Today we share with you an in depth interview with Olgar Ortega Bolaños and his son, Esnaider Ortega Gomez. As small coffee producers who have been producing specialty grade coffee for close to a decade, their opinion is incredibly insightful and yet likely uncommon to hear for most in consuming countries.
In on our conversation on their farm in August, we touched on topics ranging from their history as coffee producers, the value of relationships, the importance of quality, and their proudest achievements.
Semilla: Please introduce yourselves and explain a little about your history as coffee growers.
Olgar: My name is Olgar Ortega Bolaños and our family, the Ortega-Gomez, dedicated ourselves to coffee production for two reasons. One is because we wanted to continue the work of our grandparents, but the second is that we saw any opportunity to work in the place we come from. These are the two reasons that motivate as coffee producers to preserve our tradition and culture.
I began as a coffee producer when I was about 15 years old and my uncle gave me five hundred coffee trees. Later, my father passed to me a lot on his farm and he planted other coffee trees there, about 1,500. Another uncle later then gave me the opportunity on his farm to run a hectare in coffee and then with another uncle, we planted four hectares of coffee. With this, we had our own crops and this was how began my transition to becoming a coffee producer.
Esnaider: With respect to how coffee production began in my life, I remember that the first trees that I had were from my grandfather, Paulo Emilio Ortega. He gave me a lot of 250 trees and that’s where everything began. We grew this and as my dad said, with the help of his uncle we tended those four hectares as well. I was still in high school but I remember when I graduated, I made the decision to continue growing coffee because it seemed like it could be a very sustainable way of life for us.
S: It was Esnaider’s grandfather who used wooden tanks to ferment his coffee — can you tell me more about his history in coffee and the history of coffee here in the area of San Agustin, Huila?
O: Well, my father began commercial coffee cultivation with his own father, Luis Felipe Rodriguez, about sixty years ago. In this time, there were mule trains to transport food and goods from other towns to San Agustin and this is how coffee trees began to arrive and planted in this area as well. However, it was more common then to find people growing sugar cane and corn. When it became obvious that coffee production was a simpler way to procure a living, people began to plant coffee. My grandfather did the same in this time, and this is how coffee cultivation was born in our family.
My father had worked as a carpenter and in construction for a long time, and so for him, it was easier to build fermentation tanks and drying beds out of wood. In this time, materials like brick or cement so wood and clay were the easiest. So, it’s cultural in a way because it was easier to build this infrastructure with these materials, and this is the story of the wood tanks and the clay jars. We choose to use these now, in order to continue these traditions of our grandparents.
E: I think aside from wanting to preserve this tradition and trajectory of our grandparents, it’s also because we want to take ourselves out of the conventional ways of being as coffee producers, away from what all producers, or the majority, are doing. We want to offer something different to our clients, and we think that these wooden tanks are a good option and they’ve been really important to us.
O: A year ago, a biologist came to the farm and through speaking and sharing knowledge about coffee, I came to learn that in wood and clay there are bacterias that could assist or augment the effects of fermentation. As this was something that complemented the idea we already had, we went forward with a deeper clarity and the idea was to continue experimenting in these two types of fermentation. For the next year, our plan is to buy more clay jars and try to ferment more because people are already asking for more and we don’t have the necessary tools for the job.
S: As a family, you take risks by focusing and working towards producing high quality coffee. Why do you think quality coffee is important and how did you arrive at this decision when many producers are reluctant to make the investments?
O: I think quality is born from the training we receive as coffee producers. One has to understand that coffee is a product for human consumption so anyone who wants to produce it, they have to keep in mind that it must be clean and healthy.
Quality has been part of our family now for so long and has given back to us enough that we don’t even consider returning to commodity coffee production. It would be as though we were selling off all the many years we’ve invested in quality, so it’s not in our plans to return to commercial coffee production but rather to go everyday improving quality.
S: When was the first time that you knew you had a coffee with high quality potential?
O: I think it began with the the training on the part of the Federacion (National Coffee Growers Federation). In the first year it was available, we joined in on courses which provided training on the topic of quality. This had an impact on the history of this whole area this area because this training allowed us as coffee producers to think differently.
E: Later, it was the Naranjos Association (Editor’s note: a group of coffee producers in the area who began selling their coffee at a higher price to a large specialty importer). This was great motivation to work harder, as we were trying new things and sharing the knowledge gained.
But I believe we’re now very convinced of quality as a pursuit because it improves our quality of life. This is a point that’s very much in mind because if we have a better quality of life, we can go forward helping others. Better said, quality coffee has changed our quality of life and that’s what gives us confidence to continue working in this way.
O: And it’s convinced us also that quality is something of a state of mind or way of thinking of certain coffee producers. There are many good coffees but it always come from coffee producers with different thinking.
E: You asked as well about risks of coffee production. I think for now the greatest risk is how we’re going to face climate change because every year the conditions are changing and becoming more difficult. All the rest of quality is what we refer to as the management of crops and soils — this we can handle ourselves but climate change this is out of our hands. This is the risk that, in my opinion, is the most complex. (Editor's note: this summer when it is typically sunny, dry, and windy in San Agustin, the sky was overcast or pouring rain almost everyday. This type of weather is exactly the kind of erratic conditions that lead producers to lose crops or lose quality.)
S: For the other coffee producers that want to work on quality but think it’s too risky, what do you tell them?
O: I think those who resist are coffee producers who haven’t believed in trying to learn because there have been opportunities for everyone through trainings and contests but they haven’t believed in learning these things. However, every year we see there are more interested in quality because it’s a necessity. Quality has become a necessity if we want to continue being coffee producers because the commodity market doesn’t work for coffee producers. In this zone, then, quality coffee production has become a necessity to survive.
S: It seems to me that commodity price can’t pay production costs and also provide a living wage. What do you guys think?
O: In this zone, commodity coffee production is not profitable because we work in high altitude environments and as such our volume of production isn’t high. Selling in commodity means we’re losing money every year.
E: I think again that producers, many aren’t keeping track of their accounts (costs and earnings) and when they don’t track their numbers, they lose track of what they’re investing and what they’re getting back. For example, they might track some of their costs but they aren’t counting their own labour as a cost and in the moment of selling their product, it may seem that there’s a profit margin but they haven’t covered their own work in the farm.
S: Do you have an idea of what the average cost of production is here in San Agustin?
O: We have an idea about the average price of production for a carga (125kg of parchment) of coffee that would meet commercial coffee standards and that would be 750,000 COP and 780,000 COP. For us, it can be 800,000COP due to the extra time and effort we put in on the quality whether it be in fermentation or collecting. If you’re producing a coffee at 800,000 and the commodity price is 780,000, then you’re working for nothing.
S: Tell me about these meetings you have every Friday with other coffee producers.
O: The motivation for the Friday meetings came about because we’re all part of the Naranjos group. It’s a group of 54 coffee producers but within this group there are individuals who don’t want to stop here (Editor’s note: as mentioned above this group produces specialty grade coffee and has been selling collectively to a large specialty importer for near ten years, so Olgar is referring to how some don’t want to stop at simply selling their coffee at a higher price).
They want to be inquisitive, they want to continue looking for markets and improving their quality of life, and this is how the Friday Meetings were born.
E: This idea also was born from an interest in producing high quality coffee but as we spoke at the beginning, this is connected to the pursuit of a better quality of life for us, as a family, as friends, as neighbours. This also allows us to strengthen friendships, brings us new friends, and gives the opportunity to improve because the rule within the group is that if we’re experimenting in something, we have to share the results with everyone. It’s a form of working without competition or resentment for others.
The idea of this is to share knowledge more openly so that people wake up and begin to get out of the old ways of doing things. So they can offer something new, and with this it can help to change their lives.
S: There are 125 producers in your vereda of Sevilla, and six thousand in San Agustin. How many are interested in specialty coffee?
O: 2 percent. This is a figure from the Federacion, that in all of Huila coffee growing culture, there's 2 percent that are interested in making changes. But we still have to make sure not to disregard this 98% in the process of taking care of the 2%.
S: How can buyers and clients in consuming countries help to make a change to this number, to be an inspiration that these other producers attempt to make changes as well?
O: I think the best way is what we’ve done this week, right? That a buyer comes, that they discover what the work really is, what are the costs, the time it takes, and that they understand the life of a coffee producer and through this understand the value of the work because the work of being a coffee producer is difficult.
E: I think it would be really great if the roasters were just as connected as we are right now with producers, that the supply chain were more transparent and ideally, that the information isn’t lost between both sides, that it remains very exact. I think this would be a huge help for all producers.
O: So much information that we collect at the farm level arrives to the other side of the supply chain. If we could be given back information from that side so that we could use it, that would be understanding on both sides.
S: What is the help that this gives to you as producers to receive this information from the consumer side of the value chain?
E: The communication that we have had together, this fills us with motivation and inspiration because it’s not very common for a producer to have this opportunity to be in contact daily to know what is happening over there. This motivates us during the harvest because we want to be aware of the final results are, because for us the most important is that the end client is happy. If this client is happy, we can feel confident they’re going to return.
For the majority of producers they consider that, in the moment they bring their coffee to the bodega, everything dies. But we know it’s actually more than that. From this point on there is much more than can be developed and for that reason I think to be creating friendships and relationships is the opportunity to be constantly learning.
O: I think also that it’s very important that our clients speak Spanish. Because there have been many times when they visit and they want to talk but can’t because of this language barrier. It's obvious that communication is very important so I think that it’s better if they can speak in Spanish
E: Due to connections we have with people in the exterior, we’re able to better understand how the business (of specialty coffee) functions and it opens many new doors for us to see how things work and this is a reason for a lot of satisfaction. For example, when you told me that clients you work with loved our coffee, in this moment we can say “Good, all the work that we did for it, we know it was worth it.” Knowing everyone is happy gives us more desire to work and improve every day. So it’s a source of happiness, of knowledge and at the same time that it gives us energy to continued doing our work.
S: Let’s talk about Roya (coffee leaf rust, a rampant disease in many parts of the world now). How can it be treated? Is it possible to remove it without switching to disease resistant varieties that are of lower quality?
O: I think the topic of Roya has been filled with misinformation. There are areas in Colombia where Roya is controllable. In all the information that goes around, it says that roya is a fungus that ends coffee growing but it’s not totally true. There are higher altitude areas where it’s controllable. It’s best to try to control a fungus, a disease, so that you don’t end up suffering from a poor production, which is very hard. So I always tell producers of higher altitude to attend to their crops, to control the roya so they aren’t faced with any problems. And it’s not so hard to treat in areas of altitude.
S: What does high altitude mean in this case, how high do producers need to be?
O: For Producers that are at higher than 1650masl, roya is controllable.
E: The other thing is that roya is a disease that’s very weak when you treat it on time. It’s like a disease in human beings, if you treat it in time, it’s going to be easy to kill it but if you let it get ahead of you, it’s going to be complicated.
S: Here in Colombia then, is it a good thing to have disease resistant varieties?
O: In my personal opinion, I think it was a mistake to encourage the removal of varieties that were of high quality. For example, many Typica and Caturra trees, which are varieties that produce quality quite easily, have been removed (out of fear of roya). Producers are running risks planting these disease resitant varieties because they don’t know how to best manage them. For me, I prefer to control roya in those that I know, like Caturra, rather than plant varieties that we don’t know how will act. Which risk is greater? For us we don’t plant coffee for three to four years, we plant it for 25 or 30 years.
For example, I lived the experience of changing a coffee native to this area for a resistant variety and the results were very difficult because it was a variety that only gave me 250g of cherry per tree per year.
S: Which variety was that?
O: This was Castillo. With Caturra, we’d been able to get up to 1.1 kilos per year. So this was very difficult because it represented a very large economic downfall.
S: You planted this coffee because it was the proposition on the part of the Federacion?
O: Yes, because they gave me the information that this was a very good variety, that it was very productive. And yes it was, but at less than 1,600 metres of altitude while we were at 1780 metres. And another consideration that wasn’t taken into account was the brightness or sun exposure at the farm level. In some farms, the sun exposure is very high but in others that are in valleys or ravines and in these types of farms, like ours, the sun exposure is lower and these varieties have many more problems. These varieties then are very good, but everything depends on the topography and the altitude in the area.
S: There are lots of Castillo varieties by now, right? Do you remember which one this was that you planted?
O: Naranjal. It came from an experimental farm in Naranjal.
S: Share with me a great achievement of the Ortega-Gomez family.
O: I think the greatest achievement we’ve made in our family is in learning how to work as a team. All five of us now share the same thinking which is the first achievement and from there, we’ve been able to develop recognition of our family’s coffee. I think it’s a very big achievement that now our coffee is beginning to be known around the world and now buyers begin to call and ask “how many bags do you have for me?” This allows us all to feel very satisfied in the work we’ve been doing.
E: I think also the most important achievement has been to stay united as a family because in coffee growing it’s not very common to find that all members of a family are in agreement and unified to the same end. The unification of our family is the biggest achievement.
Now we’re collecting the harvest of so many years of work but this doesn’t come alone, you know, because after the past harvest and the support we received from buyers it’s served as a type of trampoline because we were able to change a lot of things (on the farm). Also, last year being part of the competition (their coffee was used at World Coffee in Good Spirits by Graham Hayes representing De Mello Palheta Coffee Roasters) gave us so much energy to go forward and to continue to improve. But all of this was a combined effort of many peoples because I’m sure that without the help of Don Alejandro (Renjifo) it would have been very complicated because even if the coffee is really good, if one doesn’t have the connection to buyers it would be very difficult.
Prices are very important, but as we’ve spoken before, the most important thing in business is this relationship and this friendship where there can be so much feedback from the end consumer to the producer where it began. All of the chain is complete in this case and there’s a feedback loop that’s very strong and everyone can learn. This is the amazing thing about coffee is that in coffee, nobody has said the last word and there are so many things to do, but we need connections and to be full of information.