It was a chilly morning and it smelled like freshly-cut coffee-plant-wood being burnt in the artisan stove to boil the water [mixed with ‘panela’ and cinnamon] to brew the morning coffee.
If you've been following us for a while you may know about Yiver Vargas, an organic specialty coffee farmer in Colombia with whom we’ve been directly trading since the beginning of Kaffe Bueno. In addition to being a coffee farmer, she’s a pioneer in organic agriculture in Colombia, as well as a women's rights activist in Colombia’s coffee scene. She’s the leader of an organisation called ALMUCAFE, which is the “Colombian daughter” of International Women Coffee Alliance.
After almost a year and a half without visiting our country, we decided to take some days ‘off’ for Christmas holidays. We couldn’t go to Colombia and not visit Yiver and her family.
We wanted to go there not only to nurture our relationship, but because we’re keen on going deep on the farmers daily living to fully understand their challenges, and of course get some coffees to bring to Copenhagen. We wanted to share this experience with you, so you can get a closer look on who and what is behind your morning cup.
Day 1 - From Barranquilla to La Plata
3:00: Alarm goes off, coffee is made, a pair of boots and t-shirts are packed, and off to the airport.
5:30: We get onto our first flight from Barranquilla (our hometown) to Bogota.
8:30: Second plane from Bogota to Neiva, Huila.
9:30: Landed in Neiva. Then we had a 3 hour drive to La Plata (municipality in Huila).
12:45: We meet Cristian, Yiver’s son, at the bus terminal and get into a car that takes us up the mountain. Another hour drive.
14:30: The car brings us as close as possible to Yiver’s farm, but due to poor road conditions, we’re left to walk a couple of miles to find Yiver’s home. She was waiting for us at the door with open arms. We were tired and STARVING. Thankfully, Yiver received us with a typical farmer’s lunch: sancocho and tamal. Sancocho is basically a heavy soup with corn, potatoes and in this case chicken. Tamal is a mixture of rice, vegetables and more chicken wrapped in a plantain leaf which is then cooked in boiling water. It is fuc***g delicious and everyone in the world should try it. We ate that for every meal for the next 3 days.
Then we had a ‘cafe campesino’ or ‘farmer’s brew’ – and had a 2 hour nap. We woke back up around 17:30 and electricity was down due to a guadua tree interfering with the power cables that provide electricity to Yiver’s home. We still had around 30 minutes of natural light, so we took advantage of it to take a quick look to the small structure they’ve built next to their house where the coffee they pick is processed. Also checked out their ‘secaderos’, where coffee is dried after fermentation. More on this in Day 2. As the nightfall approached, we lit some candles, brewed some coffee and sat down to have a chat and dinner… Sancocho & tamal.
We shared many stories – some sweet and some bitter – including some related to the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros, which is an organisation meant to help local farmers but in reality is a bureaucracy that steps on small farmers for capitalistic motives that enriches the rich and neglects the poorer. They were also very intrigued by how us, 3 Colombian young men decided to go to Denmark. They were intrigued by people’s reactions to the coffee they put so much effort into, and while we told them about how their coffee is so appreciated here, tears of joy and pride were seen. We told them about their coffee being drank in the Danish Parliament, Ålternativet, and I cannot describe their happiness with words.
Day 2 - A Day in a Colombian Coffee Farmer's Life
3:00: 1st wake up call by a rooster gang. Too early to live, went back to bed.
5:00: Symphony of animal sounds [pleasantly] wakes us up. This time the rooster gang joined by hens, chickens, dogs, cats and even a horse, Rubiño. Early mornings and nights are quite chilly (around 14°C) while the day goes up until about 23°C. It was a chilly morning and it smelled like freshly-cut coffee-plant-wood being burnt in their artisan stove, boiling the water [mixed with ‘panela’ and cinammon] to brew the morning coffee. We head outside to freshen up with water sourced directly from a ‘nacedero’ – sort of a spring – the purest water we’ve had, and came back into learn everything about how ‘cafe campesino is made’. It is VERY sweet due to the panela, and has a pleasant spice at the end thanks to the cinnamon. Read full article about the “Farmer’s Brew”.
8:30: First dose of sancocho and tamal – although delicious, it is so filling that you need a while to simply digest and carry on with life. Another cup of coffee, and we were ready for the day ahead.
Sun was fully out, clear sky, perfect day for coffee picking. Yiver gave us a full tour around her 4 coffee producing hectareas, telling us about the different coffee varieties she grows, including organic geishas that are expected to start producing in 1.5 years, and the innovative organic fertilisers she produces in-house to fight pests and diseases caused by climate change. She also grows other types of plants next to the coffee trees, such as yucca, plantain, avocado, corn and soybeans. She does this for different reasons; some plants provide shade to the coffee plants, while others provide nutrients like potassium to the soil, feeding the coffee plants.
In the meantime, Cristian, her youngest son, was telling us how because of the seemingly eternal snowball of bureaucracy within the coffee industry, younger generations are moving away from the farms and looking for opportunities in the big cities. On the other hand, he also told us about how he sees a brighter future in coffee farming thanks to the progressive approach of her mother and her big brother, Juan Vargas. He told us about his aspirations of eventually having his own coffee lab, where he would further disrupt coffee farming by making new discoveries. While we were talking, we were helping them pick ripe cherries throughout the farm. Ottoniel, Yiver’s husband, was doing the same. We then took the cherries back to the place I mentioned above where they process the coffee. Now we head to Susana Pobre’s farm, another farmer working with Yiver in the women association.
After going through Yiver’s routine, we hop on Rubino, Yiver farm’s horse, and start our journey to Susana’s farm. Along the way, Yiver showed us new organic coffee plants she’s been growing using international standards that allow the plant to take advantage of all the nutrients provided by the soil and nearby plants. For example, she plants these crops 3 metres of distance between each, opposite to what the Federacion encourages (1x1m). With this Yiver intends to get quality instead of quantity.
Anyways, after a 45 minute hike up coffee-filled mountains, we arrive to Susana’s farm. We were greeted by a pack of dogs, pigs and cows. And of course by Susana and her husband, along with a floral cup of coffee. They were happy to show us around the production of organic fertilisers they have, based on coffee mucilage, coffee pulp and other decomposed materials. Their coffee production is quite robust and it is more noticeable the influence of FNC.
Although most of their production remains to be treated with non-organic fertilisers, they are starting to join the organic revolution thanks to Yiver’s advice. They are currently looking for their first Direct Trade client, as they currently only sell to one cooperative that retains all their margins. The main varieties they plant are Castillo and Tambo.
The Bio Fertilisers Factory
After a lunch break at Yiver’s, we head to Chabela’s farm. She’s another farmer to whom Yiver has been guiding through her organic farming transformation journey.
Inside Chabela’s farm, Yiver and her share a small piece of land where they’re building a small bio-factory of organic fertilisers for different purposes, mainly to enable a healthy, chemical-free growing of their specialty coffee. These fertilisers are produced by themselves using food-waste products from their farms. Almost bio-dynamic.
Read more about organic fertilisers: Organic Farming in Colombia.
They use these fertilisers in a demonstrative land right next to it, where they are focusing on growing the region’s best organic coffee varieties by following the highest standards. Organic geishas coming…
Then we took a ride to La Plata, where Yiver and other women farmers co-own a small coffee truck in the middle of the town’s park. We sat there for about 2 hours talking to the farmer who was serving coffee there that day. They also sell coffee drinks and accessories made out of coffee’s waste produced by the truck.
Finally, we visited a coffee lab in town owned by another of Yiver’s disciples; Ximena. She managed to build a roastery/milling/cupping lab at her home. We brought some parchment samples for her to mill, so we could bring the green beans to Copenhagen to cup at Norhavn Coffee Roasters.
The Last Night
That night we ate together with Yiver, Cristian and Otto. We had some wine and another long talk about the many things that are good and bad within and around Colombia’s coffee scene.
Every time we talk to farmers is a learning experience, an eye-opener of real challenges and at the same time opportunities. A lot of times it is also very frustrating to hear all their struggles directly related to industry bulls stepping over them and corruption restricting the level of trust they have on the future. Every time we visit them we realise that the root of the problems go much more deep than having better equipment or few pay. Their problems are much bigger and have to do with a wide range of things; from poor infrastructure and little to no access to financial aid for the tools they need, to climatic changes fucking up their crops and a corrupt system that pisses on them to benefit the ones who don’t need help.
On the other hand, it is extremely inspiring to see how despite all of their challenges and inequalities they have to go through, they are full of life and wake up every morning to leave their hearts on the field and leave their fingerprint on the world through coffee.
How is Kaffe Bueno relevant in all of this?
As much as we would love to solve their lives in a second, you and us both know it is much more complicated than that.
By cutting all middle men and buying directly to Yiver, she’s able to get around 200% than she would if she sold that same coffee to a cooperative or broker.
Moreover, we’re helping women farmers from her community to reach international markets where better prices are paid, by connecting them to coffee roasters in Denmark, such as our partner Nordhavn Coffee Roasters. We’ve made a shared commitment of helping Yiver’s community in the long-run by promoting their coffee here and through our circular model allow a redistribution of wealth back to the start.
In addition, the strong relationships we maintain with farmers to whom we buy coffee from and bring to Copenhagen, allow us to have a unique line of traceability. This further adds value to the oil extraction of the used coffee grounds… a project you’ll soon know more about.