Dan was in Colombia recently and wrote this piece for the site while on the road. What I really enjoyed here is how it's just nuts-and-bolts about being a coffee buyer. It's about our partner relationship in sourcing in Colombia, because duh, we don't live there year round! It's about local politics and the coops, who thinks who is being fair, and who isn't ... the social and power relationships around local coffee economies that we, as buyers and occasional visitors don't see, and likely wouldn't fully understand if we did. And it's about how those things determine our access to the coffee, our access to the farmers, our privilege to choose the right coffee lots for us. More important is what's not here. Dan doesn't talk much about coffee cultivars, about MASL, about macerated cherry process and black honey. He doesn't write patronizingly about how we help farmers by buying their coffee (we are a coffee business, we need to buy coffee) or that we "work with farmers." We talk about parchment prices, but it's not talking just about top price, which is often set up as a false incentive by roaster-buyers (i.e. paying a crazy price for 90+ coffee and a crap price for 85, then having a container with majority 85 pt coffee and 2% 90+). The absence of now-cliched "coffee origin" writing is a relief, and not surprisingly what replaces it is kinda boring, but very real in terms of the actual mechanics of coffee buying. -T.O.
Part of my early February visit to Colombia has been spent at cupping tables tasting recent coffee deliveries, deciding what to buy for a Spring container. This time of year our buying is mainly focused in the areas of Inzá, Cauca in the south, and both Urrao and Caicedo in north western Antioquia.
The samples I'm tasting are really fresh, having been pulled from the drying patio weeks, if not days earlier. But coffee's not all that's fresh and this season marks the opening of a newly erected coffee buying warehouse and coffee lab in San Antonio town, Inzá.
The operation is centered around the Pillimue family who you may be familiar with from some of their coffees we've carried (Palomos del Sur, La Salada, Finca El Nogal). They have a longstanding presence in San Antonio, not only running one of the only general goods stores in town, but also as coffee farmers.
Coffee drying on a raised patio under cover, helping to keep it safe from the rain.
Three generations of Pillimué's have farmed these lands, Doña Maria Rosa inheriting the initial farm Finca El Nogal from her father and now sons Robinson and Nilson continuing their family's legacy between plots in San Antonio and the neighboring town of Agua Blanca.
After having delivered to the local growers association for many years Nilson decided to step out on his own, setting up a warehouse next to his parents home where he could buy coffee from his neighbors in San Antonio as well as from the farmers of neighboring veredas (towns). He's invested nearly 30 million Colombian pesos ($9,000 USD) of his own money for the project, building out the final site adjacent to their family store to include a weighing/receiving area, offices, warehouse space for up to 30,000 kg of coffee and a lab for assessing the coffee deliveries.
The subtext here is that this year we've shifted away from purchasing coffee through the local association, now buying all of our Inzá coffees from the Pillimués. It's a decision that was helped along by the intermediary we work with in Medellín, Pergamino, who have done the same and we're following suit.
Leadership positions at this particular coop change every two years through democratic elections, including the role of association President. It’s a mechanism put in place to extend leadership roles to many instead of keeping for the few. This sharing of responsibilities gives members an opportunity to learn how to run the business side of the association, as well as make any changes seen as benefiting the association and its membership.
The modest entryway/weighing station at the Pillimué warehouse in San Antonio.
I think passing the torch so to speak is generally a good thing, though problems can arise for both buyers and farmers when those in leadership make changes that negatively impact the farmers.
Without going into too much detail, we began to hear negative feedback starting a couple of years back after the new president was voted into office. There were reports of a myriad of issues such as confusion around payments, a lack of farmer outreach, and coffees being held for better prices (that never came) only to fall off in quality and be sold off for lower prices.
It is in the wake of all of this that the Pillimué family came up with the idea of offering an alternative place for farmers to sell their coffee. Nilson’s investment in infrastructure was the first step in making this a reality and all he needed was access to cash flow in order to start buying coffee.
Financing came in the form of investment by Pergamino, who also happen to be long time friends of the Pillimués, and they’ve agreed to inject enough cash to keep the buying rolling throughout the harvest season. They've also provided the necessary tools to put together a state of the art cupping lab, including a Probat 2-barrel sample roaster, water filtration system, moisture meters, and more. Cash up front for Nilson means that he is able to pay cash up front to the farmer, which in this case comes with a premium greater than the base price paid at the local coops.
Everyone raise a spit cup! One of several cupping sessions during my visit that are also a great opportunity for local kids to learn to taste and assess coffee quality.
Coffee premiums are obviously a boon to farmer's livelihood and how soon they are paid has can have just as profound an impact. After all, ‘a bird in hand is worth two in the bush’. Immediate payment can be immediately put to use and is often parlayed into things like hiring pickers to harvest coffee, farm supplies, or just basic home necessities. And unlike the colloquialism suggests, “two in the bush” are still on the way in the form of a second payment, just not until the coffee is sold to someone like us.
Nilson visits farmers almost every day during the harvest making sure they aren’t holding onto coffee and collecting samples to send to Medellin for assessment. At this stage, the samples are given an initial screening and receive a simple ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ grade. All coffees that pass are then delivered to Nilson’s warehouse and the farmers receive an initial payment of roughly 125k pesos per carga more than the base price in the country (“carga” is the standard measurement of 125 kg parchment coffee ((roughly 200 lbs of green coffee)) used in Colombia).
After the coffee is in Nilson’s warehouse, he pulls representative samples of each lot and sends to Medellín once again for another round of cupping and moisture level checks before being offered to International clients such as ourselves. As soon as we make our selections and contracts are drawn up, a premium is paid per carga to each farmer based on one of our three quality tiers: +475k pesos for tier 1; +675k pesos for tier 2; +875k pesos for tier 3.
Sorting out the obvious physical defects before delivering to the warehouse to sell - just outside of San Antonio town.
These premiums are in addition to the minimum price set by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (“FNC”), the non governmental agency who determine the coffee price in Colombia. Right now the FNC base price is roughly 725k pesos per carga and fluctuates with the C market. Coops and associations generally pay about 20k more than this going rate.
The prices we pay to farmers isn't benchmarked against the C, remaining static through the current market volatility. We continue to pay the same high price with the C market at its lowest in 10 years as we did when it peaked a few years back.
We recognize that coops and associations aren't perfect and just as quickly as the last president enacted change, the incoming president can reverse those directives. Nevertheless, the instability and volatility that this regular 'changing of the guards' facilitates has put a strain on our relationship with this particular coop making it all the more easy for us to throw our support behind the Pillimué family.
After spending a few days in San Antonio, I was able to select 115 bags of Inzá coffee that will be shipping by the end of the month. Here's a set of photos from my visit to the area and includes more detailed shots of the Pillimué operation.
If you're looking to buy Colombian coffee right now, have a look at our selection of coffees from Inzá and Nariño available from our December 2018 container arrival here.
Walking though a cherry-lined path at one of the San Antonio farms we visited. It's hard to see, but the shrub to the left has ripe cherry that is ready to pick, green cherry that will ripen as the bumper crop, and heavy flowering that will be cherry for the next harvest.
Harvest in Nariño comes at a time that is somewhat in between the middle and main harvests of our other primary sources of Colombian coffee, namely Urrao and Caicedo in the north, and La Plata and Inzá down south.