Harvest Report: Colombia 2020, from Farmers to Friends

Posted on March 13th, 2020

We say it every year, and every year we mean every word: Colombia is our second home, and it’s often an incubator for the ideas that become cornerstones of our business, our buying philosophy, and the scaffolding for our strongest relationships. This connection to the country is made possible through repeated visits—our green-coffee buyers visit more than once a quarter—as well as constant contact via e-mail, Skype, and WhatsApp in between. More often than not, we could give you an up-to-the moment idea of the weather in Bogotá as we could tell you whether the sun’s shining in Minneapolis, Berlin, or Melbourne where our sales offices are.

In this year’s Harvest Report, the spotlight is on the department of Huila, one of the southern regions where we have found the best coffees and the most enduring connections. Cafe Imports’ two main sources of coffees from Huila are the network of smallholder producers who work closely with Banexport, and the small growers’ group called Asociaición Los Naranjos with whom we partner through Fairfield Trading. This area of Colombia has one of the highest percentages of Cup of Excellence winners, and it’s also where we held one of the very first Best Cup cupping competitions and live auctions over 5 years ago.

While we know the cups are good and the producers are always improving their quality, what we’ve also experienced here is the dawning of a new concept of what “relationship coffee” really means—and how we can be an active part of making those introductions and helping roasters and farmers connect the dots and grow their long-term buying and selling plans, together.

This Season in Huila

First thing’s first: What can we expect from the coffee this year? Sam Miller, one of the primary green-coffee buyers for Colombia, recently returned from a series of long trips to Colombia (one in December, and three in the month of January), and he reports that “the harvest in Huila is done, for the most part. It went a little longer this year, and some of the higher elevations are still harvesting a little bit.”

“This is one of the biggest harvests that Colombia has had in a really long time,” says Sam. “They’re still maintaining quality even though they’re dealing with larger quantities, and that’s saying a lot.” Often when the harvest is much bigger than expected, quality can fall by the wayside for various reasons, both agricultural—will the plant be too stressed to produce good flavors?—and practical—how fast can we pick and process, and where are we gonna store all of this?

While many Colombian coffee-growing regions used to have a very distinct main crop and “fly crop” (a smaller harvest just a few months after the bulk of the coffee has ripened and been picked), these days the weather has more commonly forced a longer main harvest and a shorter fly crop (called “mitaca”) that almost bumps right up against it.

In Huila, that harvest-period differentiation is also affected by the landscape which, Sam says, is different from Cauca and Nariño. “Huila has a lot of microclimates in a small geographic area, so one side of a hill might be done harvesting, but the other side is just beginning. Even though the main harvest is mostly done, there will likely still be coffees trickling in until the mitaca starts in May.”

This changing harvest cycle makes labor a concern, as pickers who are normally used to being in-region for certain months might need to move on if there isn’t enough coffee or if they have another agreement with a farm in another department. Having the fly crop so close to the main crop also creates space issues for producers who run out of room in the wet-processing areas or drying patios and beds.

“If you’re an exporter like Banexport, you’re going to leave your warehouse open from November to June, July, even August because there’s still coffee to buy,” Sam says. That means extra expense for Banexport as well, but it gives producers a place to deliver their coffee rather than hold it for another season.

While Banexport has a bigger operation, with specialty receiving stations in several departments, our partners at Fairfield have a more concentrated focus: It’s through them that Cafe Imports sources lots from Asociación Los Naranjos, a 52-member group of coffee growers centered around the town of San Agustín, Huila. The harvest for Los Naranjos is over, and so receiving will cease until May—but who knows if that will be the same next year.

“Colombia is probably the only country in the world where every single day someone somewhere is picking coffee,” Sam continues. “Over the last 5 years, sadly, farmers have had to adapt to the harvest changing based on the weather, but they’re really resilient and really adaptive to it.”

A New Model Creates Old Friends

Speaking of adaptive, understanding and appreciating the challenges that coffee growers face in Colombia (and every other producing country) means that we’re responsible for evolving our purchase-planning as well as seeking ever-improved strategies to not only source better coffee, but also to constantly source coffee better.

Banexport is our primary export partner throughout Colombia, and it’s a company whose vision and mission is very closely aligned with ours: Founder and president Jairo Ruiz is constantly looking for ways to innovate the way that his company shares information and offers technical as well as financial support to producers, and that pursuit for equity through innovation has led to many interesting developments in the ways that we do our own buying, as well as how we bring our roaster customers along for the journey.

The Best Cup competition is one of those innovations, and it has been the catalyst for even bigger change. Cafe Imports founder Andrew Miller put his head together with Jairo several years ago and dreamed up a micro-regional quality-based cupping competition and auction—kind of like the Cup of Excellence, but on a smaller geographical scale. Banexport invited smallholder producers to deliver samples, and those samples were cupped and ranked before being put up for auction to the roasters who attended the Best Cup trip—but the ideal vision of the competition was that we’d never see the same producers enter twice. Andrew’s dream is that our roaster-partners would use this opportunity as a price and quality discover tool, and when they purchased a farmer’s lot at auction that it would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

“I started my company in 2012 but I didn’t travel for coffee until I went to the first Best Cup in Huila,” says Eric Faust, owner of Duluth Coffee Company. “The whole auction thing was weird to me because it seems like a one-time thing and I appreciate long-term relationships, but I remember watching a video of Andrew explaining why the Best Cup was a thing. I remember him saying, ‘This is intended to be the beginning between the roaster and the farmers.’ I left that trip on such a high.” Eric bid on and won the No. 5 coffee as well as the 10th-best lot. “Best Cup was a super beautiful experience for me,” he says

When Eric came home, he decided he would try to buy that producer’s coffee again, and he found himself reaching out to the Cafe Imports office repeatedly for updates. “One day Andrew sent me an e-mail from the Banexport receiving station in Huila, and he was like, ‘That guy you keep asking me about just delivered coffee. Do you want to buy it?’ I said, ‘Yes! Let’s complete the cycle!’”

Within a few months, Duluth Coffee was buying all of the producer’s family’s coffee, which turned out to be more than 100 bags, which was “kind of crazy” for the small company, Eric says. “I wanted to work with these guys, and the coffee I received was like 5 percent microlots [88+ points], 20 percent Regional Select quality [85–87 points], and the rest Gran Galope quality,” or workhorse lots that are great for blends or easy-drinking single-origins, 82–84 points. “I knew I could find a way to sell the coffee, but I wanted them to improve the harvest from Galope-quality to Regional quality.”

Duluth worked with the family on a plan, but the farmers ended up declining—which only made Eric’s fire burn hotter. “I want to buy all the coffee produced by a producer in a way that gives them a good price for all of their quality levels. There’s a price crisis, and as I’ve reflected on that I’ve thought about what producers need right now, and that’s security. They receive security through an actual, real relationship.”

After some match-making from Jairo and Cafe Imports, Duluth settled on another two producing families whose quantities, qualities, and price lined up just right with Duluth Coffee’s mission. The company has committed to buying their entire specialty-coffee production as a part of the new Farm Select program.

“If I go down there and buy 1 bag from a coffee farmer, I’m a customer,” Eric says. “But if we go in and buy all their coffee, we’re like family now. We’re partners in this idea.”

“We’re doing something different in San Agustín with Fairfield and Los Naranjos,” he continues, shifting gears to talk about another shared significant relationship—and a somewhat funny story of serendipity. Last year, Cafe Imports and Fairfield Trading cohosted the first Los Naranjos Cup, a cupping competition for quality and price discovery, but without the live auction element that the Best Cups have. At last year’s event, Duluth joined and fell in love with the No. 1 coffee, a lot from Jaime Burbano. Later that same year, they bought a bag of an Aces lot by an innovative producer named Blanca Irma Lopez, and when Eric saw her picture, he stopped short. “She was standing next to Jaime!” he says. “It turns out they’re married.”

In December of this year, when Eric and roaster Charlie Comnick visited the association for the second annual contest, he struck a deal to buy a significant portion of the couple’s future crop at a transparently agreed-upon price of 2 million pesos per carga, which is a price that allows the farmers to re-invest and thrive in their work. (A carga is a Colombian unit of measure equal to 125 kilograms, which was traditionally the amount of coffee that could be carried on horseback at one time.)

“This is something we hadn’t done yet, negotiated a price for a coffee that’s not even growing yet,” Eric says. “We’ll see what happens!”

We’ll all see what happens, as these buying models are quickly becoming an alternative for roasters who are interested in sourcing high-quality coffee but would prefer to buy more sustainably, by committing to supportive partnerships with producers. This type of innovation and adaptation is especially necessary these days, with the coffee market still volatile and producers facing umpteen obstacles.

While Cafe Imports and Banexport have formalized this buying methodology through the Farm Select program to make it easier for roasters to achieve, we want our customers to know it’s possible to do this kind of sourcing independently of a “program,” just by engaging with a Cafe Imports sales representative and connecting to our green-coffee buyers. Though there are still places in the world where this type of buying remains difficult for logistical reasons (such as many regions in Africa and Asia-Pacific), there are pathways to buying coffee better throughout Central and South America.

A Special “Reverse Visit”

We might be used to traveling to Colombia to see our friends there, but every once in a while we have a very special opportunity to receive a visit from them instead—and thankfully, we recently had one of those lucky chances right before widespread travel restrictions made it difficult to know when we’ll be able to see one another again.

Banexport’s Jairo recently made the trip from Popayán to Minnesota, North Carolina, and Georgia to meet and connect with the coffee communities there, and to showcase some of the collaborative projects that his company and ours have been working on for the past several years of our decade-long relationship. Along with Jairo came Paola Trujillo, regional manager for Banexport in Nariño and a multigenerational coffee producer herself, as well as James Fernandez, owner of Finca La Laja in El Tambo, Cauca, and a producer-partner of Banexport. Together with Sam, senior sales representative Matt Brown, and Cafe Imports founder Andrew Miller, the teams presented the story not only of our companies’ bond, but also of the impact of the work that we do together to support farmers by innovating our practices.

Surrounded by images depicting the intricacies of the supply chain in Colombia and the hard work and dedication of the country’s best producers, Jairo, Paola, and James spoke from both experience and deep feeling about how important it is to create sustainable, reliable, long-term connections between roasters and farmers—for everyone’s sake. Along with Sam, they talked about how the stratified buying model that Cafe Imports and Banexport use not only offers producers a fairer price for their coffee, but also extends the opportunity to earn more and to find better access to the right buyers—not just the “right now” buyers.

“Today, I don’t want to speak about me. I want to speak about all of the families that are being supported by these programs,” Don Fernandez said through Jairo’s translation. Banexport works with 3,000 smallholder producers throughout Southern Colombia—many from families whose lives have been devoted to and dependent on coffee for generations. Together with Banexport, Cafe Imports believes that programs like Gran Galope, Regional Select, Farm Select, Variety Select, and our microlot offerings provide a multitude of avenues for producers to earn more money on the entirety of their crops, rather than struggle to find different buyers for all of the qualities of coffee they inevitably bring to market.

Buying coffee better is a joint effort, and it not only creates new potential and positive impact on producers—which is the ultimate goal—but it also has managed to create some lifelong friendships in the meantime. Just one of many, many reasons to say: ¡Viva Colombia!