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5-26-10

The 2010 harvest in Cauca, Colombia began at the end of April. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. The phrase “100% Colombian Coffee” may appear on many a can of supermarket coffee flavor crystals, but over the past couple of years, the world of Colombian coffee has been anything but boring. Unusual weather patterns and high price premiums made for fierce competition in the market for Colombia’s best coffees in 2009, and, last September, after visiting the growers of our La Golondrina coffee from Cauca, Colombia, I wrote in my trip report about some of the challenges – like soil fertility and low productivity – faced by our partners in the Organica association. Sharing heavily-sweetened coffee and sancocho (the delicious chicken stew of Colombia that farmers take pride in preparing for guests), the growers and I comforted ourselves by reassuring one another that the market would would surely calm down before the following year’s harvest.

Eight months later, I returned to beautiful Popayán, this time with Alejandro Cadena of the export company Virmax and my boyfriend, Kieran, to the same coffee farmers and to the same sancocho, and together we marveled at how wrong our predictions were! This year’s rainy season brought a nasty case of roya, or leaf rust, to farms large and small all over the country, and high price premiums continue as a result of factors outside of our control, like currency appreciation. The silver lining to these challenges is that in working through each one, our ability to communicate, to solve problems, and to trust one another improves enormously.

Coffee farmer Arismendes Vargas's mother presented Kim Elena with a cake on behalf of all of the growers in honor of her birthday! This year’s harvest began at the end of April, which is early for the Orgánica growers, and my arrival to Popayán last week coincided with the first week of heavy coffee picking. Visiting farms at the peak of the harvest provides great perspective on the variations in selection, sorting, and processing among the many small farms of the association. After Orgánica leaders Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón picked us up at the airport, we headed immediately out to revisit the coffee farms that produced Counter Culture’s microlots during the mid-season, or mitaca, harvest: Finca Villa María, owned by Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero, and Arismendes Vargas’s Finca Villa Nueva. Both of these farms have experimented with the coffee fermentation process, which is unusual for small-scale growers, and, given the success of their coffees, it’s important to us that these growers not only receive recognition from us but also share their experiences with their neighbors and other members of the association who might never have considered trying something new.

After lunch at Finca Villa Nueva, Arismendes’ mother presented me with a cake on behalf of all of the growers and a rousing rendition of Feliz Cumpleaños ensued in honor of my birthday – the birthday which I had purposely tried to keep under wraps! I blushed and cut slices of a (thankfully) gigantic cake for 21 farmers and Arismendes’ five children. Oh, and it was a carrot cake with simple white frosting, if you’re wondering, washed down with cane-sugar Coca-Cola. Mmmmmm, sugar.

We struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. Although Manuel and Arismendes accompanied me to a number of different farms, we struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Coffee historians might recall that in the 1870s, leaf rust (hemileia vastatrix) reduced the production of modern-day Indonesia by 90 percent in just a few years. A fungus that incubates in moist conditions but spreads with heat, leaf rust is almost impossible to control once it reaches the leaves of the coffee plant, which will appear to be covered in a rust-like powder and then fall off, leaving the tree starved for the nutrients it needs to ripen its coffee fruit.

Some of the growers in the association have little to no rust on their farms, whereas others stand to lose up to 50 percent of this year’s crop. Asking about the discrepancies, I discovered that some farmers took heed of warnings from the Colombian Coffee Federation, Virmax, Orgánica’s agronomists, and others to take precautionary measures against rust, while others did not, and that in this case, as in so many things, an ounce of prevention – organic as much as chemical – is worth a pound of cure.

Coffee from Manuel Melenje's Finca Villa María was one of our mid-season microlots from our La Golondrina project.We spent four days on farms around Popayán and, aside from inevitable loss in this year’s crop precipitated by leaf rust, the farmers responsible for La Golondrina are making progress toward even better-tasting coffee and stable productivity levels. Work continues on Virmax’s farm, Belgravia, where they have applied the first “harvest” of worm compost to young coffee plants, and Nelson and Liliana have built a similar set of composting beds at their farm.

Most of La Golondrina’s growers lack the necessary quantities of fertilizer and have disorganized composting operations when they have them at all, so we’re all anxious to see how both plants and farmers respond to the worm compost. Will they see the value in buying it, at subsidized rates, from the association? Will some of them buy worms and begin their own operations? I have my fingers and toes crossed for this … as well as for the recovery from leaf rust … and for stability in the Colombian coffee market … not to mention, as always, for the quality of the harvest! It’s a lot to hope for, but I’m forever an optimist.

Saludos,
Kim Elena
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