Colombian coffee is typically harvested twice a year, the main crop and a smaller crop called the mitaka (or fly crop). We are currently in the middle of mitaka in the Huila region on the southern end of Colombia.
In Colombia, and Pitalito in particular, production yields are much lower than they should be. It is a sobering fact that some farmers, though their quality is top notch, still can’t produce enough volume to really make a difference to their bottom line. Cost of production for 1kg of exportable coffee on these yields is equal to or more than the price of coffee on the commodities market. This is a huge problem that impacts the daily lives of the people that grow it. When the market crashes, so do the farmers livelihoods.
Quality is already present in the region, but farming is a business and that business needs to be profitable to be sustainable. As much as I would personally love to see each and every one of these farmers sell 100% exceptional specialty coffee, the reality is it doesn’t make business sense to operate that way. The resources required to do this, and the guidance on how in the first place, is typically expensive and daunting to say the least.
The guys at Condor have teamed up with our other in-country partner, ECom over the last two years to embark on a huge project that tackles these roadblocks to quality. The Sustainable Management Services (SMS) team, headed up by Pedro Manrique, is tackling all these issues head on. Pedro has set up an army of skilled agronomists and advisors in the region who spend their days giving technical assistance to farmers. He has big plans for the future and aims to extend his reach across the region, helping farmers on a one on one basis to increase production, quality and longevity of the farm.
Our buying style in Pitalito and San Agustín is to purchase regional selections. This technique sees the production from a lot of little farmers go into our coffee. Since most of the farmers are only producing a few bags a year, this model makes the most sense. Some of the farms we visited in the region were exceptional, well equipped, clean, organized and with excellent conditions; others were clearly struggling with even the basics, like fertilization and crop management. The SMS program is set to have a massive impact on these small guys but the process takes a long time. For each farm that SMS can help out, our overall quality gets just a bit better.
The trip was a great success for us to see the current projects that are happening in the area. But more importantly, it got us thinking outside the box about different projects we can personally drive to improve farming practices in Colombia. The beauty of roasters visiting and engaging n the farms they buy from is not only the relationships you build but also the ability to spot needs that would improve farming practices, and subsequently the quality of the crop. Investing in this community for the long term has the benefit for us of raising our quality from the region and in turn improving the livelihoods of the farmers.
The challenge now for Sensory Lab is to take up an authentic program that has significant and sustainable outcomes for the community but also benefits us in the longer term with quality and trust. Stay tuned for the next step in our big journey to quality improvement.