I am on a mountain in the western province of Tolima, Colombia, a rugged, tropical Andes mountain region near the northern tip of South America. I’m with a fun-loving group of intrepid Colombian business journalists, sitting down to a hearty lunch of sancocho, a traditional stew with corn-on-cob, plantains, potatoes, yucca, and avocado served on the side. We are guests of Cafetal del Rio, a family-owned coffee plantation 7,500 meters above sea level.
Tolima is also one of the most important coffee provinces, part of a $2.2 billion business for Colombia. We’ve just come back from meeting with coffee agronomists and inspecting coffee plants. The most amazing fact I’ve learned is this: despite five decades of strife, displacement and civil war, Colombians have managed to protect their prize sector: a strong cup of Joe for millions of sleepy workers worldwide. Here’s some more stuff to think about while you sip your morning magic:
1 There are upwards of 500,000 families producing coffee in Colombia.
Despite the fact that land ownership is more concentrated here than nearly any other country, Colombia’s coffee sector continues to be dominated by small family farms, usually no larger than 12 acres. They are organized in a powerful trade association focused on improving the lives of coffee-growing families and promoting Colombia coffee worldwide.
Why so many growers? Carlos Rojas, Executive president of the National Association of Colombian Coffee Exporters, says there is a theory that the number of growers increased in the early 20th century because some migrant workers who worked for rich plantation owners had poor working conditions and no social security, so they set out on their own. They colonized mountain wilderness areas and planted their own coffee trees, much like our Homestead Act in the U.S. Some migrant workers who were successful pickers and thrifty were able to return to their town and buy land. Today the coffee areas are considered very desirable because profits have allowed for improved infrastructure, such as roads, schools and hospitals.
2 Over 2 million Colombians depend on coffee production for income.
That’s 25% of the country's rural population. It is clearly the most important business in the country.
“Coffee became almost like cash in Colombia for a very long time,” Rojas explains. At its core, the vastness of the coffee producing areas, and the grass roots nature of the business, led to the creation of the federation of coffee growers, and it’s become probably the most powerful trade group in Colombia. “They have a lot of political power, which they used to ensure government gave them authority to tax exports,” says Rojas. “That’s how they have grown financially over time, and that funding is a key instrument for promoting coffee production.”
Families affiliated with the federation get insurance and bank loan breaks; they have their own chipped credit card, used for company finances and voting in the association (a model for other countries). Money captured at export level is reinvested in coffee growing regions, “so they often had higher standards of living than the rest of the country,” says Rojas. Since the’90s other regions have done a “catch up”, and the Fund has reduced its size and capacity to provide services for its affiliates.
3 Colombia is the number three largest coffee producer in the world.
Brazil’s production has been consistently higher than all other countries, most of the time almost double production of their closest competitor. Last year Brazil produced around 55 million bags of coffee, followed by Vietnam with 30 million bags. Colombia produced 14 million bags.
4 Coffee plays a role in the war on drugs.
The U.S. has invested in different programs to help discourage the growth of Coca, grown to produce cocaine. One is coffee, the other is cacao, as a way of providing income to poor people. Give people opportunities to make an honest living and chances are good they will take you up on it.
5 It may also play an important role in Colombia’s ‘post-conflict’ future.
The coffee sector survived and thrived despite the country’s civil war. One theory is that coffee regions were left peaceful because both political parties were represented, and they had to strike a balance for business purposes.
“We believe coffee could become a source of stability to bring back a good means of living for the people who are moving back to the land and leaving their guns behind, because it generates income,” says Rojas. “Moving forward we envision coffee will still remain an important way to provide productivity alternatives for people in areas that have had a lot of problems.”
6 You’re getting your coffee pretty cheap.
You might complain about a $4 cup at Starbucks. But for a good, consistent cup of coffee year round, many things must be in sync, from tree to cup. Production is labor intensive. You’re not only paying coffee plantation owners and pickers but also the folks who sort, process and store as well as export. “Labor has become increasingly expensive, in part because the countries that produce mostly Arabica are countries that have increased levels of income,” says Rojas. “So labor has become a more important cost, which is good because we want everything to lead to higher living standards.”
Colombian coffee production seems more extraordinary when you consider what it’s up against. Farmers don’t simply grow the trees, harvest and ship beans like you might do with corn or soybeans. Trucks can’t get up these deadly mountain roads; instead, farmers fill bags with beans and toss them atop rickety buses with fenced-in luggage racks. Bags are collected at cooperative points and end up in large warehouses.
7 Coffee growers work on protecting the environment and making sure their processes are sustainable, just like you do.
“We learned lessons from the past, in terms of what not to do with coffee,” says Rojas. “In the past 70 years there’s been a lot of experiments on how coffee is produced. At one point in time it was like one big plantation, but that production method required fertilization and destroyed some of the environment. Now we are willing to sacrifice some productivity to save water quality and keep original forest around coffee trees.”
Coffee researchers work to produce new disease-resistant varieties that growers incorporate into their mountainside farms, gradually to avoid too much income loss – it takes around 1.5 years to get coffee from new plantings. And climate change is an increasingly important concern; to create an outstanding cup of coffee requires a specific climate and soil, and Colombia happens to have nearly perfect such conditions.
8 In Colombia, coffee growers put a lot of love into what they do.
It’s not only a business, it’s a way of living, and it’s all family-owned business. “If you take care of the cherries and pick them at the right time, the best flavor comes from that coffee,” says Rojas. “What makes Colombian coffee more expensive is that it’s still hand-picked; part of the success is picking the right bean at the right color. That requires a lot of expertise.” Growers compete in the “Excellence Cup,” to see who grows the best coffee. Remember Juan Valdez? He is still used widely to promote Colombian coffee worldwide, much like the Marlboro Man did years ago.
9 Colombian coffee growers don’t need to worry about marketing.
In the old days growers had a purchase guarantee with the government. Now, the market is so deep and widespread, producers can sell their coffee easily without government guarantees. Nationwide there are 500 coffee purchasing areas, 18 warehouses, and three ports where coffee is shipped to the world. The U.S. is first and by far the most important customer followed by the European Union. Coffee is shipped bulk – the ‘value-add’ process is in the hands of buyers like Starbucks.
10 They test coffee the way we test wine.
When you produce a world class product that millions enjoy and count on each morning, you take it seriously. Earlier in the day we had all gone to a coffee warehouse to do a coffee testing. I’ve done wine-tastings and this experience is similar. Organizers put out cups with three distinctly different coffee varieties. We sniffed each, looking for specific aromas; My new buddy Sigfredo Ramirez, from El Salvador, detected hints of citrus in one sample, but to me, it was just…coffee.
Next, baristas appeared with steaming pots of hot water, and we were instructed to steep the coffees, then give them another sniff. Finally we were shown how to sip each sample - swirl in the mouth, and quickly spit the sample into a waste cup.
It turns out if you practice long enough, you can develop a taste for different kinds of coffee. And, if you’re not careful, get quite buzzed at the same time.
Slurping was optional.