“Better Days Ahead” By Dustin Johnson Organic Trading Products Company
From one of our importer partners comes this nice succinct snapshot of the complicatedness of coffee in Colombia. If you’d like to try some coffee from this area, order some Fair Trade Colombian K-Cups.
In the southern State of Cauca, Colombia, the red blooms of the cachimbo tree have painted the lush mountainside canopy, creating a temporary contrast against the vibrant green canvas. The tree blooms once a year in the spring, but only if the temperatures have been moderate. A cold winter will prevent the cachimbo from blooming all-together and be the first indicator of a problematic year for the coffee harvest. Even though this year’s temperatures have been adequate for coffee production, the cachimbo won’t indicate rainfall, a problem that coffee throughout Colombia has been struggling with.
Cauca generally has a warm summer with several months of sun that allows the coffee to grow, mature, and be harvested on a predictable schedule. This year the summer never came. Rain and clouds cover the skies and still are having damaging effects on the coffee cherries and trees. Too much precipitation and moisture will “burn” the coffee leaves, lack of sunlight will reduce the production and slow the maturation process while heavy rains can knock any ripe cherries off the bush before they are harvested. This kind of climate change, even for one season can be detrimental to thousands of farmers within a region.As serious as this change of climate has been it is only part of the issues that our producers are facing this year out of Colombia. The value of the Colombian Peso has plunged over the past year with the devaluation of the US dollar. Producers who sell their coffee at the same price or even better than the previous year are finding that their annual income is dramatically less than before. Less money as prices have doubled for basic goods, food, and transport can have a crippling effect on these producers who have only small farms to sustain their families throughout the year. Another threat is the presence of national and multi-national corporations who see the small cooperatives as competition for the coffee they have controlled for decades. As cooperatives organize more and more small producers, working with them to improve quality and implement social programs within their communities, less coffee is available, and large corporations have to pay higher, fairer prices. To change this, these companies are trying to buy up coffee before it gets to the cooperative, at even higher prices the small cooperatives cannot compete with.
Those small producers that live year round on one salary have a hard time passing up such “opportunities.” In the meantime the cooperatives lose out, and cannot afford to continue to organize. Once the cooperative goes under, the large companies will dominate the market again and pay the price they choose to. Those dealing with such issues are dedicated farmers like Alberto Buitrón. He owns three hectares of land south of Popayán, which has been producing organic coffee for the last 18 years. Alberto took on the farm from his father, Luis Fernando, who is 84 years old, and was a coffee farmer for 60 years. Their home sits amongst a small section of the farm, surrounded by tropical plants, fruits, and flowers, overlooking the valley and other small coffee farms farther down the hill. It is a beautiful spot that has taken generations of work to create, and continues to demand long hard days from Alberto to maintain.
As he shows us around, he explains the constant chores of his land. When we arrive at a covered patio he opens a large plastic barrel of liquid fertilizer, created from organic material from around the farm. It emits an overwhelmingly sweet smell of manure, fermented cherries, and honey. Creating this fertilizer takes time, patience and constant attention, as do all of the daily coffee farm duties. The fertilizer is just an example of the additional work and effort put forth by these small farmers to produce high quality coffee, coffee that is greatly affected by the ever-present dangers. Within the communities I generally ask producers how they deal with the struggles of producing coffee; the competition, the devaluation of currency, the rising prices of supplies, and the unpredictable weather. Here in Colombia, as in most countries we visit, the answer is the same; ‘esperanza’ or hope. When I ask Alberto about his hope for the coffee season he points to the flowering cachimbo tree and says, “That is a good sign.” For him and his fellow cooperative members sometimes the hope of better days ahead is all they have to hold on to.