Coffee was first brought to Colombia as per the legend of the Jesuit Priest, Francisco Romero. By the end of the 19th century, production had increased from 60,000 bags to more than 600,000 bags and became the main foreign exchange product. It is worth noting that most of this production came from the farms of the largest landowners. The transition from the 19th to the 20th century brought a fall in the international market price and a crisis for the landowners. This crisis favoured the small producers and in 1927 the “Federación Nacional de Cafeteros” (FNC) was created to support and represent the coffee growers. In 1938 the Research Centre, CENICAFE was born, their goal is to do research into processing and agronomy and is responsible for achievements like the “Castillo” variety as we know today.
Today, Colombia remains the 3rd largest coffee producer with a volume which represents nearly 10% of the world’s production. Thanks to an almost countless number of reasons like climate, and topography as well as the creation of such institutions like the FNC, Colombia has developed a varied and diverse coffee landscape.
Having been absent for too long, it was time for DRWakefield to visit Colombia again and so Dave and Priscilla took the road and spent time in three main coffee regions; Antioquia, Tolima and Cauca. We visited El Peñol, Bolivar, Asopep Cooperative, Acedga Cooperative and Inza with Racafe and spent time with Cencoic in Popoyan. We were accompanied by James from Wogan Coffee, Steve and Jacob from Cafeology and Roy and Milena from Java Republic. Although we did not touch all the corners of the country, we still witnessed a large disparity between the regions. Let’s dive into the detail.
El Peñol – Antioquia
The first of our local guides around the county was Racafe. Racafe was started in 1953 by three brothers in Cundinamarca. Today it is still a family company which owns mills in eight cities. They have over 5,000 individual producers and 45 producer groups. They export 1.5 million bags a year which represents almost 11% of the coffee that Colombia exports, and they sell 42% of their volume to internal roasters and other internal exporters. Leading the group was Hernan Vergara, with Leonardo Jaramillo, Racafe’s Medellin Mill Manager and Ivan Sánchez, the main Agronomist.
Beginning our road trip on the outskirts of Medellin we drove for three hours into the Antioquia countryside close to the Guatape reserve, to reach El Peñol town, in the El Peñol municipality. The first coffee production system at large we were exposed to was one of smallholder farmers delivering to a centralised, independent buying centre.
Sonia Osorio is the local buyer who acts as an intermediary with Racafe for all coffee that DRWakefield buy as El Peñol. She has been a supplier since 2012 and has her own purchase centre called Comeragro. On average each farmer of the municipality that delivers to her has a farm size of between 0.2 ha to 2 ha at an altitude of 2,000 masl or above. Coffee is just one of the many crops grown by farmers here, and in comparison with other regions, can make up a relatively small percentage of a farmer’s income.
The growers we visited would pick and pulp the cherries onsite, before driving them to Sonia’s buying station and receiving cash for the delivery. For Sonia, it’s common to buy coffee in three different ways: dry parchment (12% moisture), wet parchment (20%) or humid parchment (50%). All dry parchment is bought by weight, whereas the wet is bought by volume with a “pucha” (equivalent to a 650g box). Versions that are four times and 16 times larger are also used.
In order to give a sense of scale, 320 measures of pucha is equivalent to 125 kg of dry parchment which is equivalent to a “carga” (which is a mule carrying two bags and a word we would come across many times over our trip). Wet parchment is paid 50% less in value as there is more water and drying service is required before the coffee is delivered to Racafe.
At Pajarito (Little Bird) farm we met Julio Garcia, an 88-year-old coffee grower working with his daughter Magnolia, who sells his coffee to Sonia.
- Size: 2.5 ha
- Number of trees: 4,000
- Varieties: Castillo (55%) Typica (45%)
- Altitude: 2,000 masl
Julio, like all the producers we would meet processes the cherries on his own farm and has just invested in a new de-pulper, which was partially funded by the FNC. It is important to mention that there is a 6usc/lb tax on all coffee exported from Colombia which goes back to the FNC. This fund is used to give support and technical assistance to the producers but also to do further research on varietals and processing with Cenicafe.
El Bolivar – Antioquia
South of Medellin our focus changed tack, and we were exposed to a very different style of coffee production with large, well-run estates, growing and processing their own coffee with a knack for innovation and efficiency.
Passing through the middle of the Farallones del Citara reserve the road led us to the Yuramal Farm, where we were warmly welcomed by the owner Don Jose Luis Restrepo who took over from Don Jose, his 88-year-old father, 5 years ago. His father was a “Chiva” (traditional local bus) driver who sold it in 1964 to buy his first farm.
- Size: 74 ha
- Number of trees: 475,000
- Varieties: Caturra (44%) Colombia (28%) Castillo (24%), Catimore (4%).
- Altitude: 1,450 – 1,900 masl
The farm has a 50/50 split between the mitaca (June/July) and the main harvest (December/April) and can produce up to 15 MT of cherry a day. His average cost of production in 2021 was 1 million Colombian Peso per “carga”.
Environmental sustainability is one of the main focuses of the FNC and Jose Luis alike. The FNC rates each farmer on processing and agricultural practices with a score of 1 to 6. Depending on the score, farmers will have to pay fines, as a method to motivate a grower to improve their environmental practices. In category 1, the fine can reach up to 250US$, whereas in category 5, it can be up 16 times this amount. Because of this, 95% of Jose Luis’ washed coffee is processed via a mechanical eco-pulper and 5% in a traditional fermentation tank. He has two eco-pulpers, one of 3,000 kilos and one of 1,000 kilos. The eco-pulper saves water as the traditional method needs 40 litres of water per kilo of dry parchment, against 0.7 litres with the eco-pulper.
One of the main challenges of being a coffee farmer according to Jose Luis is managing the human resources. Traditionally pickers work alone and can pick 200kg cherries during an eight hour day. It is very hard work so he invested in handheld mechanical harvesters from Brazil. This required two people to work it, but the technology was not accepted by the pickers who were only harvesting around 10kg per hour and disliked having to work in pairs. It’s back to the drawing board on that one.
We stopped off at another farm in Bolivar, Finca San Fernando, Rainforest certified and owned by David Gonzales since 2018.
- Size: 135 ha
- Number of trees: 810,000
- Varieties: Caturra, Castillo, Colombia, Cenicafe 1
- Altitude: 1,500 – 2,000 masl
We jumped into one of the famous ‘Willy’s cars’ to explore the highest point of the farm. The Manager of the farm, Guillermo Gallago showed us a newly renovated part with 100% Cenicafe 1. This is the latest varietal developed by Cenicafe in 2013 which comes from “Castillo”. It has a good leaf rust resistance and is more productive as it produces larger cherries on smaller trees, which are easier to harvest from.
David shared with us the average cost of production over the past 4 years which was 800,000 pesos per “carga”. In 2021, the cost of production was 1.1 million to 1.2 million per carga. (around 280US$). Fertiliser is the main increase in cost as in 2020 it was 21US$ per 50 kg and now it is 50US$ per 50 kg.
They have three collection centres on the farm and they process 100% on their onsite wet mill. Cherries are delivered into a silo, pulped and then classified by size and the mucilage is removed with an eco-mill. They dry ferment for 8 hours once the mucilage is removed. In the last step, they classify parchment by density through water channels and then mechanically dry it in the silo. They have a processing capacity of 10,000kg per hour. David is looking at investing in centrifuges before drying the coffee which can reduce the time of drying and use of coal. The next plan for David is to install solar panels which will allow him to rely mainly on renewable energy. This level of equipment was a long way away from the hand pulper and raised bed setup we had seen in El Peñol.
After this visit, we went to El Clavel Farm for lunch where we met Silvia and Enrique Vargas owners of Las Acacias Farm, which we have been buying for over the past 6 years. Las Acacias is a 38 ha coffee farm with 55% Caturra and 45% Castillo and produce 1,400 bags a year. Silvia is a 2nd generation coffee farmer, and she created a women’s producer association two years ago where they can share training techniques and differentiate themselves with premium coffee. They will start to export women’s coffee next year under the name “Inspiradoras café culturas”.
After lunch, we had a quick presentation on Racafe’s CRECER Project. The CRECER Project is a new certification scheme for farmers created and managed by Racafe. The mission is to improve the three pillars; environmental, social and economic. They started this work in Santander with 680 farmers and use 21 indicators to diagnose necessary improvements and calculate a production forecast for each farm. Having their own team allows them to make decisions on forecasts and take less risk.
To be part of the Crecer Project the farmers need to have minimum sustainability criteria, such as the implementation of water treatment, 0% deforestation and pay a minimum salary for their workers. There is no minimum farm size to join and it is free for the farmer and Racafe pay a premium for every kg they buy through the scheme. Either the farmers can invest in the coffee farms and make the changes, or customers such as DRWakefield, can get a report and establish areas where there is a need, and include a premium linked to quality for this specific project.
Our last stop in Bolivar town was Racafe’s Purchase Collection Point. This is the only place where Racafe has invested in their own collection centre, buying parchment directly from farmers without a third party. We met with Mauricio Forero, the Manager of the purchase point. He explained the quality check and premium payment system and how they calculate the factor (which is the inverse of yield). Factor is a unit which calculates the quality of the green on a scale of 100. The closer to 100, the lower the quality. Once they have the factor, they can then establish a price based on the internal market price which is currently based on 94. The higher the factor, the producer will receive a deduction from the market price. 1 factor point is equivalent to a 1% price premium.
The next day we made the short journey to the airport and took an internal flight to Nevia, in Huila. Although our destination of Planadas was only just over the border in Tolima, the mountains ensured we had a 7-hour drive to get there.
The Tolima region introduced us to yet another coffee system. We were back with the smallholder producers but here they are based around Fairtrade certified cooperatives. The farmers are linked much more closely with the buyers of their coffee, and in return have access to a number of different projects and benefits that feedback into the coffee supply chain.
We were welcomed to ACEDGA Cooperative by Virginia Suarez. This association was founded in 2006 with 20 members by Uriel Huerfia and has grown to 75 members today within 22 communities. 100% of the coffee is certified Fairtrade since 2019 and 75% of farmers are Organic certified since 2017. With the FLO premium, they have improved water treatment for each producer and built a local warehouse and office. The farmers have an average of 3.5 ha – which is quite large. Astrid Medina is one of their famous farmers since she won cup of excellence in 2015 and is producing exotic varietals such as Pink Bourbon, Geisha and Tabi.
We took a ride in a ‘Waz car’, which is the Tolima version of the ‘Willy’s car’, to reach La Esperanza farm owned by Luis Hernandez (Virginia’s husband) and managed by Henry Tobar.
- Size: 10 ha
- Number of trees: 61,000
- Varieties: Caturra, Bourbon, Pink Bourbon, Maragogype, Tabi, F8 hybrid
- Altitude: 1950 masl
Henry is producing 10 MT annually as he has renovated half of the farm with new varietals such as F8 hybrid. He is using the traditional washed method with a dry fermentation for 24 hours and then washes the parchment in channels. His innovation is on the drying method as he is using a “marquesina tipi zinc”, originally used for beans or rice. This solar drying canopy system is built on a roof with an open-top which allows a constant airflow and an ambient temperature of 22 degrees. This allows for a really slow drying for 45 days (double the time of the other techniques). This improves the quality of the coffee, but also the shelf life of the coffee. He is using this for the micro-lots and the rest dries under traditional polytunnels at 35 degrees.
Our second stop in Planadas took us to ASOPEP Cooperative. Camilo Enciso Suarez, the General Director founded the cooperative 9 years ago in 2013 when coffee producers were losing money producing coffee. In reaction, the Colombian government created a Coffee Income Protection plan that agreed to pay stipends to coffee farmers if internal coffee prices fell below a certain level. He decided to create an association to help producers with training and a purchase centre for fertiliser and other benefits. Today, there are 300 members and 80% are Organic.
Their main site in Planadas, bought in 2016, houses the main offices, natural and mechanical drying facilities, and biofertilizer production area. Coffee is the main industry in and around Planandas, with it boasting 10 coffee shops for only 8,000 people.
They had a large expansion of facilities in 2017 with donations from customers and €30,000 from the Vatican. 20% of the coffee they produce is natural, with plans to increase this, which is unusual for Colombia. Their producers also do their own naturals and sell them the dry cherry.
Although they only have 13 full-time employees they run an incredible number of projects due to their constant hunting for funds from charitable organisations. In the past they have gained funding from the UN, The Vatican, The Fairtrade Foundation and the Colombian Government, to name a few.
Alongside coffee buying and processing their projects include;
- A barista school that started in 2016 in which World Barista Champion Diego Campos taught in 2017.
- A women’s organisation that teaches handicrafts, personal finance and cooking lessons to women.
- They host a children’s band that plays a mixture of traditional and more modern instruments.
- Bird watching with ex-guerrillas, and systems to help vulnerable children to stop them from being recruited by current guerrillas to raise awareness of the natural environment and biodiversity.
- Water and soil testing lab.
- A project where they take photos with drones of each of the member farms to map the size and crop areas with the European Space Association.
- A coffee and shade tree seedling nursery growing Castillo, Caturra, Typica and Pink Bourbon.
- A ‘Bio Fabrica’ production area of biological fertilisers and pesticides. The soil analysis lab is used here to work out the nutrient’s contents of the fertiliser, as well as the farmer’s field to see where it can be most efficiently used.
They have a large focus on really high quality and a good reward scheme. Super speciality producers can receive a premium of $2.80 per kg. Although due to past instances where the money has been ‘used unwisely’ they now purchase equipment with the money and pass that to the farmers as a form of renumeration.
Being a member of one of these Fairtrade Cooperatives gives so many opportunities that producers in other regions might not have access to. We said goodbye to Plananadas and marched on to the infamous Inza.
Inza – Cauca
Inza is famous for its coffee quality and cup profile. The Inza region produces around 20,000 bags of green coffee a year from smallholder farmers with an average of 2 ha across 35 small villages. The Mitaca runs from May to August and the main harvest from November to December. This structure was similar to El Penol but once we had arrived, it was evident here just how coffee focused this community is.
We were emersed in the coffee market which takes place in the town square where we met Jesus Volveras who is a regional buyer that works with Racafe. He receives dry parchment, wet parchment (Oriado at 20% moisture) and fully wet (mejado at 50%) from local growers. He has his own farm where he can dry all the wet parchment. During the Mitaca he buys around 30 MT of parchment every week, and during the main harvest up to 70 MT.
Jesus brought us to one of his customers, Freddy Pencue who has two farms one of 8 ha and another one of 4 ha. Freddy mainly grows F6, Caturra, Castillo and Cenicafe 1. He harvests all year round with a group of 25 pickers who come for a week every 4-6 weeks. His farm is located at 1700 masl on volcanic soil overlooking the Uyucos River.
Unfortunately, we only had an afternoon in Inza before we had to carry on to Popayan. Here we said goodbye to Hernan and Ivan from Racafe who passed us over to Hernan and Elizabeth from Cencoic.
In Popayan and the surrounding area in Cauca, there is a total of 131 “resgaldos” indigenous reserves, of which 80 produce coffee. Each of the reserves has its own dialect and tightly knit community. We visited one of the reserves, closest to Popayan with 400 members.
Cencoic works with 19 reserves and has three areas of business – distributing food, distributing pharmaceuticals, and green coffee buying. Between 2019-2021, they worked on a project with USAID with the objective to improve the productivity and quality of their farmers. USAID gave on-site training for agronomy and processing practices, free soil analysis and equipment donations such as fermentation tanks and depulpers.
As a typical example of a local coffee farm, we visited Finca Tres Pinos which Priscilla first visited in 2017. Victoria Ines is the farmer and has been a member since 2014. She is from a third-generation coffee farm family but as a daughter of 11 children she only inherited the land without coffee, so had to plant it all herself. She has received drying beds, polythene and plastic fermentation tanks from USAID.
• Size: 0.75 ha
• Number of trees: 2,700
• Varieties: Castillo
• Altitude: 1,750 masl
They harvest only once a year in April May and June. She does 4 washes and a 20-hour fermentation and is dried for 15-25 days in the greenhouse.
We also visited Los Arayanes. Angela Patino is the owner and part of La Laguna reserve since 2015. Angela produces 500 kg parchment a year with coffee forming her main source of revenue.
- Size: 0.7 ha
- Number of trees: 3,000
- Varieties: Castillo
- Altitude: 1,750 masl
The planting density was lower than the other areas we had seen, as she wants to maximise the space for biodiversity, this was a common theme amongst the indigenous farms. The coffee sat under a complete canopy of forest cover. The farmer uses processing water, cherry husks and pig manure as fertiliser twice a year. They base some practices on biodynamics. For example, they stump on the full moon and not on the new moon as they believe the coffee trees will grow too tall then. Processing wise they follow a very similar structure to the other farmers, as taught by Cencoic.
We finished the day with a stop at Cencoic’s new land close to Popayan. They have bought a farm of 3.2 ha called “por fin” which means ‘finally’ as Juan Carlos has been looking for years.
They will have an office, cabins for customers, a warehouse, meeting rooms, an experimental coffee plantation and a dry mill. All these funds are gained thanks to all business they have done and contracts they have in place with buyers like DRW.
It has been satisfying to observe Cencoic’s growth, given all challenges they have faced as part of the indigenous community. They focus on three values; unity, autonomy and sustainability, which we could feel during our farm visits with the support given to the farmers from Cencoic, and also the meld of coffee trees and native forest.
During our trip, we were able to witness the diversity of Colombia’s coffee regions. From El Peñol’s independent smallholders in a touristic/ mixed agriculture economy to Bolivar’s medium-large estates with entrepreneurs managing farms as businesses. The Tolima region has recently opened up since the peace treaty was concluded in 2016 and has formed a structure mainly based around Fairtrade associations. In Cauca, there has been a lot of hard work done with Cencoic to continue to give economic opportunities to the indigenous tribes, with a focus on coffee quality, sustainability, and respect for the environment.
Of course, Colombia has its challenges, like increases in the cost of fertiliser, and the lack of labour in some areas. Climate change possess a major issue, changing rainfall patterns and disrupting flowering. However, we witnessed that Colombian farmers are knowledgeable, passionate, and continually investing and innovating with the support organisations like the FNC and Racafe and so have the necessary skills to adapt and overcome these issues.