is located in a very different area than the three other farmers. It’s a bit more secluded and not quite as developed. We had a hard time finding the right roads to the specific mountainside where the farm is located.

 

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The farm of José Ignacio Pardo Torres, Finca La Cabaña, on the steep mountain slope.

After a while, our car stopped in the middle of a very precarious road, we stepped out and Joana led us down a little path. After 20 minutes of walking through pretty dense forest we come to a small house in the middle of a very steep mountainside. The place is reminiscent of something you would see in Ethiopia where Arabica grows wild – natural forest everywhere and among the vegetation, coffee trees pop up as if they have always belonged. Located at 1700 masl. Ignacio’s farm has stood in this secluded area of Huila for at least 80 years, and he is the third generation to call himself the owner of Finca La Cabaña. Ignacio lives and works here with his wife and the youngest of their four children. The oldest son Juan Gabriél works full time at the farm as well and also lives on the property with his wife and young son.

When we arrived, the electricity had been gone for most of the day. Dusk was approaching, so we made our introductions under candlelight. To be honest, this encounter was a very humbling experience.

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The Pardo Family has produced specialty coffee for 8 years, but compared to the other farmers, the structure and condition of their post-harvest facilities were far from the same standards. His drying facilities were very limited, the cherry hopper was made from wood and the fermentation tub was raw concrete. That being said, they seemed to have a very good handle of their techniques and methods. They screen and hand sort before pulping, which they usually do around 4pm. They will then dry-ferment for 24 hours before washing the beans thoroughly three to four times. They then screen the beans again before drying off the worst external moisture on raised and shaded beds. After 24 hours they will move the beans to the attic above their bedroom to dry for 20-30 days.
They are so limited in both means and space, but make the absolute most out of what they got and it shows in their coffee. They hope that this new relationship with The Coffee Collective will enable them to improve their infrastructure and help them expand their production. Their production is quite small, but very good, so we share in their hopes, so we can get more of this great tasting coffee in the future. It felt like such a privilege to be invited into their home. It’s hard to explain, especially after only having been there half a day. There’s just so much potential here in terms of coffee quality and passion, and we just hope it all works out.

 

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José Ignacio Pardo Torres showing us around in the tight space on the mountain slope under the drying space.

Reminiscing about our trip, we realize that where Ignacio and his family are now, is pretty much where the other farmers were 4-6 years ago when we first met them. Hopefully we can be part of the development toward a financially sustainable future for the Pardos as well.

This experience ties in with the contrast of worlds mentioned in the beginning of this post. In many ways, you kind of feel like tourist when visiting these farmers, especially the first time around, but that encounter comes home with you. It’s brought into the bars, spread out to staff and shared with costumers. You feel like you have a connection with people you haven’t even met a connection created by a passion for a product harvested on one side of the world and served on the other. That’s why we believe in the Direct Trade model and that’s why we go each year. Whether you’re a barista or a guest, whether you have met these people or not, you know that not only did the farmers get paid directly and based on quality, someone also shook their hand and thanked them for their year-round hard and strenuous work that enables us to sit and enjoy a world-class cup of coffee here in Denmark. Oh, the contrast.

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