I first arrived in Bogotá early Friday evening. Scanning the crowd, I started recognizing faces that had been reshuffled from previous waiting rooms and check-in lines stateside. On the shuttle two of these faces remained fixed in the tapestry of my first day in Colombia.
Once at the hotel, one of them broke the silence and asked if I was with the Cafe Imports group. The hiking boots gave me away. Our trio became four, then five the next morning. By dinner we were a dozen women strong.
The next day we flew to Popayán. From the hotel we boarded two vans and headed into the hills. The scenes of misty jungle were occasionally punctuated by a dog patiently waiting to cross the street, which never failed to get a chortle from one of our passengers. We arrived after two harrowing hours slaloming uphill.
Awaiting our arrival was a group of farmers from the AMACA (“Asociación de Mujeres Productoras Agropecuarias del Cauca,” or Association of Women Producers in Agriculture/Livestock of Cauca) cooperative. This group was started as an all-women owned co-op in 1999. Banding together allowed them to increase their equity as specialty coffee producers and increase their premiums. As with hundreds of other similar stories, the increase in income changed life on the farm from surviving to thriving.
“Besides,” the co-op manager added, “when the men were in change there was too much machismo.”
We were brought around the farm - a gaggle of internationally based female roasters, managers, and sensory analyzers, jingling with earrings and scarves we’d attained on other trips abroad - to see what else these women were growing. Their current ambition is to use their land for production as well as sustenance farming. They passed around forest grown fruit, the likes of which I’d never seen (a sweet tree-pumpkin, a peapod full of what looked like rabbit feet), and giggled amongst themselves in a Spanish that I couldn’t understand.
The co-operative felt instinctively community oriented. They had achieved specialty grade coffee and now wanted to sure-up their properties and that of their neighbors with the addition of guava and chickens. Someone asked if they’d faced any adversity as female professionals. “No,” was the response, “Because we can do this job.”
The second farm we saw was part of ASMUCafe (“Asoción de Mujeres Agropecuarias de Uribe,” or Women’s Agriculture/Livestock Association of Uribe). ASMUCafe started in 2009 and was founded in 2011. This association has been focused on improving their quality with the help of various organizations. Many hands helped build their current facility, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Red Cross. The land owners’ ability to qualify for these programs came from their affiliation with one another. To be recognized by the Coffee Federation of Colombia a farm must contain 2500 trees, over double what an average independent farmer in this region is capable of growing. With this cooperative structure ASMUCafe qualified for loans which translated to greenhouses and infrastructure.
A large portion of their improvement to quality has come from Banexport. This export company has been improving the producers’ knowledge of how to grow coffee for quality, which also increases farmers’ premiums. One of the co-op’s recent projects with Banexport was finding which processing methods work for their altitude. For example, Banexport has found that a so-called “double fermentation” technique works best between 1400-1700 masL. This means the beans are fermented in the fruit as well as in the tank after depulping. The results are indisputable.
One major point of Banexport’s education is teaching farmers when to harvest from new tree varieties that are introduced by the federation. Color is the main indicator of ripeness, but is by no means universal to all coffee trees.
Having once been a farm hand, I was reminded of how messy and imprecise farming can be. I remember swearing that, while I harvested muddy spinach with a boxcutter, I’d never take clean, unspeckled salad for granted again. We are so spoiled on this quadrant of the planet, competing for titles based on the exact TDS of espresso which took generations of labor to produce. However, this does not discourage me. If anything it gives us room to grow. One of the co-op managers humbly thanked us for coming all this way to meet them. Progress isn’t always straight forward; it often means coming full circle.
The barista world is full of people who will raise eyebrows at tasting notes like “red fruit” but then offer a note you’ve “probably never heard of.” Under the full moon in Cauca, however, our group was nothing if not supportive while cupping these coffees. The competition of my coffee world was invalidated. Irrelevant, even. Out of sight, out of mind.
With the growing success of cooperatives in every agricultural industry, it is no wonder that the spirit of competition is becoming passé. Cooperation is the central pillar of an increasing number of successful producers, opening ancient doors to resource sharing and equity in numbers.
We have a choice as professionals. We can either continue building walls of pretension around our industry until no sun gets in and the fancy passes, or we can educate one another and not be afraid to lean to the woman next to us and say, “Keep smelling the cup as it cools.” It’s the only way we learn.
Through their unadulterated pursuit of excellence, these farmers have produced a beautiful array of coffees scoring in the mid to high eighties. In the cupping lab at Banexport we were treated to notes such as toffee, butterscotch, lemon tea, and limeade. Prepare to see some of these flavors on our menus next season. Farm direct and community forward. Coffee as it was meant to be.
Education and Cultural Advancement