20 Years in Colombia

Beth Ann Caspersen
October 13, 2015

Do you remember what you were doing in 1995?

For us at Equal Exchange, it was the start of our relationship with ASPROCAFE Ingruma in Caldas, Colombia.

A lot has happened over the last two decades: indigenous land rights disputes, the appearance of coffee leaf rust (or la roya), heavy rains, massive farm renovations, and more. The physical environment is changing, and yet, here we are looking at one of the strongest Colombian coffee harvests in five years. As we reflect on our 20-year relationship with our Colombian partners, let’s celebrate the importance of what a longterm relationship really means.

Over the last 20 years, the coffee landscape in Colombia has evolved considerably. The 1980s “Juan Valdez” ad campaign put forth by the Colombian Coffee Federation, an influential force in Colombia, brought the name of Colombian coffee to the forefront of U.S. consumers' minds. I can vividly remember the Juan Valdez TV commercials, and even today, Colombian coffee is highly regarded in homes across the U.S. because of it. 

The conventional coffee industry is strong in Colombia, and the Colombian Coffee Federation has led the way, emphasizing quantity, encouraging farmers to use synthetic fertilizers, and providing farmers with high-yield hybrid coffee varieties to increase production and dominance.

So, why produce organic coffee? Organic agriculture does often require more work than conventional farming. But when you talk to farmers from the ASPROCAFE Ingruma co-op about why they produce organic, it comes down to caring for the environment and protecting the earth for future generations. At Equal Exchange, we want to support this movement. We were the first importer to bring certified organic coffee into the U.S., and the road has been difficult.

Over the years we have supported ASPROCAFE Ingruma on a variety of projects to increase organic productivity and improve quality. In 2007 and 2008, we held coffee cupping competitions for all of the farmers in the organic program as a way to communicate our needs as buyers and articulate the quality of each farmer's coffee quality. In 2010, we provided a $25,000 grant to the co-op through our charitable contributions process to build an organic fertilizer plant, which inevitably didn’t work due to high costs for the raw materials. We sponsored two of the co-op’s coffee cuppers to come to the U.S. in 2011 as part of our annual coffee quality seminar, and again in 2013, to learn about the U.S. market for specialty coffee and to spend time cupping with our team.

While we’ve worked hard to support the co-op through a variety of creative initiatives, the effects of climate change and the appearance of la roya took its toll on the farmers. Some farmers left the organic program, but many continued on. During the heavy rains in Rio Sucio, rain started and did not stop for almost four years. It had a devastating effect on the farmers and this forced everyone to again look for creative solutions. New coffee hybrids were created by the Colombian Coffee Federation to help address the rust issue. 

Farming is already hard work, and the ease of chemical inputs, along with a national support program for conventional agriculture, encouraged many farmers' exit from organic agriculture. For the more than 200 farmers that remain in the program, we know that organic is a part of each individual's philosophy. Organic agriculture is not about being easy; historically it has meant low input = low output = low income. This does not help farmers to get ahead, and thus the coffee farmers in the organic movement needed to adjust, change, and become more technical.

So the question then became, how can coffee be produced organically, in a more developed and technical way? How can farmers do what they are doing, better, and how can we help to share this information? We had seen improved methods of organic agriculture in Honduras and our green coffee buyer, Carly Kadlec, wondered, could we share this information through a farmer-to-farmer exchange?

ASPROCAFE Ingruma annually organizes workshops for the farmers called Dia del Campo, and this year Equal Exchange was invited to give coffee presentations at the annual event. Each day we traveled to a coffee farm and presented information to more than 60 coffee farmers. Knowing the complexity of the Colombian coffee landscape, we wanted to promote organic agriculture, and provide technical information about quality and productivity. Our team consisted of Carly and myself from Equal Exchange, along with Fredy Perez Zelaya, an organic coffee farmer from COMSA co-op in Honduras. Over the course of three days, we went to three different farming communities to give four coffee seminars each day. We were able to train more than 160 farmers over the three days. 

Fredy brought his hands-on experience of mixing microorganisms into a detailed recipe that would yield better and more efficient compost. Fredy has a relaxed personality that is grounded in the reality of organic farming. As one of the founders of COMSA, he's a seasoned agronomist with years of experience training farmers. He spoke philosophically and provided real information about how his co-op had increased productivity. It was so inspirational to hear him speak and to watch each small group nod their heads and think about the reality of his presentation. Fredy immediately created connections and encouraged each group of farmers to think in a new way about the importance of organic agriculture through the Philosophy of 5Ms.

Carly shared the details of the "Organic Plus" program for Equal Exchange, and went over our buyer contracts with the farmers. Through the Organic Plus program, all coffee is cupped and graded by the co-op's cupper, Angelica Arroyave Cordoba, an accomplished taster, Q Grader, and winner of the Colombian national coffee cup tasters championship. Angelica provides detailed cupping feedback to the farmers - information that gives farmers a deeper understanding of the quality of their coffee, including its acidity.

My seminar focused on the importance of organic acids in the cup. The creation and development of a variety of different organic acids in coffee are a key component to how the coffee actually tastes. As specialty buyers, we look for acidity in the cup; we call it perceived acidity and describe it as the bright and zesty sensation you find in coffee (not the pH of the coffee, which at about 5.3 is the same as white rice). 

There are organic acids that are formed during the process of cellular respiration and coffee processing, while others are formed during roasting and brewing. For the farmers, I focused on the acids that form in both cellular respiration and processing, subjects that they could directly relate to. I created a presentation with some scientific background about the acids they could influence and those that are left to mother nature. In each seminar I also invited participants to taste coffees spiked with different types of organic acids and watched their reactions. 

This dedication to education and training has been worth the effort on multiple levels. The farmers have spent years renovating and replanting their farms and today the coffee is tasting better than ever. We have seen a rise in the cup quality and farmers report that they are seeing an increase in productivity. For over 20 years we have built something pretty special with our Colombian partners, sharing information along the way, and continuing to push forward with organic farming despite challenges brought on by climate change. We look forward to continuing to grow together over the next decade.