We all know the beauty of specialty coffee: the perfect balance of flavours, the sweet aroma, the rich body. Yet while may be your first port of call when it comes to your morning (or afternoon) beverage, for some coffee farmers it’s a last resort.
Yet when faced with faltering coffee prices and an erratic market, one producing family turned their coffee-farming nightmare into a specialty dream.
The True Price of Coffee
Only five years ago, a small family-run coffee farm in southwest Colombia considered ripping out their coffee trees and replanting their farm with more lucrative crops – putting an end to generations of coffee growing.
A collapse in the global coffee price meant that they were finding it increasingly difficult to cover the cost of producing coffee on their ten-hectare plot.
“We were subsidising the farm to make ends meet, but we knew this could not last forever,” says Ricardo Canal of La Lomita. “For decades, we rode out the fluctuations of the market but, when the coffee price collapsed again, I really had to convince my father that we could still run a sustainable business.
“It was a difficult conversation… because historically there was a lot of apprehension about the volatility of the market”.
View overlooking La Lomita’s 10-hectare farm in the southwest of Colombia. Credit: A. Watson
The Rise of Specialty Coffee
It was Ricardo that spotted a special opportunity that could save both the family and their farm. As a resident in London, he was witnessing the phenomenal rise of specialty coffee across the capital. All he had to do was convince his father.
He saw that there was an increased interest in directly traded coffee and the importance that was being placed on tracing it. His first step was to persuade his father that they could improve the quality of the coffee and achieve a score of 80 points or more.
If they could do this, then they might stand a real chance of finding a buyer in the capital’s specialty market. Yet this first step was by no means easy.
La Lomita’s Castillo coffee growing under the Carbonero tree. Credit: A. Watson
Cup Quality: The Realisation
The turnaround occurred when Ricardo took a trip to a local exporter owned by Azahar Coffee. The exporter helps farmers in the region to improve the quality of their coffee and find crucial access to markets abroad.
Ricardo was accompanied by his father, Raul, who – cautious by nature – was sceptical of the feedback that they would receive after cupping their coffees.
For Raul, who had sold coffee all his life, the quality of the coffee could be found in its physical attributes: the health of the coffee plant, the ripeness of a coffee cherry, and the defect-free condition of parchment coffee after it had been washed.
Yet while all these factors are vital to a coffee’s overall flavour profile, he quickly realised that cup quality was equally important.
“From that moment on, my father understood that unseen elements in the processing, such as fermentation, could find their way into the cup. He immediately saw the potential in improving the quality as an achievable task,” explained Ricardo.
A cluster of La Lomita’s Castillo variety ripening on the branch. Credit: A. Watson
Improving the Coffee’s Quality
With a new purpose of improving the quality of their coffee, the family immediately got to work.
They retiled the fermentation tanks and set about refurbishing the washing facility. Then they built newly sheltered drying beds and storage areas for the coffee away from the sun’s rays. Finally, they began to implement new measures to counter the persistent threat of the vicious cherry-borer beetle.
Raul makes berry borer traps to monitor the population of the berry borer on the farm. Credit: A. Watson
The 25 coffee pickers who work on the farm during the harvest were incredibly supportive of La Lomita’s goal: to prioritise quality over quantity. They immediately started to see an improvement in the overall quality when they returned to the mill to cup the coffee the following year.
Ricardo and his father were finally beginning to see their efforts bearing fruit (forgive us the pun) and La Lomita coffee was one step closer to reaching specialty coffee markets in the UK.
Seeing An Improvement in Cup Quality
“Once we understood the importance of cup quality we knew that we were on the right path. This is still an ongoing process but we have gone through a paradigm shift that has changed everything that we do on the farm,” says Ricardo.
Parchment coffee being dried on raised drying beds. Credit: A. Watson
Another organisation that played a vital role in helping them to improve their coffee’s quality was the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC). The FNC is dedicated to improving the quality of life for coffee farmers in the country.
“We are privileged to have the support of the Federation. They offer advice, support, and access to good fertilisers, seeds, and infrastructure. It would be nice to see all coffee-producing countries having access to the same levels of support and capacity that the Federation provides for coffee farmers.”
Ricardo believes that the quick improvement in the quality would not have been possible without the willingness and enthusiasm of the workers, who embraced the new agronomic practices with open arms.
Biochar: A Chemical Substitute
One such change was the use of ‘biochar’ (a charcoal used to improve the soil) to replace the use of chemicals as fertilisers.
Coffee picker Albert uses an experimental technique to pick and collect the harvested coffee cherries. Credit: A. Watson
It is a simple but effective process that corrects the soil’s acidity. It does so through the use of sustainably sourced charcoal from the trunks of old coffee trees and sawdust. Composted organic matter was also added to further improve soil quality with the help of a makeshift wormery.
The biochar acts as a sponge that retains water and gives home to colonies of microorganisms that are essential for nutrients and moisture retention during the dry months.
Biochar compost being used to help retain the moisture and aid the growth of the young coffee trees. Credit: A. Watson
Waging War on the Berry Borer
Every coffee farmer knows about the serious threat of the berry borer: a coffee pest that attacks the fruit by laying eggs in it. An infestation can be devastating and has the potential to decimate an entire harvest – not to mention farmer’s incomes.
But despite the high levels of the beetle on the farm, Ricardo resisted using insecticide. He didn’t want these harmful chemicals to damage the farm’s wider biodiversity.
In an effort to find more sustainable ways of protecting the biodiversity on the farm, as well as their coffee, they introduced spores of the fungus Beauveria Bassiana to help control the population of berry borer. The fungus attacks the beetles when they start to drill into the flesh of the coffee cherry and forms a barrier which stops them from laying larvae.
They also released two specific species of wasps (Prorops Nasuta and Phymastichus Coffea) which are natural predators of the berry borer, in order to control the threat of another devastating infestation.
The release of the fungus Beauveria Bassiana is a sustainable way to help control the berry-borer. Credit: A. Watson
Optimism & Relationship Coffee: The Taste of Things to Come
In spite of these challenges, La Lomita is a success story. Last year, the first shipment of 3000kgs of their first harvest of specialty-grade washed Castillo arrived in the UK. And this is a testament to their self-belief, perseverance, and hard work.
Ricardo describes what relationship coffee means to La Lomita: “Seeing our coffee being enjoyed by customers in London is a dream come true. It fills us with pride and shows us that all the hard work has paid off.”
“In many ways we want to develop the business so that we can add value to our production, through the segmentation of the farm into micro-lots and experimentation with different processing methods. I hope that both sides of the value chain can grow and, as we do, we can learn together and exchange knowledge, as Vagabond Coffee Roasters expands as a specialty roastery in London.”
He adds: “We feel privileged to have found a coffee roastery that not only gives us the opportunity to access the specialty market, but one that we can nurture a strong and honest relationship with – and that fills us with great optimism for the future.”
Now that’s a success story if ever I did hear one.
Written by A. Watson and edited by H. Paull.
Perfect Daily Grind.