In 2018, Brendan of Semilla had the pleasure of meeting and travelling for two weeks with the young producer Esnaider Ortega-Gomez, from San Agustin Huila. SInce that trip that crossed Southern Huila and on up into Tolima, they’ve developed a strong friendship and have shared many long conversations on the state of specialty coffee for the smallholder grower in Colombia, and around the world.
A young man of much wisdom, from a long-time coffee growing family, Esnaider took the first steps in 2020 towards a dream he's had for years - namely, developing a project that supports the growers around him, through the development of community support strucutres based on the free sharing of information such as cupping results and processing techniques.
This new project, called Monkaaba, is currently based out of Esnaider’s home farm in the vereda of Sevilla, outside San Agustin. There, every weekend during harvest times, he offers a free sample roasting and cupping to any producer who desires to know more about the quality of their coffee, and potentially to pursue a future relationship that can benefit them. In their first main harvest, inundated with samples from these growers, in fact, showing just how many out there have an interest to know more about their product and how it might be improved.
Getting to know Esnaider and travelling Colombia revealed to Semilla something that may be surprising to the coffee drinker and even the specialty coffeee professional — that the vast majority of Colombian coffee producers, despite all their nation’s fame as a coffee producing country, still find themselves locked out of a market that would offer them a basically sustainable price. Indeed, even by the National Coffee Grower Federation’s (FNC) own numbers, only about 2% of the country's coffee is sold outside of the commercial market.
San Agustin has a long and storied history of coffee production, being one of the first areas to participate in the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC). There are some 6000 growers in this area, and yet the vast majority continue to sell their coffees either for market prices or en verde for about half of market price.
Esnaider has long expressed to me his lament that many producers who bring coffee in to specialty buying points are simply met with unexplained rejection based on a cupping score, with little to no information on why it received this score or more importantly, what could be done to improve it.
As such, Monkaaba has been born a project by Esnaider and other storied growers like Agusto Ortega and Daniel Munoz with the aim of supporting smallholders to not improve their knowledge, quality, and profitability, and to do so this through pedeagogical support. When Esnaider asked us to accompany him in this project, we didn’t hesitate to support. To work with our friends, while also being able to focus on finding impeccable quality from producers who need a solid buyer, is exactly what Semilla was created to do.
The project Semilla embarks upon with Monkaaba functions in two tiers, as it were, and in two regions, San Agustin and Tarqui, in Huila.
This first tier is made up of growers who are new to specialty and to develop a client base for them, just as we do in our other projects. These growers are typically younger folks who have either sold their coffee in parchment to major multi-nationals for market prices, or possibly have sold their coffee depulped and wet to local intermediaries. The latter is still a sadly very common thing in Colombia, despite the prevelance of home beneficios. It’s reflective of the lack of comprehensive support given to the grower by a buying class, that functions on these producers needing cash to survive and being able to provide it at the moment it’s required.
This includes growers like Jhon who, at 2000masl grows a tiny crop of Tabi that is truly phenomenal. Tasting like pomegranate and tropical fruits, it's more akin to an African coffee than what one finds in Colombia. And yet, Semilla was his first buyer of parchment coffee when we bought his entire one bag production in April. Since then, he committed his entire harvest to parchment and produced in this last cycle 11 exportable bags of coffee.
Or like Jildardo Ortega, who after years of working in the Ortega-Gomez farm, began to plant his own trees in the last two years and produced in this harvest one of the most stunning Caturra of the entire season. His four bag lot we hope to see grow by next year, to be able to support him further.
This also includes a small group of producers deep inside the mountains near Tarqui, Huila. Another group Semilla has been acquantied with since 2018, we will be developing our buying from this region even further come main harvest in July and August 2021 from this group of producers who, despite incredible quality and dedication, find themselves physically and financially isolated from a solid market.
The second tier of the project is about improving relations. Esnaider's family is connected to some multi-generational coffee growers who have sold for slightly higher prices before, sometimes as microlots under their own names.
However, what they've always desired is a strong relationship that gives them some certainty for the future and, like so many growers in Colombia, quality alone hasn't provided that. This group of growers (who mainly work with Pink Bourbon and Caturra) is one we are completely honoured to represent and hope we can facilitate the develop of true, long standing relationships with the wonderful roasters who work with Semilla.
While this is something of a departure from our other work in Guatemala and Honduras, where we work only with producers who are just entering specialty, including these growers only makes sense because 1. they are part of the same community of growers in San Agustin and 2. they are deserving specialty growers who have sadly been met with an industry that seeks to keep them without agency and autonomy in their coffee growing. If Semilla can make a small dent in the lvied experience of these producers, who we like to refer to as coffee royalty in San Agustin, then we feel compelled and excited to do so.
In some ways, we can’t help but make the observation of how producers’ experience struggling to find a market alternative is in fact the sharp edged of the double edged sword that is the FNC’s fixed price guarantee. Namely, that when a producer wishes to step outside of this traditional system of selling their coffee, it will require financial risk that they are likely not prepared for due to the fact that they have been receiving prices that likely don’t actually cover their costs of production.
We talked about this on our blog two years ago, but the same pattern is still evident. As many producers don’t take into account all of their costs, specifically their own labour inputs, they may not be aware of the fact that they are losing money selling at local market prices. In a way, this system is creates a dependence that doesn’t grant autonomy, which is the opposite of that which we wish to see amongst our producer partners.
Even if producers do take stock of their costs, should they not have a buying point accept their coffees at a higher price than market, they have no option but to accept this low price. And in a country like Colombia, where coffee growing has been promoted as a monoculture crop to be grown at volume rather than for quality, there is zero risk management strategy in place should these crops fail.
Again, we can see how despite Colombia’s fame as a coffee producing country, the thousands of producers who have made this fame possible continue to live in a position of struggling to get by thanks to a national industry that pursues volume to enrich the most powerful. Indeed, many of our recent conversations with Esnaider have centred around the troubling trend he sees in Colombia that seeks to squash the artisenal small producer, and specialty will play no small part in that. In an ecosystem like Colombia’s, it’s becoming more and more common that producers who make it on the specialty market aren’t generational small producers but are instead wealthy landowners who buy cherry from other small producers and/or have the education, budget and financial flexibility to engage in experimental processes to sell for high ticket prices.
While neither of the latter - larger farmers and experimental processes - are fundamentally bad, Semilla is committed to the little folks — those small producers who are seeking to carve out a viable livelihood for themselves and their childen, and deserve to be supported for their efforts.
This is where our work must reach beyond prices paid to be truly meaningful and sustainable. Yes, Semilla can proudly say we paid prices that far surpassed anything available in San Agustin - including with specialty buyers - but we are still focused on how we can do better.
For 2021, we’re primarily focused on how we can improve our financing of small producers, especially given how much interested this season generated. For us to make this transition possible, we need to be able to offer payment in advance, at least in part, to as many producers as possible.
We will go forward with the aim to create this advance payment structure and with the knowledge that with each of the wonderful roasters that has signed on, we can develop durable connections together that give these great producers support and certainty that their product has a home in the future.
Semilla is proud of how our first year went, and hopes that you’ve been lucky enough to try these coffees or contract your own lot. If you haven’t there’s still a few lots available — go to our pre-booking list to request a sample!