A third generation coffee worker, Red Fox’s Fabian Viveros León learned about coffee cultivation, quality control, and trading from his father in Huila, Colombia, starting at a young age. Currently living in Oaxaca, he manages quality control for Red Fox Sourcing Company, running the lab, overseeing dry mill operations, and spending time in the field managing producer relationships. He also plays a key QC role in Peru and Colombia during sampling and shipping seasons. In fact, he’s in Colombia right now doing just that.
We talked with Fabian about growing up in coffee, what it’s like working in quality control, the challenges he saw as Covid-19 ramped up in Mexico this year, and what he sees for the future. Since Fabian speaks Spanish, this interview has been translated into English by Red Fox’s Carina Barreda.
RJ Joseph: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up with coffee?
Fabian Viveros León: My experience starts at home. I am the third generation that has been dedicated to working with coffee in Colombia. Growing up with coffee gave me the opportunity to learn all about coffee trees, processing, and trading. In 2014, I started learning about cup quality control, purchasing, parchment storage logistics, and in 2016 I began working formally as a purchasing and logistics analyst.
RJ: How did you end up working in quality control?
Fabian: A question was generated within me. I wanted to know how the process of evaluating coffee worked. So, I came across coffee cupping and its derivatives. From there I began to enter this new world of coffee, which I did not know previously, and that now has become my life and passion.
RJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen for producers regarding quality in Mexico?
Fabian: The biggest challenge that I encountered within Mexico was the lack of knowledge about the crop and how to work it properly. Also, gaining the trust of people who have been scammed previously. Another challenge has been dealing with the non-acceptance of new knowledge and practices of processing coffee to improve their product. Coffee is not a primary economy for the Mexican smallholders, so there is a lack of interest in developing new and better practices.
RJ: If coffee isn’t the primary economy of the producers we work with in Mexico, what is? What is their incentive to produce quality coffee?
Fabian: According to what I have observed, the primary livelihood for Mexican smallholders in the coffee-growing regions is divided between agricultural activities (planting corn, beans, vegetables, among others), sale of typical clothing from the region, and wooden crafts. The incentive to produce quality coffee is to diversify income sources since there is national and international market demand. Producers have seen a possibility to improve their livelihood with this crop.
RJ: What were some of the biggest successes over the past season?
Fabian: We strengthened business relationships with small producers. We have been able to form trusting relationships and provide producers with a sense of security that we want to work with them in the next harvests. Another success is that we were able to have a broader presence within the area and create a meeting point in Oaxaca for small producers.
RJ: How does it feel to have the job of assessing quality and, in certain cases, telling producers if their coffee passed or failed as someone who’s been in a multi-generational coffee-growing family?
Fabian: It is a very big responsibility because you have to give the producers security and confidence to speak directly and explain the reasons for the approval or rejection of their product. In addition, you have to try to motivate them to keep improving and keep working with us to follow up on their successes and failures. The important thing is to speak to them from personal experience, to relate better, and to have compassion.
RJ: What do you think are the biggest challenges for you working in QC in specialty coffee?
Fabian: The biggest challenges are communicating the client’s needs, changing the way producers think and their understanding of how to manage their crop, and also all the follow-up for the additional work we’re doing. So basically, it’s communicating that knowledge, communicating that need, and starting to do the work. It’s a challenge for all producers in any part of the world.
It’s a chain, and when you get the producer to understand the whole process, the follow-through, the feedback, seeing the final result is really gratifying for me as the person doing the quality control, and also for the producer because they understand that it’s not just producing coffee, it’s putting your heart into it, investing passion—that is the most important for producing good coffee.
RJ: Which specific challenges do you think the pandemic will highlight for producers?
Fabian: To be able to transport their products to sell, that implies that they could expose their safety in order to be able to make an income and survive. Most producers are already at high risk for this disease, they are elderly people (average 60, 80 years of age). This will be a challenge for them and the leaders in their communities to establish control of entry and exit of people and limit exposure.
RJ: What was it like finishing the last season with the pandemic beginning to shut things down? What has it been like in Oaxaca since then?
Fabian: It was a tense moment for everyone. We had to start communicating with the producers so they could transport their coffee from their communities as quickly as possible. We had to find solutions and facilitate their transportation to the drying mill and thus avoid production delays, shipments, and other difficulties.
Oaxaca since then has been coupled with Covid-19 control measures. For a month, only essential services were open, and over time other types of non-essential services were available, with the necessary control measurements to adapt to the “new normal.” Now, there are already 75% to 85% of commercial activities operating for the national and foreign populations.
RJ: One last question: are you feeling optimistic about next year in Mexico and the seasons that are happening now in Peru and Colombia?
Fabian: Yes! For next year we expect to see even higher coffee production, strengthen our commercial relationships, and look for new strategies to find new farmers. This year was very difficult for coffee farmers, and they will need the next seasons to overcome this 2020 crisis. I feel very optimistic about what we’ll see in the 2021 harvest.