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Understanding Craft In Colombia Through Coffee

PSFK visits the Andes to study how an immense - and fairly ancient - system supports a huge amount of farmers to produce one of South America's most...

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
Piers Fawkes, PSFK on October 14, 2012. @piers_fawkes

When the PSFK.com team landed on the tarmac at Pereira on a flight from Bogota, the sun had just risen. A mini-van provided by our host Cafe De Colombia pulled us up into the mountains that flanked the small city. Across the face of the hills was a manmade landscape — fields and fields of short coffee shrubs.

The fields belong to a few of the half a million small-plot farms that produce a crop that creates 25% of Colombia’s GDP and employs over a quarter of the agricultural workforce.

We were first taken to what was described as the world’s largest research laboratory. The learning program created at Cenicafe is spread by a few thousand educators that belong to the Extension Service to the hundreds of thousands of widely spread-out farmers whose land clings to the sides of the three fingers of the Andes.

In the brick complex hidden in a lush valley on the edge of a wooded nature reserve, scientists told our group about their genetic experimentation with the crops. They assured us that they were not applying genetic-modification, but instead the scientists were using the time and tested crossing plant breeds to help create more robust plants. A preventive cross-breeding helped halt Coffee Rust as it leapt across from Africa – plants were developed that were not blighted by the disease, then seedlings of this robust variety were sold to local farmers.

The scientists also had been developing fast ways to identify where beans are from. Through ultra-violet scanning, the scientists can work out the chemical composition of the beans and as each region has a specific profile, they can be identified. This is important as they begin to take advantage of the popularity of single source coffee by Western drinkers. Much of the coffee we drink is blended from beans that come from various regions – but there is a growing demand from coffee-lovers for a purer beverage.

Cafe De Colombia as an organization seems pretty unique. The umbrella organization, the Federacion Nacional De Cafeteros De Colombia (FNC), was created in 1927 as a democratic, non-for-profit organization, to enhance the well-being of over 500,000 Colombian Coffee growers. The FNC promises to buy all coffee from all farmers and pays a rate that is reflected by market prices. The farmers can sell to anyone but if they choose to sell to the FNC, the FNC will always buy. FNC also acts as a middle man and exporter — selling to the large beverage companies across the world.

It was surprising to find that the FNC system had been running for almost a century because elsewhere on our trip in Colombia there was occasional evidence of a lack of quality control and oversight in other areas. For example, as we left the complex we all looked at a double headed mountain that stood before the laboratory, half of one peak was missing — torn away by under-regulated miners stripping the soil looking for rocks.

In a nearby town, we went to a purchasing point where farmers big and small came to sell their product. Some farms send truck loads of beans every few days, others send their sons with a motorbike and a couple of sacks every week.

The local facility tests the coffee to check its quality and the farmer gets paid on the bean. Poorer mix of beans means that the sacks will be sent to be used to make blended coffee or even the powder variety. Where there are high quality beans, they get sent to high end buyers looking for taste.

The irony with coffee in this country is that you can get a better cup of Colombian brew in Europe or the US than you can in Bogota. Because the best beans can get a premium price, the quality crop gets shipped out, leaving behind medium-quality beans (unless you really look hard).

Further into the mountains of the coffee region of Caldas, the van did well to take us across winding dirt tracks and across unmarked flash-flood plains to meet two farmers – Segundo Cardona and Juan Pablo Echeverri. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of mild-washed Arabica coffee. The coffee is grown at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,300 meters above sea level and 95% of the country’s crop is produced in plantations that are 5 hectares or less.

Don Segundo Cardona farmed a tiny 2 hectare plot on the ridge of a mountain. His farm El Porvenir is located in Chinchiná town. Cardona had bought the land from his father-in-law forty years ago and grows 2 types of coffee shrub together with a handful of banana trees. The yellow-jerseyed Extensionist from Cafe De Colombia explained that the farmer was beginning to change the plants out for the Rust resistant variety that Cafe De Colombe was selling.

Outside Cardona’s white house with red and yellow painted doors and bannisters, the farmer showed us his crops which migrant coffee pickers would harvest from. By being so close to the equator, Columbia has an almost unique climate which yields not one crop but two crops a year. Don Segundo showed us how the branches of the shrubs could show the plant at every stage of the fruit growing process. At one end was the flowers, then small germinated bulbs which will grow into next season’s crop. Further along the branch was a crop of green berries and sprinkled among them were the red berries that the pickers would look for and pluck.

The geography also leads to two other features of coffee growing in Colombia – because the coffee grows on the side of mountains, it has to be all picked by hand. Migrant pickers follow the growing seasons north then south again along the Andes. They pick from the plants on the slopes and get paid for every 100 kilos of red beans they collect. They start work at 6am and work until 4pm.

Colombia isn’t seasonal and so the weather remains fairly constant throughout the year. As there are no ways to dry the coffee fruit off the green bean in large areas bathed in sunshine (like they do in Brazil) the farmers have to wash the fruit off the bean. A crude machine with belts and motor seemed to split the crop well — the waste was kept to be used as fertilizer. The green beans that came out of the machine were put onto small flat roofs to dry for between 10 and 14 hours before the crop will be bagged and go to the purchase point.

How the farmer treats his crop is reflected in the taste of the coffee – Don Segundo had to be vigilant over his drying crop to make sure it didn’t dry out.

Lower down in the valley we met Juan Pablo Echeverri – the descendent of a line of farmers. His ancestors’ pictures lined the walls of the visitor house we stayed at. He had a much larger farm called Hacienda Valencia and somewhere in the mountains behind the farm house we could hear the chants of pickers as they celebrated the find of a well fruited coffee plant. Similar to other farmers, Echeverri would put them up in housing – and like Don Segundo, he would pay by the kilo.

Echeverri’s process was much more extensive and he hired far more coffee pickers in the hills. A bigger process washed the beans into de-fruiters and then they were shoveled into larger mechanical driers. Even though Echeverri’s process was far bigger there wasn’t much of a sense of this coffee production being industrialized. There was no vast storehouse or factory drying building – the largest farmers seemed to operate like the small farmers you would find in the US.

Over the last three years, Juan Pablo Echeverri has tried to evolve his business to mitigate the risk of the changing coffee prices. For a start, the farm owner has started to sell his ‘single source’ coffee directly to connoisseurs in countries in Europe and even Japan. He has also developed a hospitality business. He has converted a number of the older houses where the pickers used to sleep and make them places to stay for coffee-tourists. He has worked on his website and especially its Facebook profile because of the ability to interact with followers. International visitors travel to his farm to experience how the crop is grown, see the process and, of course, taste the coffee at its source.

The houses are simple but the photos of family on the wall give a sense of history, the cook provides a real taste of Colombian cuisine and a bar stocked with local Colodas rum brings a smile to everyone’s face.

Despite his exploration into tourism, coffee is still Echeverri’s passion. As we left him, he picked up a handful of dried beans and said to us:

The sunshine, the temperature, the humidity, rain, the elements of the soil and lots of human energy – and somehow all those ingredients turn into aromatic flavors hidden in the bean. They are hidden inside the shell, sleeping until someone in the roasting process wakes them. What we do is pay attention to all the elements and somehow through human energy somehow the bean gets its unique flavors.

We left the farms the next morning in the rain while it was still dark. We have this immense appreciation of the craft that goes on behind the production of Colombian coffee. There’s an immense – and fairly ancient – system that allows a huge amount of farmers to go on with their daily lives while producing one of the country’s most important exports. As we struggle to find common-sense ways to produce good food for the populations of North America, Europe and beyond, it’s worth looking at communal business models like the FNC for inspiration.

Click through the thumbnails below to see more images from our trip:

For more information about Colombian coffee visit: Cafe De Colombia

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Piers Fawkes is the founder and editor-in-chief of PSFK, a daily news site that provides a go-to source for new ideas and inspiration. He also is president of PSFK Labs.

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