FUDAM’s Raquel Lasso Talks Differentiation, Ecoforestry, & Covid-19

After over 12 years working with FUDAM leader Raquel Lasso to source coffee from Nariño, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Raquel to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Raquel: she’s an innovative leader who inspires the best work from her community and gives it in return. In conjunction with her work in FUDAM, she formed a group called Manos de Mujeres that focuses on the empowerment of women growers within her community. Coffee growing can be a macho, male-dominated field, and a group that’s women-led and hyperinclusive adds a huge amount of value to the larger community. Their projects include getting the group FTO certified to increase income (especially for producers on the lower end of the quality spectrum) and opening an organic fertilizer facility so that organic production doesn’t come at the expense of productivity or conservation. To read more about the smallholder communities of FUDAM and Manos de Mujeres, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Raquel, first aired via the Foxhole on August 14th, 2020, edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish to English by Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb. Raquel has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help her build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

Aleco: Raquel, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your family? How did you get your start producing coffee in Nariño?

Raquel: I was born into a coffee producing family. As long as I can remember, I remember waking up to the sound of the coffee depulper. The most beautiful memories of my childhood are of being alongside the harvest, the wet milling, the selling of coffee, and enjoying the result of that sale. Coffee production has been the engine of development in our area. Because of coffee, many families have been able to get ahead. 

My family was big, and of the nine only two of us were able to study to become professionals. For me, and later for my brother Jeremias, my father’s vision was that we could acquire more knowledge, so that we could lead a happier, more beautiful life, a life where things were done with clarity. When I entered university, my father said to me, “I’m not sending you to university so that later you can look after me. I need you to go to university so that you do something for people like us: humble, without knowledge, and many have taken advantage of that lack of information to harm us, to not give us what is fair, to ignore us.” At that moment I understood his logic: I need you to work so that people don’t treat other people the way they treated me. And that has been our endeavor in life. 

We have to make it so that others live better, so that others have better prospects in life, and that’s what we’re doing. Jeremias and I, and I say this not with pride, but with truth, we have spent our lives trying to make it so that the history of our people, of our neighbors and our friends is written beautifully, and that all of us can have an abundant life. They raised my father under the logic that you had to be poor to go to heaven. Our logic is the opposite, it’s to live well, to have an abundant life, to have what you need. And do what we can so that others have a beautiful and abundant life. I think we came here to build heaven together with everyone else.

Aleco: To go deeper with that, what led you to start FUDAM?

Raquel: When we started FUDAM in 2000, we were clear on several ideas and one of those is that we, the producers, have a lot to do with degrading the environment because of poor agricultural practices, not just in coffee but in all crops. FUDAM was born with the idea of starting, among the producers, to improve and change those agricultural practices to minimize negative influence on the environment.

We realized we needed to continue with that ancestral tradition of helping our neighbors, of helping those who live close to you, of making those regular visits that families make. I remember when I was young lots of people dropped by my house. Nowadays those visits are more limited, and with the pandemic even more. We knew that as an organization we had to continue with those traditions of social interconnectivity among families. 

On the economic front, we were aware that the problem for coffee producers is that they are the ones who work hardest, assume the greatest risk, but earn the least. On the other hand, the trader assumes the least risk, works the least, and earns the most. If I send a load of coffee, and something happens to that coffee along the way, the one who loses is the producer. The trader isn’t going to say, “listen, there was a problem and I’ll pay for it.” No. 

We experimented with trading beans, trading vegetables, trading fruit, but it was very complicated, because of unfair competition, lack of working capital, and also logistical challenges, especially transport because transporting fruit is very complicated. We realized that coffee, unlike fruits and vegetables, had greater potential because it has a guaranteed market. We could have a more effective impact on coffee producing families, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from an economic perspective and familial perspective. In that endeavor we realized that coffee was a product with the potential to develop a commercial process using the logic that everything should be shared. You share the profits, you share the workload, and you have to share some of the risks. 

Aleco, I remember that you came many years ago with a man named George. You were really young. We realized that there was a good market for quality coffee, that it was possible to produce quality coffee, coffee that could be differentiated, and that it was possible to have a traceability system in coffee. Those are all of the things we at FUDAM had always wished for. We discovered that for us, as smallholder producers, producing high-quality coffee was the viable option. For the large scale producer, because they have a lot of coffee, the little they earn per kilo adds up. For us smallholder producers, if we don’t earn much on our small quantities, we are left with nothing. 

We started to do that work of quality, of differentiation, of traceability. Now there are other groups that work similarly, but back then we were the only ones who worked that way.

Aleco: How has the power disparity between traders and producers informed the way FUDAM operates?

Raquel: When I receive the coffee from our members, sell that coffee, and receive premiums for the better quality of that coffee, the majority of that additional payment has to go to the producer because the producer is the one who does the majority of the work, that puts in the majority of the effort and who takes on the majority of the risk. 

For us, that focus on ethics was easy. Why? Because we are coffee producers, we know what it is to wake up early, we know the whole coffee production process. So, if we know the production process, what is our philosophy? I treat my fellow coffee producers the same way I would like to be treated, with honesty and with transparency. I like things to be transparent, to be just, and to be clear and that’s how we work at FUDAM. We take that price premium and we transfer it to the producers. We only take what is necessary to cover the costs for the process of commercializing that coffee, the logistical costs. 

Aleco: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges FUDAM faces in general? 

Raquel: As an organization of smallholder producers, our biggest bottleneck is working capital. Because of producing families’ economic circumstances, they need to bring their coffee to the FUDAM warehouse and be paid immediately. For the moment to get this capital, we not only take out bank loans, we also take out personal loans, and personal loans are very expensive and very complicated. Now, in these times with the pandemic, I started to think about a lot of things. I have a personal loan, and if something happens to me, what happens to my family? What happens to my daughter? My children? But if I have a bank loan it’s much easier, because with a bank loan there’s insurance, there are possibilities for the person who takes out the loan. 

This year, fortunately, we did have credit from the bank, even though we also had to take out personal loans. But FUDAM’s endeavor is that, to reach the point where we don’t need to, and hopefully there is time in this life and this virus doesn’t knock on our doors. 

Aleco: Can you tell me a little about how you’ve diversified production at FUDAM and what you’re currently working on with respect to ecology?

Raquel: We need to reconvert our coffee production into what we call agroforestry. I produce coffee, but I also have other products on my farm that not only increase my income, that not only feed me, but that also contribute to improving the environment. It’s a beautiful process, and the farms here are very different than the monocrop farms of 20 years ago. These farms have avocado, lemons, bananas, yucca, beans, other products that help to improve the quality of life of the family. We’re in the midst of turning our coffee plots into diversified gardens. I connect vegetable plots to food security, but I think of a garden as something whole, something varied, where you have absolutely everything. Thanks to the support of our buyers and roasters we’re achieving it. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re doing the work, and I know that with everyone’s support we’re going to go far. 

Aleco: You’ve talked a little about power dynamics between traders and producers. Can you say more about how FUDAM fits into that and where roasters fit as well?

Raquel: We all have to do our part. The producer does their part. We as an association and as producers do our part, the buyer does their part, the roaster does their part and the consumer does their part. I think it’s very cool that a roaster, in the US or anywhere, can know about us and we can have them visit and they know that if they drink a cup of coffee and pay a good price for that coffee, part of that good price is to reach the producing family here so that things don’t get stuck along the way. We are a private organization, and as a private company we should show ourselves and everyone that you can work honorably and transparently.

At the public level we have seen, if you do an analysis of the coffee sector in Nariño, it’s received more than 60 billion pesos but if you ask a coffee producing family how much of that they received, they won’t have an answer. If you go to that producer and ask, how much did you receive from FUDAM in premiums? They’ll be able to tell you without a problem, 500 thousand, one million, two million. Last year one producer received 7 million pesos for his coffee. If you ask a group of coffee producers: how has the government modified your quality of life, they’ll be left thinking, and likely won’t have an answer. But if you ask them: how has FUDAM contributed to changes in your quality of life? Without a problem someone will raise their hand and say, for me my life changed in this, in this and in this. And they are real, concrete things. So we do see, in coffee production, very good potential to contribute so that all of us as coffee producers modify and improve our quality of life.

Aleco: Could you tell us how the harvest is going?

Raquel: The harvest is coming to the end, the only coffee left is from the highest areas. This year was really hard, there was very little coffee because there was a lot of renovation. I didn’t think it would have such an impact on the harvest, but it was very hard. The pandemic also didn’t allow for harvest and wet milling to happen at the opportune time. The quality of the coffee declined. 

Aleco: I know that the prices on the local market have also been unusually high due to the pandemic. How did that affect FUDAM? 

Raquel: For the producer it’s excellent. The producer wants to seize the moment and sell their coffee at a higher price. But it has made things difficult for us. For one, because for us as organizations collecting coffee it is difficult because of the lack of working capital. Higher priced coffees mean a lot of upfront investment for us. But for the producers it’s great. 

I also feel bad because there was very little coffee in our area. It would have been a great opportunity for our producers, but unfortunately last year the prices were low and people renovated their farms. Hopefully next year there is more production, and hopefully the prices stay high. 

Aleco: How else has the pandemic affected the producing areas and farmers?

Raquel: For us as farmers, as residents of the countryside, the truth is the pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to spend more time on our farms and be in closer contact with our plants, to be in closer contact with our surroundings. We have been blessed, blessed because to be confined to a house in the countryside where there is coffee, where there are animals, where there is a vegetable plot, where there are things that aren’t confinement, that’s pleasure. 

But it’s worrisome to see the people who live in very small quarters, 50 square meters or 60 square meters must be disastrous. 

Also for us coffee producers, this pandemic has been a moment to look within ourselves and say what have I done and what do I still have left to do? This pandemic taught me that when the time comes of being faced with the end it makes you think, what am I taking away from this, and what I take away is what I did for the rest, and what I leave is the memory people have of me, so one way of not dying is to stay in the hearts of those you leave behind, to do something to remain in the hearts of everyone else. 

Aleco: How else has it affected you economically?

Raquel: From an economic perspective the pandemic has hit us hard. For example, we had to go out to the “corregimientos,” which are a nucleus of producers or of several communities, because a lot of our producers are older. So we loaded up the roaster and lab equipment and went up there to cup and receive the coffees to avoid producer risk.

I would tell my producers, it makes me nervous that the next time we have a meeting we have to ask which of our members are missing. That would be very painful. The idea is that we protect each other, and if you think that by not coming here your odds are better we’ll go to you. It increases our costs and complexity, but we’ve done it and we’re satisfied because our producers are more relaxed. In the warehouse we say “come, leave your coffee, I’ll weigh it, and go. And I’ll call you on the phone to let you know what happened with your coffee so that there aren’t any problems.”

Aleco: Has the pandemic affected your community’s health at this time? 

Raquel: The farms at FUDAM didn’t have too many complications because the farms are integrated: we have bananas, yucca, sugar cane, there isn’t a lack of fruit or vegetables, so it was easier to feed the family. To date none of our members have had any health problems related to COVID, but it has been an effort for everyone to try to come out ahead and try to overcome this. 

This is something where you tell yourself, I have to live and protect myself and do what it takes to get through this moment. I think we’re close to the end of the tunnel.

Aleco: How do you see this affecting the future of coffee production in your community? What types of support do you think are needed to create a viable future?

Raquel: One of the challenges that I see is that we need to start implementing strategies to get our youth to stay in coffee production with us. Sometimes we sit down at the top of our land and we look out and think, who is going to look after this when I am gone? At FUDAM we’ve realized that one of the ways that our youth will stay in the countryside and continue to produce coffee is by making coffee production an activity that is highly profitable. How do I make it so that coffee production is highly profitable? 

By producing coffee that is differentiated, good coffee that meets the needs of the consumer. I told my producers they have to focus on this. If some day a roaster from the US tells you that they want you to send them coffee with square beans we’ll have to find a way to make them square. And that’s where communication is important: for buyers to communicate what they desire so that we can satisfy the needs of consumers and establish long-term relationships. 

I see coffee production as having a future, but we have to be more precise. We have to standardize the processes because there are producers who produce good coffee this year, and next year, nothing. We don’t have standardized processes—sometimes we don’t have records of our processes. There are very few producers who can tell you this is how many hours I fermented my coffee this year, this is how it turned out. The complication is that our producers are older and sometimes when the years catch up to you and your expectations are not as high, it’s the same to you to produce coffee well or not. That’s why we need our youth to be the coffee producers of the future and make sure that they learn from us, that the way we learned from our parents, our children and grandchildren learn from us. 

If you come to my house and I want to make you a good cup of coffee, I  will put everything into making that good cup of coffee. I put all my effort into my empanadas so that they turn out as well as possible but if I make coffee carelessly, how is it going to come out well? We, as coffee producers, need to put love, care, to put our hearts into it, and that will be reflected in the product. I am very metaphysical and I do believe that love, that hope that one puts into producing coffee remains immersed in that coffee and that’s the good flavor that we all taste.

Aleco: Gracias Raquel, drinking coffee at your house is the best, but we could never talk to you without talking about the empanadas. They’re the best empanadas in the whole world, I’ve never had better. Thank you, Raquel.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Marilu Lopez Padilla of Coopbam, Peru on Covid & Women Leadership

We were lucky to get a chance to bring Marilu Lopez Padilla, Coopbam smallholder producer and Women’s Committee leader, onto the Foxhole for a conversation about the challenges created by Covid-19, her role in Coopbam’s formation, and her leadership in the creation of Coopbam’s Women’s Committee.

Marilu is an exemplary member of Coopbam, a cooperative founded with help from environmental group Conservation International to help support and protect the forested coffee farms within the Alto Mayo Protected Reserve in Amazonas and San Martin, Peru. From its founding, the group’s core focus has always been how to marry coffee growing with the enrichment of both the land and the community, rather than stripping the environment of resources in order to farm it. Marilu speaks to how the cooperative structure and the role of women in communal economics serve that mission, as well as the challenges they face perennially and this year in particular. 

Ali Newcomb: Hi everyone, I’m Ali Newcomb, director of Red Fox Sourcing Company in Peru and Mexico. I’m here with Carina Barreda, who helps manage quality for Red Fox in Peru. Also joining us is our very special guest, Marilu Lopez Padilla from Coopbam in Amazonas, in the North of Peru. After a break, we restarted the Foxhole last month with the new concept of focusing directly on the people who produce the coffee that we all enjoy so much and letting them speak directly to the people who drink their coffee. Right now we are right in the middle of Peru season and so we wanted to invite someone from our supply chain in Peru. Marilu is a crucial member of Coopbam,  the group with whom we started our work in the North of Peru. Marilu, thank you so much for being here and sharing your time to tell us your experience. 

Marilu Lopez Padilla: Thank you Ali, I’ll introduce myself as well. My name is Marilu Lopez Padilla, I am from the committee of Beirut, in Amazonas. Thank you for having me here.

Ali: Marilu, Coopbam has a very different history than many other cooperatives in the sense that it is in a protected forest, and because of that, it has a key focus on protecting the local ecosystem. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Coopbam and how it started?

Marilu: Before Coopbam, I didn’t have any stable customers for my coffee. We would sell to whomever would arrive ready to buy it. Sometimes it was for really low prices and sometimes for higher prices. Often, we had no choice but to sell to whomever would show up. 

One day, Edwar, the promoter for the Beirut committee, appeared when I was washing near the road and he said, I think you sell coffee. I said that I do, but just a little, and there aren’t any dried coffee beans at the moment. Then he told me that he knew a buyer looking for dried coffee to be able to sell and that I could take advantage of it. He hadn’t explained the buyers yet and I didn’t know what a cooperative was at that time, but thanks to Edwar I started to understand that they were planning to open a cooperative and were looking for coffee to start it. 

He explained the details and since then, we have been working with trust. Now I say it again, in front of Edwar (who’s holding the camera), I can’t distrust the cooperative because I am always sure that it is truly cooperative and they do it for all of us, and amongst all of us, so we are all united—that is why I trust the coop.

Back then, before we established that trust, Edwar came to take my coffee and as I waited for results and payment, I kept asking him when he would pay me. He took my coffee and days went by. Soon, they did pay me and the cooperative officially started the following year in 2017. By then, it was more known in the area and many wanted to become members and build committees. Our coffee had a guaranteed market from the cooperative, and we continued and continued and I always believed in my coffee, and I still believe in it. 

Carina Barreda: Marilu, from when you started working with Coopbam to today, how has your coffee production changed? How do you see your development?

Marilu: I am very happy with the development from the beginning to now. We learned things from the cooperative like managing planting, how and when to fertilize, to do everything on time and to be on top of the harvest so we can get a good product and to not to abandon the farm: the to-do’s of the farm.

Ali: In the Beirut subregion, what are your biggest producing challenges, especially for producing quality?

Marilu: When it comes to the harvest, we have to be really on top of it. Once it starts ripening we have to be there consistently. If not, when the winter comes, the coffee starts falling. In Beirut, parrots will come eat the coffee once it’s ripe—that is a big difficulty for us because we have to be ready to run over quickly and scare them away no matter what else we’re doing. It means we have to pay attention constantly.

 Ali: It seems like you do a great job managing the parrots and everything else. This year, the world is upside down and I think there have been more challenges than ever, no? I know Peru had one of the longest quarantines in the world and I know that in the rural areas, additional preventative measures were  taken. Can you tell us more about how things are there both on a daily basis and also the challenges that have arisen over the course of the season?

Marilu: We had many difficulties because of the pandemic. We are farmers, country people, and many say that in the countryside people live happily, and that is true in some ways, but not in others. Yes, we are less anxious because we are in the countryside. On the other hand, we have difficulties and we need help as well: sometimes for our children, other times for the house, and sometimes for other things like not being able to go out and shop for what we need. During the harvest, it was difficult because we needed to go out to other fields to help with labor there, but we were surrounded by policemen, rondas campesinas (groups of peasants that patrol to keep the countryside safe), and the army. 

To this day, we have the army nearby. From my house, you can see the army—they are always paying attention, they don’t allow people from outside to come in. 

And while that has created difficulty, maybe it has been because of that, and thanks to God, that we are all still safe and there haven’t been any cases of this illness in our area. We are still taking care of ourselves, respecting the protocols as the president mandates. He asks a lot of us, our people, and we don’t understand much about it. But we all take care of ourselves and we are in the front, fighting it as well as continuing our jobs at home and at the farm, for our own good, for our families’ health and ours.

Ali: Well, it makes me happy to know that you haven’t had any cases of the virus in Beirut but it sounds complicated as well; so you haven’t left Beirut? 

Marilu: No, we’ve stayed here. For example, we haven’t been able to attend a cooperative meeting since March. I’m a representative in the administrative council where we usually have many meetings, but none since March. Schools are now virtual here and my little girl is about to start her first year in elementary school. She is here studying virtually from home, and my son is also studying college virtually in Chachapoyas University. We are all here, all together with them.

Ali: How are you doing with the virtual school? Do you attend via TV? On the radio? How is it held?

Marilu: I am going to tell you this but it’s going to make you laugh—I don’t have a TV. The signal doesn’t reach here, so I don’t own a TV. The virtual classes that my little girl has to attend, I borrowed a radio so she could listen. I can also listen so I can help her with homework. The signal isn’t very clear but we make anything possible. We make it work.

Ali: So besides producing coffee, you have become a teacher.

Marilu: Yes, I work a bit as a teacher, a bit on my farm, a bit taking care of my house, doing all the chores and doing a little bit of everything.

Carina: What help or benefits have you received from the cooperative during these last few months, related to the pandemic? 

Marilu: They have brought us baskets with staple goods and supplies. Thank God we have been able to get something, I am very thankful. It has helped me tremendously.

Ali: Marilu, can you please tell me more about your work in the Women’s Committee at Coopbam?

 Marilu: We coordinate between the women of different regional committees to be able to expand and diversify our communal livelihood. Some members wanted to do other work like crafts and planting vegetable and fruit crops; it is so essential for the health to have fresh vegetables and we prioritize it when planting in our orchards. So that was our idea: different committees for different projects, for example, a committee for creating vegetable plots, another committee to make artisan crafts, and another committee to raise poultry, all of this to generate diversified sources of income. 

Because as women we always think, the most important thing is not to lack anything at home.  As a group we had plans to do many more projects through different committees this year, but as you know, this pandemic came and delayed a lot of that. I’m sure that as soon as this passes we are going to continue improving and conversing about many projects we will do. And the committees agree as women, to do it and fight to be able to go on.

 Carina: How did the idea come up about building this Women’s Committee? Who was the person who managed or who pushed for the development of this committee and what was the goal?

 Marilu: Well, the cooperative always talked about this, during our trainings. There are men who are married to coop members, but not all the men are members of the larger cooperative—sometimes the husbands aren’t the members, the wives are. In my case, I am by myself, but I am a member and I am also the president of the Women’s Committee, and I manage this role differently from being a cooperative member, but it is equal. 

That’s what gave us the idea, because we have women who are coop members but we wanted to broaden the group to include the non-member wives of the men who were coop members. We all wanted to do something for our lives and our finances, we are always in need of things and that was our agreement: the women who want to work united to do jobs cooperatively and get better at them. For example in 2018, our women’s group grew and sold over 200,000 seedlings.

A lot of us in the community are happy that we are producing all that we are, as committee members. Like those seedlings: in order to grow a seedling, it doesn’t happen from one day to another. You have to be on top of it: fighting, working, group by group every day, just like that. That was our idea, so we could improve our livelihood. That is why we formed groups in Beirut, Vilcaniza, Yambrasbamba, by Aguas Verdes, and other places.

 Ali: What is your favorite part of being a coffee producer?

 Marilu: What makes me happy is having you as a set market of clients to buy our coffee. We have our buyers and believe in them, and you also put their trust in our product that goes to you. We always try to improve our product and see the best way to have it delivered to you with quality.

Ali: Would you like your daughter Ani to be a coffee producer when she grows up?

 Marilu: I would love that. My daughter has learned about coffee since she was small, she has a bright mind. She likes to harvest the ripe fruits; she knows what to pick and what to discard. You won’t believe me but she already bites into the dried coffee to assess the moisture.  When she bites into the dry bean, she says it’s already hard, or it’s already dry. I know with time she will learn more and that she will like it.  

Carina: What other objectives would you like to achieve in the near or far future either in terms of coffee production or other personal goals?

 Marilu: My goal is, that with the help of God, with the production that we perform here, I want my son to keep studying and finish with the profession he is pursuing, for my son and my daughter to keep studying always. Right now it’s very worrisome with the whole pandemic but we are fighting it as best we can with virtual schooling.  

Ali: Thank you so much Marilu. Do you have any questions or comments for us?

 Marilu: Just to thank you and thank God for giving us this day to be here with you and you with us. Let it be the first time we do this but not the last. The only thing I would ask you is, once the pandemic is over hopefully you can come visit us again.

 Ali: Oh yes, I am looking forward to it and Carina as well.

 Carina: Yes, absolutely. 

 Marilu: Thank you!

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

 

Asorcafe’s Geovanny Liscano On Covid, Why Specialty is The Future, & 2020

After over 12 years working with Asorcafe leader Geovanny Liscano to source amazing coffee from Inzá, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Geovanny to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Geovanny: he’s been a stalwart partner to us since 2006, back when he farmed just one hectare of land with his wife and father. The coffee was superb and over time Geovanny reinvested profits back into the land, bought surrounding plots, and built up processing infrastructure into a thing of beauty for the whole community. He is the model producer to look at when talking about reinvestment and potential at the farm level. His group Asorcafe is incredibly well-organized with a laser-focus on ethics and he’s a valued leader in the greater Inzá community. He’s now in his second run as Asorcafe President after being the association’s third President from 2007-2008. To read more about the smallholder communities of Asorcafe, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Geovanny, first aired via the Foxhole on August 14th, 2020, edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish to English by Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb. Geovanny has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help him build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

Aleco Chigounis: Geovanny, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your family? How did you get your start producing coffee in Inzá?

Geovanny Liscano: For me, coffee is all we have; it’s a product that is special to our area. In my family, we’ve produced coffee ever since we were children. Now, we’re proud because we had the vision of forming Asorcafe, the business we have today. Thanks to that producer association we met you, Aleco, who we and the producers are grateful to be working with today. In this moment there are difficulties, but we also know that good things come out of difficult times where we have to learn, to get inventive, and I think from there we will find strategies to come out ahead.

Aleco: Can you tell us a bit about your personal story as a producer, or about your parents and how they started to produce coffee?

Geovanny: Since we were very young, coffee production has always been a part of our lives, but despite that, I didn’t know nearly as much about coffee until we founded the association and started working with you and getting into specialty production. It’s brought a huge change to my family. I’m really grateful to have gotten into specialty coffee; I like it. In the case of my family, we feel good about working in coffee. We feel happy going to the farm, from planting a tree, to harvesting, the whole process. 

I owe everything to coffee and to the program we have with you because today, the price the local green coffee market and other C-based buyers are paying for coffee right now is booming—but Aleco, you know there are times when the prices dropped to 600,000 pesos, 700,000 pesos, and at that price we barely cover our costs. Profits from producing specialty coffee come from knowing you’re going to receive premiums. Thank God we as a family started saving those premiums and investing them into building solar dryers, buying a good depulper, building a good wet mill set-up to make the processing easier. 

Each day we have more love for coffee farming, those of us who depend on that crop. We do the work as a team, as a family. All of that makes us special. There’s a saying, “it isn’t the coffee that’s special, it’s the producer.” I think that’s right, you can have a very good variety, but if you don’t cultivate it well, you’ll never produce a good coffee.

Aleco: It’s always been a pleasure to work with you and your community. Was it your father or your grandfather who initially planted your farm so many years ago?

Geovanny: My father. My grandfathers also, but in the case of my farm specifically it was my father.

Aleco: Can you tell us the history of Asorcafe, how you started it and how you got to where you are today?

Geovanny: Before Asorcafe, we would see traders who paid unfair prices. They would come, meet up, and agree on the prices they would pay at the market. There were some producer leaders who thought about that and said, you go to town to sell your coffee and everyone is buying at the same cheap price. It wasn’t fair, and we could all see that. It led to us thinking about an organization, and we started socializing the idea with Yovany Castillo, who ended up being the founder, and with the other leaders there we started to organize and spread our ideas in all of the communities in the municipality. 

Before, you would put in the effort to produce good coffee, and take it, beautifully selected and when you got to the trader, they paid low prices and mixed it all up with low grade coffee, and that wasn’t ok. With Asorcafe we started to separate the lots, the coffee from the producers who took a lot of care in their production would be separated out. At first, we worked with Virmax Colombia. Once I got into specialty coffee, I liked it, and I see our future there.  

After forming Asorcafe, we learned to prioritize caring for the environment in our work. Before the association, we had learned that monocropping was the way to farm, planting coffee only. At Asorcafe we didn’t agree with that policy, and we started reforesting, planting trees, and switching to integrated crop farming where the farm has everything you need. Thankfully, it has been a model that many in the association have integrated. 

I’ve always told the people here at Asorcafe that Aleco’s program is open, that all of us could sell our coffee there and all of us could benefit from the premiums that we receive from Red Fox. Not all the producers in our community are quality-focused, there are some that don’t do the work that they should, but more than 50% of the members are committed. We set prices according to the coffee quality and those are the prices Aleco pays, and we at Asorcafe calculate the payment, deducting the expenses of the association—but we deduct very little, because Asorcafe always takes into account that the producer is the one who does the most work and puts in the most effort, so the largest amount possible goes to the producer. 

Right now, it’s difficult because of the high prices, the boom. At Asorcafe we have to make an investment to be able to get that coffee because the local price right now is almost as high as what we can pay, but when these booms happen—we’ve seen it before, and right now we’re seeing prices that we haven’t seen in many years—we know from experience that when we least expect it those prices will drop and we at Asorcafe still continue paying high prices. 

There are challenges, the pandemic has been very difficult, but we’re looking at strategies every day to come out ahead with the project of producing coffee.

Aleco: How is the quality of the harvest this year? I know that you are cupping a lot in Pedregal and that the producers are well versed in how to produce good coffee. 

Geovanny: Those of us that produce specialty are doing well. We’re doing things carefully, fertilizing well so that the harvest isn’t harmed, and I think there is good quality. 

Also, right now something very positive that we have as an organization is the cupping. Rivier does a really good job in the lab. We are very aware that he understands what he is doing and it gives us confidence in the organization. 

So yes, I think the end of year harvest will be good, hopefully the prices stabilize because they have been crazy. One day it’s one price, the next it’s another, and it’s been hard. 

Aleco: The prices are going up and down a lot?

Geovanny: More than anything going up, these days. It has been really complicated. The regional prices more than anything.

Aleco: Could you tell us a bit more about how the pandemic has affected you there in Inzá with the people, the logistics, the harvest, all of that—how has it been?

Geovanny: In our case here in Inzá, we’re in the countryside and thankfully we’ve been privileged because it has been uniting for family and community. 

From the perspective of being on the farm, it’s been good, because we’ve been able to work on lots of things that we were behind on. There was more time for each of us to work on our farms and so it hasn’t been so bad. 

On the business front, it has affected us. For Asorcafe economically it has been really difficult because here we have business locations and warehouses that we had to close for days in La Plata. Here in Inzá, we have also closed certain locations because it was impossible for suppliers and clients when people aren’t allowed out into town, everyone has to be in their house. That part has been complicated for us because you’re not allowed out. On the other hand, thankfully it has helped in terms of being able to spend more time with the family and working at home. 

Here in the municipality, just a week ago we had our first positive case. We’re now, once again, confined to our farm, our house, our community. So on the one hand, Aleco, we’ve been doing well, and on the other hand so so.

Aleco: Geovanny, it’s always a treat to talk to you. I think COVID has presented a lot of challenges but one of the advantages is I think all of us are learning to connect virtually.

 

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