Talking Dirt in Colombia

Carly Kadlec
August 17, 2015
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We have to change how we treat our soil, though, and that starts with agriculture. Our current model is broken: Great swaths of natural, carbon-absorbing prairies have been converted into monocultures dependent on tilling, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Modern industrial farming is now responsible for 70 percent of the world’s water use and emits more carbon dioxide than all of our cars, planes and trains combined. The soil beneath these monocultures is all but robbed of its natural resilience and ability to support life.”

–Yvon Chouinard from the recent Patagonia publication on prairie restoration partnerships 

While Yvon Chouinard is talking about prairies and their link to a healthy ecosystem in this particular excerpt, the principles apply to the coffee farmers in our supply chain who grow coffee in mountainous tropical forests. Coffee farmers in the Equal Exchange supply chain are pursuing an idea of regenerative agriculture with a strong focus on recovering soil health. 

During a trip to Riosucio, Caldas, Colombia in July, Beth Ann Caspersen, Equal Exchange coffee quality manager, and I got to experience some of the regenerative soil action that is happening in organic coffee production first hand. Fredy Pérez Zelaya, a farmer and member of Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. (COMSA) in Marcala, Honduras, traveled with us to participate in ASPROCAFE Ingrumá’s annual farmer fair, and shared his experience with microorganisms. 

Fredy trained and studied as an agronomist in a very traditional program that emphasized conventional agricultural practices and interventions to maximize productivity. However, he had a powerful shift of life philosophy in the early 2000s and was a founding member of COMSA, an association of coffee growers who share the belief that organic agriculture was the only option to truly prosper and progress as coffee farmers. 

As the members of COMSA experimented on their farms and exchanged ideas with other growers, their organic philosophy grew and grew. Today, they emphasize the 5 Ms: organic Material, Microorganisms, Minerals, living Molecules, and gray Matter (or brain power) as the foundation for their organic vision. Microorganisms are the billions of bacteria, fungi, yeast, etc. that live in soil and have a positive impact on decomposing organic matter and building healthy soil. All five of the Ms relate fundamentally to soil health and that brings us back to the wonderful words of Yvon Chouinard about how we must double down and focus on soil if we want to talk about regenerative and organic agriculture. 

During our five days at ASPROCAFE Ingrumá, Fredy gave his workshop to more than 160 organic farmer members of ASPROCAFE on the 5 Ms and how to harvest and grow microorganisms. The idea behind inviting Fredy to share his experience and knowledge with the members of ASPROCAFE is to promote this regenerative and transformative organic agriculture in farmer-to-farmer settings. These farmer-centered events were designed by and for members of ASPROCAFE and take place on a member’s farm, all in outdoor “classrooms” or as I like to think of them, “living labs,” where experimentation and collective brain power are front and center. 

Through sponsoring this farmer-centered event, we are trying to support the last and most important M in the COMSA philosophy: the mind, the gray matter, and all of the creative ideas that farmers are experimenting with to ensure a future with healthy soils.