In Search of Direct Trade Coffee from Colombia – Day 2

It’s official, I both smelled and tasted the best things I have ever smelled or tasted before in my life today.  The smell: flowering coffee trees.  The taste: cacao fruit picked straight off the tree.  Actually, today was a full day of deliciousness, so I am inclined to start with a list of things that I have eaten.

  1. Colombian empanadas, bread made from corn and cheese and baked into gooey delight
  2. Cacao fruit picked straight off a tree, a sweet chocolaty tangy taste, with the afterbite of cacao seed
  3. Cheese and corn crackers
  4. Wild blackberries
  5. Lulo juice (Colombian fruit)
  6. Mandarin oranges (green and orange)
  7. Pan fried pork, hen, sweet boiled plantains, boiled yucca, rice, salad, avocado, and potato cilantro  soup
  8. Coffee, with many spoonfuls of sugar
  9. Shots of aguardiente from Huila

Jealous, anyone? If not, you probably should be. 

Today was another day of farm visits, this time in the region of Palermo in the Colombian state of Huila.  Palermo is about 45 minutes from Neiva, but the coffee farms are a treacherous 30 minute (or more) drive up a very steep, very curvy, dirt road.  Luckily, I missed the terrifying drive up in my deep sleep car nap, and awoke to an endless vista of mountains and coffee.  We visited 5 farms today, and each of them has a very special connection to each other.  It is tough to explain without a very detailed family tree and history of Palermo, but here goes.  Miguel Angel Gonzalez has a large farm, part of which he gifted to his two sons, Edinson and Wilmer Gonzalez.  Miguel also gave a separate part of his farm to his third son, Reinel Gonzalez.  Miguel’s daughter Milena is married to Saul Vasquez, son of Maria Diva Ardila Bahamón, who just happens to have grown up with Miguel. Got it? Edinson, Wilmer, Reinel, Saul, and Maria Diva all produced spectacular microlots that caught our attention in the cupping room at Coffee Bean... but I didn’t know they were all so closely related until today!

Farm #1—“El Eden” o “La Argentina”

Quick Facts:

  • Owner: Edinson Gonzalez
  • Altitude: 1700 meters
  • Total Area: 3 hectares
  • Coffee Area: 2 hectares
  • Varietals: Colombia
  • Annual Production: 30 cargas
  • Certifications: Rainforest Alliance (in process), UTZ
  • Other crops: plantains, corn, yucca, pantales, oranges, vegetable garden
  • Drying: Solar tents with raised African “bunk beds”

Edinson’s farm is very well maintained.  He is obviously a very hard worker and is proud of his coffee.  Interesting tidbit about his farm is that in combination with the usual pollinating insects, bats also pollinate Edinson’s farm at night.  Both Edinson and his brother Wilmer grew up in a coffee family.  Their father, Miguel Angel, has owned his farm for over 35 years, and he got into the coffee business via his father in law, who made sure that he would have a way to care for his wife.  Miguel gifted each of his sons a lot of coffee when they were young so that they could learn to grow and experiment with varietals.  They sons received more land once they were married and had families to take care of.  We hiked through this farm, not easy in a foot cast, but a neighbor came to the rescue with a horse, which I rode all around the farm (highlight of the day, by far).

Farm #2—El Manatial

Quick Facts:

  • Owner: Wilmer Gonzalez
  • Altitude: 1830 meters
  • Total Area: 3 hectares
  • Coffee Area: 1.5 hectares
  • Varietals: Colombia (50%), Caturra (50%)
  • Annual Production: 22 cargas
  • Certifications: Rainforest Alliance (in process), UTZ
  • Other crops: plantains, corn, yucca, pantales, oranges, vegetable garden, blackberry fields
  • Drying: Solar tents with raised African “bunk-beds”

Like his brother Edinson, Wilmer also takes good care of his farm, although his father says that he is “younger and lazier” and therefore does not produce as much coffee.  He also cultivates blackberries on his land. 

Farm #3—La Ensillada

Quick Facts:

  • Owner: Maria Diva Ardila Bahamón
  • Altitude: 1700 meters
  • Total Area: 7.5 hectares
  • Coffee Area: 5 hectares
  • Varietals: Colombia, Castillo, Caturra (20%)
  • Annual Production: 60 cargas
  • Certifications: Rainforest Alliance (in process), UTZ
  • Other crops: plantains, corn, yucca, pantales, oranges, vegetable garden
  • Drying: Solar tents (damaged, no money to replace)

Maria Diva is perhaps one of my favorite people, ever, in the world.  She is full of a contagious energy and a lighthearted free spirit.  It is impossible to resist her charm.  Maria Diva is a widow and has 6 sons who take good care of her (one of which is married to Miguel’s daughter), although she admits that she tries to be a very good mother in law so that she has women in her life to take care of her too.  Maria grew up in the region of Palermo, where she went to elementary school with Miguel.  A touching story about her farm: one lot is named “el pulmon” (the lung) which has a very personal meaning to her.  When her husband was still alive, they were going through very hard financial times with 6 young children.  Their farm was not producing, and she didn’t know what they were going to do when finally, this lot started flowering and producing coffee.  This allowed them all to “take a deep breath,” hence the name “la pulmon.”  I could go on and on about Maria Diva, like the fact that she spontaneously makes up poems, which she sings as songs, tells jokes like a comedian, and speaks in a commanding and authoritative tone about the production of coffee in her region.  Together with Miguel, Maria is the leader of the families, and ensures that all are taken care of. 

Farm #4—San Carlos

  • Owner: Reinel Gonzalez
  • Altitude: 1600 meters
  • Total Area: 3 hectares
  • Coffee Area: 2 hectares
  • Varietals: Colombia (80%), Caturra (20%)
  • Annual Production: 40 cargas
  • Certifications: UTZ (in process)
  • Other crops: plantains, citrus, pastos, vegetable garden, blackberries
  • Drying: solar tents

Another of the Gonzalez sons, Reinel keeps a very tidy farm.  He has been in charge of this piece of land for 14 years when his father gifted it to him.  His wife, Ana Lucia Vargas, cultivates baby coffee trees in a small nursery and takes a very active role in their coffee production.  They also have a very impressive and colorful garden.


Farm #5—La Primavera

  • Owner: Saul Vasquez (son of Maria Diva)
  • Altitude: 1697 meters
  • Total Area: 9.8 hectares
  • Coffee Area: 5 hectares
  • Varietals: Caturra, Castillo, Tabi
  • Annual Production: 4000 kg (2010)
  • Certifications: UTZ
  • Other crops: plantains, yucca, pantales, oranges

This gracious family hosted us for lunch today; all except for the meat came from all 5 farms that we visited.  This farm is also part of the national park of Huila.  They have the most adorable children.

As you can see, today was a busy day.  Some interesting facts that didn’t make it in up there: all of the farms are fed by springs, called “nacimientos” which means “births.” I think this is a beautiful way to describe a mountain spring.  All of the farms also treat their water that they use in the milling process, and use the excess sugars from coffee cherries to help along their compost heaps.  Maria Diva gave a heartfelt speech at lunch entitled “Strengths and weaknesses of our region.”  I have this on video and will work on adding subtitles because it is worth a watch.  Alex Russan was giving a particularly fragrant flowering coffee tree a sniff and literally got a facefull of mosquitoes.  He now sports a mosquito bite beard.  I also think it is worth repeating that I rode a horse down and up about 500 meters, everyone else had to walk.  The day ended like any good day in Latin America: sitting in the stoop of a convenience store, taking shots of aguardiente in a circle (never forgetting Pachamama) and laughing. 

One last tidbit—orchids grow spontaneously all over the trees here.  Even on trees in the middle of a town on a dirt road.

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