Farm: Olhas d'Agua
Varietal: Yellow Catuai
Altitude: 1,145 metres above sea level
Owner: Minami Family
Town / City: Rio Paranaiba
Region: Cerrado Mineiro
Fazenda Olhas d’Agua - Brazil
It might surprise you to learn that Brazil is home to the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan. There are currently around 1.5 million people of Japanese extraction living in the country, and in many ways the culture of Japan has seeped into Brazilian culture in diverse and surprising ways. What you also may not know is that Japanese-Brazilians are seamlessly tied to coffee production in the country. Nilton Yamaguchi’s story is inextricably linked to this fascinating history.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Brazil’s coffee industry was booming. As in so many countries, though, the industry had been shamefully built on the back of African slave labour, and when Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 they were left with a labour problem. They sought far and wide, reaching out first to European immigrants – particularly those from Italy, to sustain the economic juggernaut. This proved insufficient, however.
At the time, Japan was facing its own problems. For more than 200 years (the Edo Period), Japan had been run according to a strict, feudalist system and had engaged in a fully isolationist foreign policy. The Meiji revolution dawned in 1868: Japan was to now be an Empire and the focus was outward rather than inward, bringing demographic crisis and deep social changes.
Meiji changes were aimed at reopening Japan to the world, and as part of this process, the country realised a need for fast-paced modernisation to quickly achieve a high level of industrial and military development in order to compete with the West. This radical social and economic change was mostly financed by charging high land taxes on farmers and by mechanising farming where possible. This, in turn, led to unprecedented rural poverty. Many displaced farmers and labourers began the long march into the cities to try and avoid starvation. However, those moving to the cities found that their new homes were not prepared for this rural exodus. Emigration outwords was devised as a means of avoiding social turmoil and pressure on the government. The new government also saw the advantage of exporting ‘superior’ Japanese culture, which would only further the country’s aims of Empire.
Brazil with its labour needs was a primary beneficiary of these policies (they may have also seen it as a route to export more coffee into Japan!). In 1907, the Brazilian and the Japanese governments signed a treaty permitting Japanese migration to Brazil, and the following year the first ship carrying Japanese immigrants landed at the port of Santos. Hundreds of families and afterwards thousands came to Brazil, pursuing the dream of making money through “Brazilian gold” – that is to say, coffee. Truthfully, many of these new migrants expected to return, newly wealthy, to Japan, but the reality when they arrived in Brazil was different. In the first seven years, more than 14,000 Japanese migrants arrived in Brazil. From 1917 through 1941, more than 164,000 new immigrants arrived, with some 75% of them going to Sao Paulo to work in coffee. Instead of returning home, as originally intended, many stayed.
Nicolau Minami’s ancestors’ experiences fit squarely into this history. On June 16th, 1927, Goro Minami (Nicolau’s father), age 11 years, arrived in Brazil with his family. They had left Japan through Kobe seaport on the Kanagawa-maru ship, and after two months at sea they had arrived. Their dream of cultivating their own land would become a reality a few years later.
Along with 250,000 other Japanese immigrants, they disembarked in Brazilian lands in search of a dream: a better life to be harvested fruit by fruit in coffee plantations, which were considered at that time a golden opportunity. In Japan, people had heard that coffee was more valuable than gold and, like many of the previous settlers, the Minamis arrived in hopes of making a fortune and eventually going back to Japan.
However the streets were not paved of gold and very quickly a different reality set in. The family found work on Fazenda Promissão in the state of São Paulo, and there they learned to farm coffee. The work was hard and the pay minimal, but little by little, through hard graft and frugality, they raised enough money to buy a small farm at Santa Mariana, in the north of Paraná state. As a family, they worked the land together, and years later, in 1940, Goro acquired his own piece of land and planted coffee with his wife Mitsuyo – also an immigrant to Brazil. There, they raised a family and it was there that Nicolau Minami was born in 1947. (Note: Interestingly, Nicolau was actually originally registered as ‘Niculau’ : at the time of birth registration, his parents registered with U instead of O because they didn’t yet know enough Portuguese and used, instead, the Japanese spelling, which is still what is written on his birth certificate. As his name is going public through the bag markings you will find on the Olhas d’Agua lot, he has opted for the correct spelling!)
In 1975, after a heavy frost in Paraná that severely damaged coffee crops, Nicolau left his family (with his father’s full support) in search of his own fortune. He came alone to the Cerrado Mineiro region in Minas Gerais to plant coffee. He was one of the young farmers selected to be a settler in the Alto Paranaiba Rural Settlement Program, known as PADAP (Programa de Assentamento Dirigido do Alto Paranaíba), an innovative initiative aimed at developing agriculture in the region, which at the time was underdeveloped. A contiguous tract of land was divided into 100 lots, and new settlers – many of Japanese extraction – were invited to begin farming.
The first land acquired by Nicolau was Fazenda Olhos d’Água, also then called Lote 71. Much later, at the beginning of 2000, other farms were acquired: Lots 41 and 42 became Fazenda Santo Antonio. The family has worked together to establish coffee and other crops (potato, carrot, garlic, soybean, corn and wheat). Today they own a total area of 1,790 hectares among various crop areas. More than 20% of the land is protected Cerrado biome.
Today, Nicolau runs his farms with the help of his daughter, Yuki, who has taken a great interest in specialty coffee production and who’s help has been instrumental in helping get the other family business, Aequitas Coffee Exporters, off the ground (see further down). His son, Walter, is also intrinsically involved in the farms’ activities.
The family’s goal is to improve all aspects of farming – focusing primarily on post-harvesting – with the aim of increasing their specialty coffee production. 160 hectares in total are dedicated to coffee and the biannual average production is 6,000 bags between the two farms, Fazenda Olhos d’Água and Fazenda Santo Antonio. 20% of this production is sold the specialty market, but the aim is to increase this percentage significantly in the coming years. They have won multiple prizes for their coffee’s quality – including placing as National Winners in recent Cup of Excellence competitions. In the 2014/2015 crop year they also started two relevant projects: organic agriculture and coffee traceability.
Farming Practices and Processing
Olhas d’Agua is planted under Yellow Catuaí, Red Catuaí and Mundo Novo. The family has also recently established plantations of Yellow Catucaí. Renovation is completed on a regular schedule or, specifically, when a coffee plot experiences significantly decreased productivity. The most common pruning method is an apical section in the top part of the trees after harvest season.
One of the main challenges to coffee production in the Cerrado Mineiro currently is the borer beetle, which attacks coffee cherries just as they begin to develop. The borer sets up house in the seed, feeds on the coffee fruit and reproduces inside. The only effective product for treating borer – endosulfan – has recently been forbidden by the Brazilian government. As such, Minami family farms have engaged in integrated pest management in order to follow the borers' evolution and act at exactly the right time to prevent the beetle from attacking the plant. This has changed some agricultural management techniques on the farm and introduced new interventions. One key activity for avoiding borer infestation is an extremely effective and simple post-harvest technique in all coffee plots. At the end of every harvest, all coffee trees are stripped of all remaining fruit, as the borer inside the cherries that were not harvested migrate to new fruits that are being formed and this stage normally happens in December and January. This technique is widely used across Central America, where endosulfan use has been banned for many years.
All harvesting on the farm is mechanised, and in order to maximise the percentage of ripe fruit being harvested, the harvest only begins when 80-85% of the fruit is ripe. 100% of coffee on the farm is processed using the natural method. Unlike washed and pulped natural methods that use a great deal of water (3 to 5 liters for 1 liter of coffee cherries), natural processing doesn’t result in the production of residuary water, which is harmful to the environment due to organic components that pollute groundwater if not treated properly.
After being picked and sorted, coffee is laid to dry on the farm’s extensive concrete patios. Quality control means checking the drying coffee every day to ensure that over-fermentation does not occur. To avoid undesired fermentation, drying coffee is turned at least 10 times a day after the first 2 to 3 days of sun-drying.
The farm provides employment for 22 workers year-round and 65 additional people during the high season. Wages are defined according to the region's rural workers Union and an average of the regional farms’ wages. Labour is in high demand in the Cerrado due to the prominence of other crops such as garlic, carrots, and potato, and this drives coffee wages up due to competition for workers.
In addition to high wages, the farms have a health and safety engineer come in as a consultant annually, and they are constantly improving the farm's work environment. They prioritise employee training in order to mitigate the risk of accidents. 2017 alone saw training given in fire fighting, the correct use of individual safety equipment, training for tractor drivers, welding training for all mechanics, and instruction in safe agrochemical application. The farm is fully in compliance with Brazilian laws and both farms have the Plan for Environmental Risks Prevention and the Plan for Medical Control for Occupational Health.
Investment in worker welfare doesn’t stop at legal requirements and health and safety, however. Mimani family farms have a program for waste selective separation. The materials are sold to a recycling company and the money received is used for buying breakfast for employees. Traditionally, every year during Christmas, employees also receive Christmas baskets and a few kilos of meat to have a celebratory barbecue with their families.
Establishing Aequitas Exporters:
Aequitas Exporters is a huge part of the story of how Mercanta came to work with the Minami family and, especially, Yuki.
The Minami family believe that volatility in pricing due to fluctuations in the market pose huge challenges to coffee production. Part of the problem is looking at coffee as a commodity rather than as a connection between people. For more than 40 years, their production was traded following the traditional path: Farmer > Cooperative > Middleman > Exporter > Importer > Roaster > Consumer.
In August 2015, this logic changed. A specialty coffee roaster and Q-grader cupped the Minami family’s coffee and gave it a score of 86 on the SCAA scale. The family could not believe it so they asked three other Q-graders to cup their coffee samples. They all provided similar results. At this point, they realised the potential of the region’s coffee.
They started to sell their coffee directly to coffee shops in São Paulo and gained some insight into consumer preferences for high quality, specialty coffee. The experience was empowering and made them feel more confident that they could reach markets that valued coffee in a different way. In May 2016 they exported a container loaded with specialty coffee – with lots ranging from 82 to 87 points – to an importer in Europe.
After these achievements, the family started thinking: “Why not do the same for other producers in our region?” Aequitas Coffee Exporters was born. Today, 42 years after Nicolau arrived in the region, he finally has the opportunity to make a huge difference in the local and global coffee community.
Engaging fellow cooperative members in speciality coffee is part of the company’s mission, and investment in exploring quality potential plays a crucial role. For instance, from May to August of 2017 a group of producers from Coopadap including the Minamis received a consultation with Professor Flavio Borem and his team – experts in specialty coffee processing. During the harvest period, the producers listened to lectures and engaged in cupping sessions with the professor, who also visited farms to analyse the coffee’s potential and to give post-harvesting training. As a component of the assessment, the team also conducted stringent processing experiments. Ripe coffee was hand-picked from two different coffee plots, one of a red varietal and the other a yellow varietal. These were then taken to the co-op's experimental farm where the professor’s equipment was installed. The team processed the lots separately, using pulped natural and natural methods. The coffee started the drying process in raised beds and then was moved to the professor's lab at the Federal University of Lavras in order to continue drying. This guaranteed the best controlled conditions for drying and storage. In August 2017, Professor Borem presented the results and compared coffee sensorial analysis using SCA method according to the variables processing, varietal and altitude (below or above 1.100). The experiment was instructive for Cooperative members who are deciding which varietal planting they will undertake (taking into account altitude) and which processing method will result in expressing the coffee's highest cup potential.
Aequitas Coffee is 100% committed to transparency and equality. Equity is their core value, and the name of the company itself derives from the Latin word Aequitatis, or Equity. Aequitas was the Roman goddess of fair dealing and honest measure. The goal of the company is to connect coffee producers from the region of São Gotardo to the specialty coffee market and to create overall awareness amongst them of the choices they have rather than being reduced to a secondary link in the supply chain. Aequitas feels that producers deserve to be recognized and rewarded by the coffee community for the love and effort they dedicate in producing an outstanding coffee.
Mercanta is proud to support the efforts of Aequitas in bringing new speciality coffees from this region to the market.
More about PADAP
In the beginning of the 1970s, the Government of Minas Gerais, in partnership with the Federal Government, implemented the first settlement project in Brazil, PADAP (Directed Settlement Program of Alto Paranaíba), which consisted of investments concentrated in a single continuous area, with technical assistance and privileged credit lines, with an incentive to intensify the use of modern inputs and agricultural mechanization. Compounding the municipalities of São Gotardo, Rio Paranaíba, Ibia and Campos Altos, the Cotia Agricultural Cooperative - Central Cooperative (CAC-CC) was responsible for selecting the settlers and the necessary subsidies for the development of the project. Until this time, the region had no economic activities and the agriculture was primarily subsistence by the native people.
Under PADAP, an ambitious rural settlement took place in São Gotardo region. The Cooperativa of Cotia, the largest agricultural co-op at that time, formed mainly by Japanese and Japanese descendants was requested to select a group of pioneers to explore the region and for this reason, many farms in the area are owned by Japanese-Brazilian families today. Nowadays, PADAP is considered one of the most successful settlement projects in Brazil. The region has a farming diversity that it’s not common to other agricultural regions in the country. Apart from coffee, São Gotardo region produces carrot and garlic – our main products – also potato, onion, beetroot, corn, soybean, wheat and others. You can read more about PADAP here.