Farm: Fazenda Onze Mil Virgens
Varietal: Red Catuai
Processing: Pulped Natural
Altitude: 1,160 metres above sea level
Owner: Ana Cecilia Velloso
Town / City: Rio Paranaiba
Region: Cerrado Mineiro
Overall: Brown sugar, red grape, pear
Fazenda Onze Mil Virgens - Brazil
Onze Mil Virgens has been in Ana Cecilia Velloso’s family for four generations. Although she is an architect by training, her relationship with coffee started at birth. Her great-grandfather, Miguel Veloso, was a pioneer in the Carmo do Paranaiba region. When he first established São Luiz Estate (of which Onze Mil Virgens is part) in 1969, the Cerrado Mineiro was agriculturally underdeveloped and there was no coffee to be found. Manoel Veloso dos Reis, Ana’s grandfather, was also a pioneer. He took over from his father, strengthened the family’s legacy, and founded the town’s first agricultural cooperative. He was also the first to implement drip irrigation and to work with pulped naturals in the region.
The family has long been acknowledged for its quality in coffee production, but the reputation didn’t immediately correlate to commercial recognition. Ana’s direct involvement with the farm started in 2013, and since then she and her brother, Lucio Velloso (who has worked on the farm since 1998), have followed in their ancestors’ pioneering footsteps. As fourth-generation farmers, they have had to balance traditional insight with the demands of today’s market. They set their sights on the specialty coffee market, but they realised the high natural quality of their coffee wasn’t going to be enough. Innovation (just as in their great-grandfather’s and grand-father’s days) was going to be the key to success.
The first step in innovation was to develop a business plan! Ana and her brother set about formulating a Development Plan, a Business Model, and a Brand Strategy – a fully modernized business approach. In doing so, they honed their vision and established their purpose. This allowed them to act with more direction and to take further steps towards quality.
The second step in innovation was with regards to technology. The family has always worked based on good agricultural practices looking for an optimal balance of quality, productivity and cost. Farm management is highly professionalised, and waste is eliminated wherever possible. In order to improve systems even further, the family has begun annual quality mapping, so that they know where on the farm the best coffee comes from. This helps them with the planning of post-harvest activities. They have established a field specifically for experimental varieties. They also invite manufacturers to test new agricultural products and machinery with them, so that they can be at the cutting edge of farming. Finally, the implementation of Enterprise Resource Planning software has enabled them to monitor costs and administration, thus maximising efficiency and productivity. Prioritizing innovation in this way is expensive, Ana admits; however, in the long term, it makes the farm financially sustainable.
On Onze Mil Virgens, just as in the rest of the region, harvesting is mostly mechanised. The farm has plots of Yellow and Red Catuaí, Red Catucaí, Yellow Icatú, IPR 100, and Arará. Every lot is separated according to its varietal, and the harvest is planned and executed with preference to maintaining single varietal lots. The priority with every harvest is to undergo a selective mechanical harvest where the maximum ratio of mature coffee is harvested. The team at São Luiz have been thoroughly trained so as to ensure that the ripest cherries are picked and so as to minimise the selection of under-ripe beans. Selective manual harvesting is done in the younger coffee plantations, such as on Lot 33, where this particular lot of Red Catuaí was grown.
Generally, the coffee processing method is defined after the quality mapping analysis that is conducted before harvest. Once the best performing lots are identified, the post-harvest processing is defined. Usually most of the harvested coffee will be delivered to the wet mill to separate immature fruits and floaters from the denser, ripe cherries. The ripe cherries will then undergo the Semi washed (Pulped natural) or Fully washed process. In cases where the vast majority of the harvested cherries are ripe, the coffee will be placed directly onto patios for sun-dried Natural processing.
Coffees coming from Lot 33 this year surprised Ana and her team with the amount of sweet, sticky mucilage that remained after the skin was removed. Due to this observation, the team decided to use a modified honey process, where the mucilage is kept entirely intact, rather than placing the coffee in the demucilager. This particular lot was taken to the patio and spread in a thin layer, one bean thick, for sun-drying. The coffee stayed one week on the patio and was regularly turned so as to prevent over fermentation. After a week, the layer was made thicker so as to slow down moisture loss. When it reached the proper humidity levels, it was taken directly to warehouse, where it was kept in parchment for 60 days. This lot was not finished in mechanical driers.
The final (but perhaps most important) step in Ana’s innovations involves working relationships on the farm. Currently their team consists of 28 members – some of whom have been working on the farm since her grandfather’s time. An additional 40 individuals are brought on during the harvest season. The Farm Manager, Fausto do Espírito Santo Velloso, has a very close relationship with the senior staff. They include his childhood friends and his godson’s parents. On the weekends he meets them to talk, not about work, but about family events. For Ana and her family, this approach doesn’t just make the farm a nice place to work, it is also important for ensuring crop quality. It means that everyone working on the farm is motivated and invested in the farm’s success. They believe in Sao Luiz and what it stands for.
However, it is also true that good relationships don’t happen without work. As such, the farm highly values investing in their workers. They hold regular workshops and training sessions. They pay attention to how their team operates. And they also strive to create personal value and quality of life based on what their staff tell them that they need.
Surely, even knowing all this about such an amazing farm, most people will still wonder ‘Why the name?’ Onze Mil Virgens means ‘Eleven Thousand Virgins’ – a pretty racy name for a coffee farm! What people in the region say is that Onze Mil Virgens previously belonged to a bigger farm in Rio Paranaíba rural area that had around 11,000 acres. It was a ‘Virgen’ forest (Cerrado biome) at the time. When it was divided into many farm lots, the parcels that got separated into Onze Mil Virgens kept the moniker. Slightly less racy but still pretty great.
About Aequitas Exporters:
Aequitas Exporters is a huge part of the story of how Mercanta came to work with Onze Mil Virgen.
Aequitas is a family business owned by the Minami family, a Japanese-Brazilian family whose members were some of the first to farm coffee in the Cerrado Mineiro. The Minamis 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 Minami (the current owner of the company, along with his daughter Yuki and other children) 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 trainings. 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.