For all you coffee lovers out there, we thought we would take a more in-depth look at a recent trip I took to a Colombian organic coffee farm.
There may be two images that come to mind when you think of Colombia. The first is of drug traffickers, corruption and violence straight out of the hit show Narcos (a fantastic show if you haven’t seen it yet – informative and entertaining). While corruption and drug trafficking may still exist in places, the people we met are doing their best to change perceptions and are genuinely welcoming & kind-hearted. The second image that may come to mind is that of “Juan Valdez,” a mustachioed man with poncho, hat and mule. You may have the impression it’s a real person, but it’s actually a fictional character made up by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombian. We certainly experienced the "Juan Valdez" look.
We had the pleasure of taking a tour and brunch at Café Alfania, an organic coffee farm, not far from the remote village of Barichara. Barichara, on its own, feels like stepping into the past where life has stood still. The villagers still barter for services, and the homes are whitewashed with colourful or wooden doors hiding beautiful courtyards and exposed wood beams behind them. The villagers all know each other, and in the afternoon, some congregate on the raised sidewalks. Others gather in the evening at the local pub in the town square. It’s a mostly bohemian feel attracting artisans and those wishing for a simpler life. And, while they could view tourists with disdain or as dollar signs, they do neither, opening their arms and treating you like family friends. A tour of Café Alfania was no different.
The tour began on the farm where we met Carlos, the adult son of the owners. He spoke excellent English and we were surprised to hear that in his youth he had gone to Onondaga Camp in Canada. The family had begun the farm because of the determination of his mother, Esperanza, to bring coffee growing to a region that had previously been covered in tobacco farms. Her dedication to a healthier lifestyle meant she also took the brave step of going further and keeping it organic. She’s clearly a bit of a hero to the local community, supporting local artisans and workers and transforming an unhealthy industry into a healthy, robust one. All that being said, it hasn't been easy and has been a lot of trial and error for the family.
What first struck me as odd was the number of leaves on the ground. As we learned, the tobacco industry had been unkind to the region given its plants required lots of sun all day and, therefore, few trees. Century-old forests were clear cut for the tobacco industry, leaving dry fields in their place. Coffee plants, on the other hand, need indirect sun and benefit from the dappled shelter that trees can provide. A much healthier type of crop for both the land and the people. So replanting of fields is a start. But, it doesn’t solve the need to keep moisture when the trees and coffee plants are still young and growing. Water is “the” local topic of the region, whether it’s the daily weather or how you are going to collect and store the rain for the dry season. The need for a good water system is paramount to farming anything. And the dried leaves on the organic farm are used to help keep the soil moist and act as a natural mulch.
As our tour continued, we learned the red coffee "cherries" are the ripe ones but we were not in a natural harvest time. They are picked by hand and then the pickers go back over the area to make sure nothing has fallen. The spacing of the plants just right to allow for easier manoeuvring. We saw natural ways to keep insects away from the plants, a storage area for dried horse manure that they use to put back into the soil for natural fertilization, and seedlings being started. We also saw older plants that had grown over time and learned they can grow to 20ft but are often trimmed to about 8-10ft.
We ended up in a beautiful old forest, the last in their immediate vicinity. It was such a shame to learn that so many of the local fields previously had these wonderful trees. We also learned a modern theory that says, hugging a tree isn’t just an expression of a hippy lifestyle. It is said to actually provide health benefits and make you feel happier. We couldn’t resist and hugged a few.
After the farm tour, we were invited back to the family’s stunning home with the most amazing and enviable outdoor kitchen. All rooms are designed to live with the outdoors, and clearly, the mother has a green thumb with a beautiful garden. On one of their many outdoor tables, we were served a delicious traditional meal, and an assortment of juices.
We were then shown two ways to make coffee using the same coffee beans, one a slow method using a contraption that resembled a science experiment. And the other like a traditional drip using boiled water. The slower science beaker was hands down smoother and tastier. Blake loved it! Not sure that my 14 year old should be so into coffee but he had multiple cups.
After our meal, we wandered to the closest thing akin to an “industrial” building where they wash, dry and crack the coffee cherries. Washing them causes the ripe ones float to the surface. They are then brought over to dry and are raked and turned throughout the day, and covered at night to prevent them from getting wet. They continue doing this until the moisture content reaches a certain level. Here in this building is also where they have their regular tasting room. We continued along to see the horse stables and open-aired traditional style dry house used to naturally rotate and dry the manure.
What is apparent from our tour and time with the family is how enthusiastic they are about finding ways to marry economics with a healthy lifestyle. It’s very inspiring because the farming lifestyle is not an easy one. Organic coffee farming is relatively new in Colombia such that they are also learning by trial and error, and embarking on any small business can have its challenges. One would think teenaged boys might find this a relatively uninteresting activity, but they loved it. It was hard not to feel like a welcomed old friend. Overall, as long as the violence is in its past, Colombia is a fantastic destination for adventure family travel and gives Costa Rica a run for its money. I don’t think I will look at coffee in quite the same way and encourage anyone to consider supporting organic coffee farmers.