We arrived in Medellin, Colombia a couple weeks back, hitting the ground running due north to the coffee lands. We've been buying a bit of coffee from the Urrao region in northern Antioquia. Our intermediaries in Medellin started a project in a small area of Urrao called Pavón, organizing a group of about 20 farmers - some family, all neighbors - who together coordinate deliveries at the local cooperative where their coffees are roasted, tasted, and those that make the cut are purchased on the spot for a hefty premium.
Urrao is unique for many reasons, one of which is the amazingly flat "Valle de Penderisco" (carved out by an ancient river of the same name) that greets you when descending into town on the main highway. I should say, that for the 3 1/2 hours it takes to drive from Medellín to Urrao, the road is anything but straight. I like to think I have a strong stomach, but the non-stop curves and hairpin-turns gave me a run for my money. Needless to say, after one last wind in the road, you crest the mountain top and look down upon the wide and flat valley floor, as well as the welcoming arrow-straight road that follows for what seems like forever (but is really only a few kilometers!).
The altitude in Urrao is great for growing coffee, just over 1800 meters above sea level at the valley floor mentioned above, rising another 100 meters in the neighboring valley where our buying is focused. Most of the producers in this area have coffee planted above 2000 meters, some all the way up to 2100 (we've seen small amounts of Caturra at 2200). But what’s maybe most interesting about the high altitudes of Urrao, is that it wasn’t long ago that the climate was much colder, actually stunting coffee productivity, and cup quality to some degree. The coffees of Urrao were for the most part sold off for blending into large, non-descript Excelso grade lots. But rising temperatures have changed this, and Urrao coffee farmers are benefitting from the warmer weather.
Urrao isn’t ‘warm’ per se, but rather ‘warmer’ than in the past, which in this case has led to better cup quality, higher yields, and the potential of increased profits (we saw several farms place in both the top 10 Cup of Excellence and the top 60 “Taza de Antioquia” competitions in 2013, and 2014). Coffee plant productivity is tied to many things, but temperature plays a key role. For arabica coffee, this range is 16 - 23 degrees C, the temperature in Urrao averaging 19 C the last couple of years. The longer a plant is within this temperature range, the more time it is operating at ‘full capacity’, so to speak, and positively affecting properties such as seed density and potential sweetness.
Not far down the road however, at only slightly lower elevations, we’re seeing quite the opposite response to this warming trend. Just outside Medellin in areas like Santa Barbara, and Fredonia for example, farmers are experiencing record low rainfall coupled with warmer than usual temperatures, even at 1700+ meters, and the health of the coffee trees are suffering. The Cauca Valley below has always been a source of warm, upwelling air to the surrounding highlands, so even a small rise in temperatures sees the region well-above 23 C, and has meant lower production for many coffee producers.
It’s important to remember that there is a big difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions within a short period of time. The warm and dry weather of this year may very well be replaced with cooler, wet weather the next. Climate, on the other hand, is the tracking of weather patterns over time and gives us a better idea of the direction annual temperatures and precipitation are headed. So just because producers had bad year this year in one area, it doesn’t necessarily mean their crops will suffer the next. My geography teacher put it well: climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get. This was a topic of conversation along our trip: how do small producers protect their investment in coffee from a warming climate and weather unpredictability?
As you see with the above examples, the changes brought on by global warming are very different for those at high elevations than those at moderate and low elevations, and so the options for addressing these issues are also quite different. Though small farmers in Urrao have benefitted from the warmth, they are now also faced with problems that come with it, ones that used to be relegated to the lower altitudes, like leaf rust (“roya”) and even coffee boring insects.
The Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC - the National Colombian coffee growers association) heavily promotes the Castillo culitvar in all growing regions due to it’s resistance to leaf rust and promise of high fruit yields. While these claims are partly true (though we’re seeing mutations of the rust disease that do attack rust-resistant varieties over time), simply planting farms with Castillo or an equivalent is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. One Urrao producer we visited was ready to pull out his Caturra trees and transplant with Castillo at the recommendation of the FNC when the Urrao project started last year. But after being approached about joining this group, he not only decided to prune instead, but also added another full hectare of new Caturra trees to his farm.
Without turning this into a "Caturra vs. Castillo" article (there is plenty of that in Tom's most recent PODCAST from the trip), what's important is that the coffee he was producing was very impressive in our cup testing, due in part to variety, altitude, and of course the weather pattern during the year. Maybe replanting with a high-producing, disease-resistant coffee makes sense for farmer at 1400 meters struggling to produce 80+ point coffee. But for a farmer who is already producing 90 point coffee to replant with a varietal that yields an arguably inferior cup would be irresponsible.
You see a lot of Caturra in Urrao, I’d say it makes up about 75% of the planted coffee trees at the farms that we visited. It lacks the level of disease resistance of the See our Timor Coffee Offerings for more information.">Timor-hybrid types (Castillo, Variedad Colombia, Tabi, etc), but as one farmer pointed out, with proper care in planting and cultivation, farms in Urrao see a lot of success with Caturra. The trees at his farm are planted 3’ apart, a sacrifice of space, but he explains how the overall productivity of his farm is greater than if he crammed in more trees per hectare. At 3’ apart, sunlight is able to reach all the way to the bottom of the tree, creating an extremely productive tree top to bottom. It’s also much easier for his workers to apply fertilizers to the soil, spray for roya/leaf-rust if needed, and clean the ground of fallen fruit which helps keep coffee-boring insects at bay.
This “from the farm” information is so useful for helping other farmers understand how to best protect their investment in coffee, or even what type of coffee to plant in the first place. There's no shortage of suggestions being made from "outsiders" (coffee buyers, government agencies, etc), and so having examples of what's actually working on a local level is extremely helpful as farmers are faced with tough decisions. With roya, we’ve seen a race to find a sort of universal patch that every farmer benefits from, when the reality is that the options for addressing or preventing it can be quite different from one region to the next, and especially at high and low altitudes.
This is our second trip to the Urrao region, meeting with the farmers we’re buying from, mapping the area, and learning more about the local coffee-growing tradition which is not-so-surprisingly similar from one farm to the next. The intermediary we’ve partnered with in Medellín affords us the means to work in a more direct way with the farmers of this region too. Not only are they making regular trips to Urrao to buy coffee, but also to maintain their own farm “Los Palomos” that they bought last year. It’s a unique opportunity for us to learn more about how the changing weather is affecting different varieties, and wet-processing (fermentation in particular), as well as to maintain a close connection with the members of this project.
This is the first year of the project, and the premiums we are paying along with regular visits are helping to build trusting relationships. The base price we paid this year is nearly twice the going rate, 650,000 pesos per “carga” more than what is paid by the local cooperative (“carga" is 125 kilograms of coffee still in parchment, or roughly 100 kilos of milled green coffee). We offered a competitive price last year, and have chosen to continue at this level even with the precipitous drop in the market price. Like most of the coffees we buy direct, pricing tends to be divergent from the Commodities market, paying what we think a coffee is actually worth.
Between Urrao, Inza, Timana, and La Plata, we cupped over 400 samples on this last trip, approving more coffees than we can stuff in a 20’ container! We are finalizing the details in the coming weeks, and expect to have the fruits of this final Colombia venture of 2015 by year’s end. You can acquaint yourself with the Colombian coffees we buy directly now, as our list is flush with fresh offers from most of these growing regions.