Farm: Various Farmers from San Antonio, Tolima
Varietal: Castillo, Caturra & Colombia
Processing: Fully washed & sun dried
Altitude: 1,600 to 2,000 metres above sea level
Owner: Various small holder farmers from the region around Playarrica, San Antonio
Town / City: Playarrica, San Antonio
Overall: Cranberry, cherry & full bodied
San Antonio, Tolima - Colombia
The town of Playarrica lies about 1.5 hours north of the Municipal seat of San Antonio in Southern Tolima, Colombia. The word ‘Tolima’ comes from the local indigenous language and means a “river of snow or cloud”, and the department Tolima is well known in speciality coffee circles due to the ideal, moist growing conditions. The region sits on the Cordillera Central, in the middle of the three mountain ranges that run from North to South through Colombia, which gives it a multitude of microclimates well-suited to high quality coffee production. Due to the great length of this range in the department, however, growing conditions change greatly in different areas of the department. That is why coffee production is broken up into North Tolima - where generally speaking the main harvest is September through December - and South Tolima (such as where this lot is from) where the main harvest is March through June.
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 to livelihoods cannot be over stated.
Coffee in the region is selectively hand harvested, with most labour being provided by the farmers and their families. Coffee is then pulped on the farmer’s own farm using a small mechanical pulper or hand pulper. It is fermented for between 12 and 24 hours and washed 2 to 4 times to remove remaining mucilage. Coffee will then be spread to dry on covered or open patios before being bagged for sale.
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, such as Playarrica, 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 to 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 stand point. 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.