I am writing from my hotel room in Garzon after a long day at Finca Tamana in Pital, Huila, Colombia. I am going to spend a week here to work at the farm.
Finca Tamana is a 60 Hectar farm, that my friend Elias Roa retrieved 2 years ago almost by coincidence. It is situated in the mountains near Pital and is the neighboring farm of Finca La Lomita, a farm we bought great coffee from some years ago, before the farmer abandoned the farm and his family in order to pursue his new love. (Sounds like a story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
I have known Elias for about 5 years after we first met on his farm in Acevedo, Huila on my first trip to Colombia. Although Elias has been growing coffee for many years, I have never bought any of his coffee due to it’s inconsistent quality. So, when I visited him in Pital in June 2011 and had a tour of his new big farm I got a great idea. I wanted to rent some land on his farm to grow my own coffee. Elias liked the idea and we sat down in November to discuss how we could manage this project. After a long discussion we agreed that I would not rent the land after all, but rather commit to helping Elias improve his farming techniques and the quality of his coffee. As a payback, Elias will give me priority on his coffees so that I can buy as much as I like of it before it is offered to someone else. I will of course pay a premium for the coffee in order to cover the extra costs of experiments and the new techniques implemented and also to make sure Elias gets a good and secure income. (He is currently only breaking even on his production.)
We decided that we would start working together during the main harvest which normally is in June / July. Therefore I was supposed to come here for 3 weeks in June / July to work at Tamana in order to improve the quality of the coffee and learn Spanish. Everything was going according to plan until Elias called me 3 weeks ago to tell me that the harvest was early this year and I had to come immediately.
As I was already on an around the world trip to Korea, Australia and Guatemala, I managed to change my ticket to go to Colombia too. So, here I am, exhausted after a long day at the farm.
Since it is Sunday today, the workers were not working, so Elias picked me up to go and see the farm and meet the workers in order to plan everything we are going to do this week. I was surprised to see that Elias was already building new drying beds for the coffee as well as making other improvements to the farm that I will write about in a later post.
The most important task for the day was to have a meeting with the pickers and workers at the farm in order to tell them what we had planned. I was a little bit intimidated and nervous to talk to them as I know that they can be very skeptical to change.
To sum up the meeting, here is basically what I told them: “From today on we will start a new era of Finca Tamana and your lives. We shall only work with high quality and by doing so, be less dependent on the coffee market price and be in control of the quality and income of the farm. That means everyone working at the farm needs to work together and focus on all details every day in order to make the quality better. If one person cuts corners, everyone will loose. Therefore we have to work as a team towards the same goal. That goal is to produce the best coffee in Huila.
The first thing we will be focusing on is the cherry picking. We will only accept fully ripe cherries to be picked. The green and semi ripe cherries is not to be picked as they need to be left on the trees to ripen. If you pick the green and semi ripe cherries, the quality of the coffee and therefore the value of the coffee will be lower, Elias will loose money, and therefore not be able to pay you better.”
After a 30 minute meeting I was surprised to see that all of the pickers seemed very positive (although they were very shy and hard to read) especially the oldest worker. They agreed to commit to do a better job and were happy to hear that for the extra work they will receive a higher payment (+34%) per 12,5 kg of cherry. Although they need to hand sort cherries after delivery before the coffees are being processed, and the selective picking will be slightly slower, we estimated that in worst case scenario they will have a salary increase of 7-10%.
The rest of the day was spent planning how to process and dry the coffee as well as talking about the importance of accounting and budgeting so that Elias can plan his finance a bit better. We will also be separating all the coffees by variety, lot (full sun and shade grown coffee) and try out some different fermentation and drying techniques.
We start tomorrow at 6am and I will be working until late at night in order to make sure the process runs according to plan. I can’t wait to get started.
To be continued….