Thursday 25 July 2024
  • La Cimbali

The farmer from Santa Catalina: “Specialty can represent a renaissance for Colombian coffee”

Susanna has entered the incredible world of coffee through the Federation of Cafeteros within which for the past 4 years: here her consideration together with her family

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MILAN – After introducing here the reality of the farming family in Colombia, with an overview of what is happening among local farmers and to the raw material, the story continues: topics covered range from climate change, to organic certifications and on the future for this market. The first part of this article can be read at this link.

Do fair trade or organic certifications pay off for producers or are they just a marketing strategy?

“For a company it is very expensive: being certified as organic increases the value of coffee by a maximum of 20 percent, so it is not that much. So getting this recognition for me right now is not worth it. Definitions often do not reflect the actual conditions that are in the field: it is created according to the needs of buyers.

The market demands these certifications but it is very difficult to apply the same standards in the plantation. These are standards that were designed for European and U.S. farms: the need of consumers have created the demand for certifications, but they have been established in the U.S. that do not work in the countries of origin. For example, one of the points of getting certified organic, is traceability, a word that 80 percent of farmers do not even know. They don’t have the tools and documents to achieve it. ”

Many on the other side of the supply chain, talk about digitalization as the turning point for the countries of origin: how are things in reality according to you who are in the fields?

This is a very complex issue. I’ve talked to families who don’t even have cell phones. And it is not possible to have millions of Susannas in the world like me helping them. In general we have to consider that farmers have not completed high school. Many technologies are designed for Western markets and are often not adaptable to the real needs of growers.

They could theoretically bring benefits, but they are not available to everyone. Many people will be left behind, without cell phones and the Internet-the latter being the first step in being able to move toward digitization. This is a process that is happening really slowly compared to the rest of the world such as the United States. Younger people who are more comfortable with these tools are looking for other opportunities.”

Hector: “So many people don’t have the digital tools. Even the Internet has not come to cover all rural parts. Machinery technology is quite difficult to have, not only for agriculture, but for any aspect of life: we still pull milk by hand here. Machinery is very expensive, so it is difficult for a farmer to get it, such as a tractor. Young people who learn to use technology hardly stay to work in the fields, because they go to the cities or even to other countries.”

The thorny issue of price: coffee at such a low cost, how does it affect your business. Does having direct contact with microtorrefactors support you in getting better pay?

“Yes, direct contact helps our business. We are a special case, because we have found in Pablo a direct interlocutor with the roaster in Europe. But right now we are still building a network based on as few intermediaries as possible between us and the end consumer.”

Pablo: “In the company where I work, there are at least 3 intermediaries between the origins and the customer. This is the simplest chain. In this case I can promote this trade as fair trade. But those who do not have a contact like mine would be isolated from the market. They would need to enter a network made up of many interlocutors. Normally farmers do not have contact with roasters. It is rare because they often go through green coffee traders. This results in less income for the farmers themselves and is the most common picture in Colombia.”

What are the biggest logistical difficulties you face and usually how many intermediaries exist between you and your end customer?

“We are currently in a learning phase from this very point of view, to understand how to overcome logistical difficulties and build a supply chain with as few middlemen as possible. This is not easy. There are so many steps to be taken and paperwork to be filled out; it can’t be done without intermediaries. And that’s what they get paid for.”

How do you deal with the problem of climate change? Would you need more support from those on the other side of the supply chain?

Hector: “Climate change is a real thing that is felt concretely. It used to be that you could determine the months of rain generically, whereas now it is increasingly difficult to make such predictions.

The same with storms that are now more violent and do more damage. We have a lot of depleted soils because of classic agricultural patterns. Now we see people little by little copying our finca model, with some protected areas with a development of water, of the trees, fauna like birds and snakes. We were the first who would not touch even one tree-which are usually cut down and used- to the surprise of our neighbors. They ask why: we explain that they are important for water. We can try to fight climate change for the next generations.”

Susanna: “We lack advanced technical information. What we do for our finca is to try to study and get information to improve agricultural practices. So that we can once again become an example for others and they can replicate it. We are the only ones who don’t use pesticides, we pay to keep the weeds under control manually and preserve the plants better. We plant trees, conserve water, treat coffee pulps-we show that it can be done in a way that convinces others.

We don’t know many other tools to combat climate change. We are also studying new varieties that are more resistant to excess or lack of water. And once we find them, we plant them in our finca: we’ve already tried it with a roja-resistant variety.”

Is there a way to still make the farming profession attractive to the younger generation who are now moving away from plantations at the risk of abandoning this very crop?

The specialty cherries (photo granted)

“I think this issue is one of the biggest problems in the agricultural sector right now in producing countries. That is why we are trying to implement it in the finca so that it is an example for everyone. Another strategy is to offer better contract conditions to guarantee health and social security. So that anyone can live worthily with an attractive profitability obtained from their work.

The person in charge of the administration of our finca, he comes from the city together with his whole family: so we managed to attract him so far into the field. This is a wonderful example that it is possible to reverse the process: we bring patience and give him the right amount of time to teach him the right farming practices. Seeing that the fields are an interesting job opportunity, he will in turn tell other citizens that there is a concrete reality outside the city.

Another thing to do is to pay higher wages to farmers. If I can produce my coffee as a specialty and sell it directly, I can raise a higher price and so I am able to make my plantation economically sustainable. By offering a non-specialty raw material on the market instead, at a basic cost, I am notable to make margins. In that sense, specialty can be a good opportunity for profit.”

“Even though it can be a risk, – Pablo connects – “In a cooperative we rely on others to produce a certain level of raw material: let’s take the example of 600 farmers who find a good buyer in Europe, such as Lavazza or Ima, who are interested in specialty coffees, then everything goes as planned.

But what happens if even just one or two farmers in this cooperative do not follow the same quality standards? That the remaining 598, who are trying to do quality, will suffer from competition. You have to be all convinced and act in the same way, but it is not very easy to all move in a coordinated way. And then you also have to meet the contractual conditions anyway.

If they set higher standards, it is not because they wanted to, but they have to make arrangements to sell or buy the coffee they will sell. There are so many elements that are out of the farmer’s control such as climate change, plant diseases, and the quality then can be damaged suddenly. And in that case you can’t count on specialty.”

What would you say to Italians who absolutely do not want to pay more than one euro for an espresso?

“They should be told how an espresso is created, the work behind it that we producers carry out.

Coffee is not just a beverage: it’s a family, it’s a project, a year of cultivation (with three years of previous process, hand-selection to allow the export of a mature product). It is people, time, sacrifices that must be considered. A cup of coffee is so much more than what you see in the café.”

Hector: “Coffee should cost at least 1.50 euros in Italy. And there should be fewer middlemen: of the final price, most of it should go to the producer and not to the middleman. There is too much speculation on coffee. If you want to conserve the Planet, fight climate change, pay one euro fifty for coffee.”

And to conclude, from your perspective, what does the near future look like for Colombian coffee farming?

Susanna: “I am a very positive person, and so in the face of all the difficulties we face from the finca to the country, I believe that coffee is a product that has a future. People continue to invest in this product because it has a long history behind it. There are women who owe everything to coffee.

It is not an easy business, but it remains the engine of Colombian families, just as it is for us. We are investing everything in this project of ours, even mapping out a future with the formation of a specialty coffee cooperative. There are problems, but we are working to find solutions.”

The first part of this article can be read at this link.

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