Farm: Various Farmers from near Chaparral, Tolima
Varietal: Castillo, Caturra & Colombia
Processing: Fully washed & sun dried
Altitude: 1,500 to 1,900 metres above sea level
Owner: Various small holder farmers
Town / City: Chaparral, San Antonio
Overall: Stone fruit, cola, cherry
El Canon San Antonio, Tolima - Colombia
The Cañon de Las Hermosas forms part of the Las HermosasNational Park that covers large areas in the departments of Tolima and Valle de Cauca. The canyon runs from nearby the town of Chaparral towards Valle de Cauca. The small-holder farmers contributing to this lot have coffee trees planted along the steep sides of the canyon, which provides an ideal micro-climate for the cultivation of specialty coffee.
Tolima has historically been difficult to traverse. In recent years, the area was heavily infiltrated by the Colombian leftist army, the FARC. FARC presence contributed to the region’s isolation and gave the area a reputation as being unsafe and violent. Only since approximately 2012, as the Colombian government maintains peace talks with the rebels, has it been safe enough to travel to the region.
Coffee is the leading agricultural activity in the region, followed by the production of beans and the raising of cattle. These small scale farming activities provide the largest percentage of employment by a large margin. The importance of coffee to the local economy and livelihoods cannot be overstated.
Every family manages their own cultivation, usually farming with very minimal chemical inputs. They also do their own harvesting-usually with the help of neighbours and extended family. After the red and ripe cherries are picked, they are usually floated in plastic tanks to remove any underweight cherries. They are then pulped by passing them through a manual pulper at the family farm(usually located close to the main house). The waste from this process will be used later as a natural fertilizer for the coffee trees. Coffee is then fermented anywhere from 12 to 18 hours, depending on the weather, and then washed using cold, clean water.
Once this process is complete, many of the farmers sundry their parchment on patios or on the roofs of their houses (elbas). Farmers in this part of Huila have designed a mechanism by which they can slide the roof with pulleys to cover the coffee in case of rain. Some farmers dry their coffee on parabolic beds under the sun. These parabolic beds, known locally as marquesinas–which are constructed a bit like ‘hoop house’ greenhouses, with airflow ensured through openings in both ends –both protect the parchment from rain and mist as it is dried and prevent condensation from dripping back on the drying beans. One of the main challenges in this remote area is the proliferation of ‘coyotes’ due to the difficulty of travel for many producers. Coyotes in this region are basically independent buyers (no coops, exporters, traders, etc), normally with small or very small operations who try to cut themselves a space in the market by intercepting coffee growers as they are on their way to sell the coffee through regular channels. Mercanta’s exporting partner for this lot has helped to promote commercialization of specialty coffee throughout the region, resulting in some stunning coffees from this area of optimal natural conditions for coffee farming. However, coyotes can disrupt these efforts significantly.
For this reason, Condor works with a trusted “acopiador” (collector) in the region who collects the coffee from some of the most remote villages, and brings it down to their warehouse in Chaparral (about 2 hours drive). Upon arrival, the parchment coffee is analysed both with regards to physical and cup quality. Premiums are then paid (and returned to the producer by the acopiador) if the quality meets specialty standards.
The purchasing centre and program was only started in 2015, so it has been key to have a very good team in place. Responsible for running the program is Pilar, who makes sure that farmers have access to information about pricing well in advance. Farmers often call in to ask about the price being offered, which is almost certainly higher than the price being offered by coyotes.
In addition to incentivisation for quality, Pilar has a team of two technicians who execute a variety of quality improvement and agricultural extension programs. One of the most significant is SMS (sistema de manejo sostenible), which focuses on technical assistance, productive projects and consultancy with the farmers to help them produce better coffee and to improve efficiency at the farm level. The technicians conduct regular meetings in the villages, help farmers achieve certifications, and advocate with various local organisations and NGOs, all in effort to enable producers to achieve higher prices by gaining access to speciality markets.
Jhoan, one of the technicians working with Pilar, comes from a coffee family himself and even went to a rural agricultural technical college. He has worked in coffee, directly, for well over a decade.
Jhoan started his career working with the cooperative of Manizales (FNC) where he worked for 6 years. He then transferred to a town called La Virginia in Risaralda, where he worked in a purchasing centre. During his time there, an opportunity to move to Chaparral and open the new Condor purchasing centre arose. He moved there in 2015 and has since learned a lot about coffee quality from the cupping standpoint. He now works directly with the expert team of cuppers at the centre, and in addition to advising producers on technical and agricultural matters, he helps to make sure that‘liquidation’ payments (sort of ‘top-up’ payments) are made when the producers’ coffee is sold at a higher margin.