From the Road: Colombia … ¡Qué chévere!9-7-09
My love for Colombia is no secret, so it is with even more pleasure than usual that I write to all of you about my recent trip to visit the Orgánica association of Popayán, Colombia, from whom we purchase our La Golondrina coffee. This is the second year that we have purchased coffee exclusively from this group, and I set off with hopes of strengthening the relationship and understanding the issues facing the growers in the coming year.
I met up with Giancarlo Ghiretti of Virmax, the exporter of La Golondrina, in Bogotá and together we headed south to Popayán, the beautiful colonial capital of the Cauca region. One of my favorite people in the wide world of coffee, Nelson Melo, picked us up from the airport and as soon as we had exchanged hugs, we began what would become five days of non-stop conversation: news from the growers, news from Counter Culture Coffee and our customers, and news of our families. We picked up his wife, Liliana, and their two children, and departed for the family’s farm, Las Acacias, which is located in the hills just outside the rapidly expanding city.
Nelson and Liliana consistently produce fantastic coffee, in addition to heading the organization of 142 families, and all of us—from Counter Culture Coffee and Virmax to the growers and even Nelson and Liliana themselves—are trying to learn the successes at Las Acacias. To that end, Virmax and Nelson agreed last year that Virmax would purchase land from Nelson in order to set up a model organic coffee farm on which they could test different coffee varietals and growing techniques. Seeds have sprouted, but it will be a few years before we taste any coffee from Virmax’s experiments. In the meantime, Virmax and Orgánica have another project progressing on the land: organic compost production.
Having proved that they can consistently produce great-tasting coffee, the biggest challenge that the growers of Orgánica face is the productivity of their small organic farms. This challenge results from the higher costs of organic compost application as well as the difficulty of creating adequate volumes of organic compost one one’s own farm to nurture the coffee plants every year.
In explaining the differences between organic fertilizers and conventional fertilizers, Giancarlo made a useful analogy between coffee plants and the human body, saying that applying chemical fertilizers to a plant is like taking a pill when you’re sick—not only does the pill include the drug compound to make you feel better, but it also has other compounds that help the body absorb the drug quickly. With chemical fertilizers, you see the coffee plant’s response to fertilization almost immediately. Unfortunately, these plants also go into withdrawal when they don’t receive fertilizer because the soil doesn’t hold onto the nutrients in the chemical fertilizer. Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, act slowly and plants respond to them slowly, but these fertilizers also build nutrients in the soil over time to make the whole ecosystem stronger.
Most of the growers of La Golondrina apply two pounds of organic compost to each coffee plant every year, which is about half of what they need, so Virmax and Orgánica want to make up the difference at an efficient, centralized worm-composting facility at Virmax’s farm. Orgánica will distribute the resulting compost to its members at a low price and use the money to fund their farmer-support activities (as well as further composting). From a sustainability perspective, this project is killer: helping a grower to increase the volume of coffee he produces will increase his income without increasing costs very much, as well as insuring healthy soil and long-term stability of the farm environment. We are excited at the progress that Virmax and Orgánica have made so far and excited to contribute directly to the costs of creating a distribution system for the compost in the months to come!
After a night at Nelson and Liliana’s farm, we jumped into a couple of days of farm visits in Timbio and Piendamó, small towns to the north and south, respectively, of Popayán where many of the La Golondrina farms are located. The generous farmers who hosted us served us delicious lunches (four in one day) and in our discussions of the environmental commitment of these growers, soil fertility came up time and time again, further reinforcing my enthusiasm for the compost project. We saw a lot of flowers on the coffee trees—which bodes well for next year’s harvest—and a good number of coffee berries maturing on the branches, as well.
Colombia is one of few countries in the coffee-producing world that has two harvests each year instead of one: in addition to the main crop, most farmers have a smaller, “fly” crop in the middle of their year. In the Cauca region, the primary harvest takes place between April and June, and the smaller harvest in November and December. In the past, we have purchased only from the primary harvest, but this year it looks as though we will have the opportunity to purchase La Golondrina fly crop coffee, as well. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? La Golondrina could be in season all year! I look forward to what this winter brings.
One of the highlights of my trip was getting to meet Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero of Finca Villa María, who are the growers behind this year’s La Golondrina microlot. You heard it here first! Inés is a tiny, hilarious storyteller who recounted her life history to me within a few minutes of meeting me, and Manuel is equally friendly and engaged in pursuing quality on the land they work together. We have tasted coffee from Manuel and Inés in the past, but their coffee didn’t jump off the table until this year, so I had to ask, of course, whether they had changed anything about their process. Not really, Manuel said, they didn’t change anything except the fermentation, which they started to do, get this, underwater!
Underwater fermentation, though common practice in Kenya and increasingly in Rwanda and Burundi (following Kenya’s example) is almost unheard of in Latin America. Through the kind of cross-pollination of ideas that comes from coffee-driven people, Manuel and Inés heard about underwater fermentation from one of Virmax’s cuppers and decided to try it. Whether it made all the difference or not, we don’t know, but it’s an experiment worth repeating, both at Finca Villa María and on other farms!
The other highlight of the week was the all-grower meeting, if you can believe it (I mentioned previously that these meetings can be a bit boring). On the morning of the meeting, I awoke at 6 a.m. to the sounds of meringue music blaring from a "chivo," the colorful buses that serve as transportation around the Colombian countryside, and soon thereafter found myself squished between growers on my way to the event facility in Timbio that would host more than 70 of us for a day of discussion of the past year, the year to come, and, significantly, our costs of production.
Many of you will recall that Counter Culture Coffee has set the goal of using a farm’s costs of production as a starting point for price negotiation, and if you’ve looked at our Sustainability Scorecard this year, you’ll see that we’re making progress toward that goal but that more producers don’t know their costs than do know their costs. Nelson and Liliana are working hard to create a culture of tracking costs among the growers and they requested that Virmax and Counter Culture Coffee share our costs, as well. We happily complied, and this is a great example of our commitment to 100 percent transparency (which is also one of Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification’s tenets). Farmers want to know how the coffee that we purchase for $2.29/lb. ends up costing our customers $8.50/lb. to purchase and $2.00/cup in a shop, and unlike many buyers, we want to tell them! When our grower partners understand the costs of doing business and the investments we make in maintaining the quality of the coffee they grow, they can trust us and trust the relationship we’re building together. This meeting made me proud of the amazing supply chain that can comfortably talk about anything, answer each other’s questions and leave the meeting more committed to our collective success than ever.
I followed up the all-grower meeting with a meeting of the community leaders to strategize for the year ahead, then headed back to Bogotá. As I write this, this year’s lot of La Golondrina (as well as Manuel and Inés’s microlot) is on a boat bound for Counter Culture Coffee, and I can’t wait to share it when it arrives.