This week Dog and Hat was lucky enough to meet with Ricardo from Finca La Lomita, a coffee farm in Colombia that supplies Direct Trade coffee to Vagabond Coffee Roasters in London.

Hopefully this article will provide you with an insight into the benefits of Direct Trade arrangements to coffee growing communites and help you understand why we always try to include Direct Trade coffees in our subscriptions where we can… it really does make a massive difference to people lives.

Watch out for our Christmas Direct Trade box that will include Vagabond’s roast of the Finca La Lomita Direct Trade among other fine Direct Trade coffees.

Ricardo Finca La Lomita Coffee Farm

Meet Ricardo and welcome to the Finca La Lomita farm on the eastern face of the western branch of the Colombian Andes, in a region known as Farallones de Cali. Ricardo’s father Raul planted the first Castillo trees here in 1979 to start the farm on the journey to where it is today.

Finca La Lomita, like most farms in Colombia, had been traditionally focussed on the internal Colombian coffee market with the support of Fedecafé. After a few tough years at the start of the 2010’s, the family made a conscious decision in 2012 to move away from the commodity coffee market and strive towards the higher quality specialty market. As an interesting note, almost all speciality grade coffee in Colombia is exported as the internal market is only maturing slowly.

They cupped their first batch the next year and it came in with a score of 79/100 (just below the 80/100 mark required for speciality coffee), but the testers identified a few areas that needed improvement in order to raise the standard to what was required. The family then invested in quality control processes, changed their storage methods, and bought new equipment.  This immediately led to an increased cup quality that allowed Ricardo to start working on Direct Trade relationships.

Ricardo first came over to the UK to study engineering at university so the obvious place to start Direct Trade relationships was in the UK. He arrived in the first year with 3,500kg of coffee to sell, and one of his very first customers was Vagabond Roasters in London. A strong and friendly relationship has continued to be fostered, which is a real theme with everyone that knows Vagabond.

This year he is bringing over 6.5 tonnes, and differentiates himself from other Direct Trade farmers by not imposing higher minimum orders on sales, which has historically been a barrier to some of the smaller roasters being able to engage in direct trade (despite their real desire to do so). So if there are any roasters out there reading this and are interested in high quality Colombian Castillo speciality coffee – just get in touch with Ricardo, and he can hook you up :-)

Back on the farm, the Direct Trade premium that Ricardo now gets for his crop allows the family to reinvest in both the farm and the communities that help produce their coffee. Finca La Lomita has 3 full-time employees that have been working on the farm for over 25 years (now that’s loyalty), and then they have an itinerant coffee picker workforce that arrive during harvest season to gather the crop.

It is with the pickers that the real investment has taken place. To get a higher quality crop, you need to ensure that you pick the best cherries at the right time. Traditionally, pickers are paid by the weight of cherries that they harvest, the quality doesn’t really come into consideration – so you will certainly have unripe or over-ripe cherries collected, as this method of compensation tends to lead to practices such as strip picking and a focus on quantity over quality… which in turn leads to both wasted cherries and lower quality coffee.

Now, picking coffee is a hard business and it’s not glamourous like you see in the Kenco adverts, it’s a physical job - you get up early, you get wet when it rains, you burn when it’s hot but it’s absolutely one of the most critical parts in the coffee chain. You could grow the best coffee in the world, but without the best pickers it gets left rotting on the floor or picked to early…. What a waste.

The family’s key challenge, as with all Coffee farmers, is getting access to the best pickers when they need them. As harvesting coffee is a seasonal business, these pickers aren’t ‘on the books’ all the time – so if you get them in and the crop isn’t ready, then they’ll head somewhere else where it is ready and then you’re left without pickers when you need them.

Ricardo used the Direct Trade arrangements to switch the compensation package for the pickers from one based on weight to one based on quality, which wasn’t easy due to the inherent distrust within the coffee picking community (weight is absolute, quality is subjective). The family pays a retainer to their pickers during the early and the late parts of the harvest where there are fewer ripe cherries to pick, which ensures that they are not left out of pocket. They also pay a premium of 50% over minimum wage to and educates them to help change their mindset to picking only the ripest cherries rather than simply focussing on quantity. This has the added benefit that these trained and motivated pickers want to come back and work for the family year on year, which leads to greater consistency and improved quality.

Moving forward, this key link in the chain must continue to be improved on – pickers need to be incentivised properly for their role – one way to help achieve this is through education of the coffee consumers to understand what makes a better cup of coffee and why you have to pay more for it. Then everyone’s lives can be improved – the consumer gets better cup of coffee, the farmer can invest more, and the pickers can have a better standard of living.

Unfortunately, a sad reality is that not all farmers are currently able to invest what’s required to raise their coffee to speciality standard because they are living hand to mouth and any money they make one year goes straight back into ensuring they have a harvest for the next year.

As well as the issues around access to coffee pickers, the other challenges that the farm faces are threats to the coffee plants themselves. As the farm grows Castillo, which is fairly resistant to Coffee Rust, that’s one headache they don’t have but the key threat to the coffee plants on Ricardo’s farm is the Coffee Borer beetle, which the farm controls without the use of pesticides.

On top of all of this, there are the environmental challenges that mother nature throws at the farm – last year they were battling the effects of El Nino with a very hot dry summer causing the coffee to ripen too quickly – to counter this, Ricardo has installed water butts to help irrigate the farm when necessary and growing a large number of shade trees to help combat the increased sunlight and heat… these are problems that are only going to get worse as climate change continues apace.

Despite all the challenges and by incorporating all the changes enabled by the Direct Trade arrangements, the farm is now producing approx. 80% of their coffee by weight to Speciality Grade.

Hopefully this article has given you an insight into why Dog and Hat believed that the Direct Trade route is such an important vehicle in the coffee chain.

Susanna Morgan