Back in March I was invited to attend the 2nd annual Cupping Extravaganza at Finca El Roble in Mesa de los Santos, arranged in collaboration with Virmax. I flew in a couple of days early so I could go visit Finca San Luis while there, so after flying in to Bogota we got in the car for the 6 hour drive east. We wound our way down from Bogota, crossed the Magdalena going from Cundinamarca into Tolima, and wound our way back up to Libano feeling a bit seasick by the time we got to our hotel.
At the hotel we met with Omar Arango Tinoco and his wife, owners of Finca San Luis, for a quick cupping of 7 of their varieties and fermentation experiments. San Luis has been in Omar’s family for 30 year, and of the 15 years he’s been in charge, 13 have been as an organic farm. Back when Broca hit Colombia a a serious problem, they could not afford to spend more money on pesticides to combat the little beetle and so opted for going organic- savings in chemical fertilizers and pesticides largely weighing out the loss in production. They went from producing 13 cargas (125kg parchment) to 3 cargas per hectare, but now that the market means a lower production is not as financially sustainable, his wish is to get up to 25 cargas with a closer focus on the professional management of the farm. He’s stumping and replanting some areas, experimenting with new varietals such as Castillo but also the old favourites like Bourbon, Caturra and Typica. They’re also planting shade trees that can double as commercial timber to help spread the income from the farm across a larger part of the year.
San Luis is located where a warm and a cold weather system meet, and have a significant impact on how the different lots of the farm perform. The cooler parts tend to cup better and have more acidity and complexity in the cup, while the warmer parts have a higher production. The pickers here are paid a salary per day and not per kg picked. this is an attempt to prevent people from migrating to other peak harvest areas where they get paid per kg for the few weeks that trees are full, and very little when the yields are low. 7 of the 14-16 weekly pickers at San Luis are core staff that have been around for 5-6 years, while the others come and go as needed. Because San Luis is organic and the cherries mature at varying times, they need to pick every week and not in set cycles as in more chemically controlled ripening. Every week the pickers and farm managers select a colour of cherry that they will focus on that week. This selective, continuous picking is of course more expensive but it allows for a better more uniform cherry selection and higher cup quality. Some of the micro lots are picked at night and on weekends for security reasons, theft is a big problem since the farm is located by a public road and it’s hard to control who comes and goes during a busy work week.
In the on site mill you’ll find 2 Jotagallo and 1 Fima pulpers, a demucilager and 5 fermentation tanks, as well as washing channels- something rarely seen in Colombia anymore. Via the washing channels the parchment is sorted into different tanks depending on its quality. When the pickers arrive with the cherries at, say, 4pm, they spend the next hour or two pulping, dry ferment the parchment for 24 hours, washing it through at 5 or 6 pm the following day. Because this is too late in the day to place the parchment onto the drying beds, they soak the coffee in water til the next morning. It’s all very similar to what you see in Kenya. Near the farm houses, secondary quality beans are dried on open beds. The top quality selections are dried in sheds where triple layered drying beds utilize the natural airflow, staff moving the parchment from the bottom rung and upwards as it dries.
They use the water from the pulping to make fertilizer, but also go though a lot of organic store bought fertilizer. It’s made from chicken, horse and cow manure, coffee parchment, wood chippings, with added nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. He brought in 1600 bags in October and by March had about 100 left. The recommendation is to use 3kg fertilizer per tree, but Omar started off with 1.5 kg and so far he’s happy with the trees looking healthier, while yield results will become apparent next year. If the progress is good he’ll up the fertilizing schedule, and help supplement the scheme with compost from his own onsite wormery.
At the bottom of a steep hill Omar has a nursery of about 4-5000 Bourbon seedlings that are to be planted on said hill, having cleared off the old Caturra and Colombia trees that were there before. Even if Bourbon is a bit unusual in Colombia, Omar wants to grow it for its cup profile. Back in the 70’s, tests were made of Caturra vs. bourbon that put Caturra at a yield advantage in non shaded areas, whereas Bourbon needed some cover to thrive as well. Since Colombia wanted to push for a more Brazil-style production involving no shade, a lot of what you get out of the country now is Caturra.
A 10 minute drive from the farm house is the 3.5 hectare La Montaña plot, where you’ll find a lot of Caturra as well as Typica. This section goes all the way up to the peak of the mountain, and looking down onto the other side which belongs to a different farm, the difference in tree density and rust damage is noticeable. On the La Montaña side, the ground is spongy and full of flowers. A small part of the plot grows Castillo, or what is said to be Castillo, and we were a bit surprised to find both some fungus and rust on these supposedly rust resistant trees. Another section grows Yellow Tabi, a Caturra and Hibrido de Timor cross, while another 4 hectares are dedicated to yucca. 3 families live on the farm and near one of the homes we find a newly planted plot of Colombia and Caturra where they grow peas in between the rows to help bind the nitrogen in the soil. We walk on to the 3 hectare La Gloria part of San Luis which again grows Caturra and Tipica, closely followed by Chiqui the old farm dog, a real sweetheart and bravely keeping on in spite of looking a bit worse for wear.
Omar feels somewhat at a disadvantage for not farming with chemicals but thinks that in a few years he’ll see the benefits from his work to improve the quality and productivity. The continuing process of investing to improve is never ending, but they feel they are turning a corner for quality, relationships and sustainability. The biggest challenge in going organic is to keep productivity up; besides wanting to be the best organic farm in Colombia for quality and production, they also need to be financially viable. It takes a long term commitment from all parties in the chain to make this happen.