How small changes can add up to make a huge difference
Omar (Left) Sebastian (right).
I want to tell you the story of two heroes. They are heroes because of their courage to do something that gives hope we as individuals can make positive worthwhile differences in this world despite grey skies looming overhead.
I say this because for a time, hearing about the grand catastrophes that we face had me feeling helpless. Is it the same for you? When you hear about the worsening state of climate change and its scale, when you hear about poverty and its scale, when you hear about deforestation, its scale and in fact what we have recently experienced with the global pandemic and its scale — it can all make you feel quite helpless.
Many people I know and perhaps you that know too have resigned themselves to the inevitability of disaster. And maybe they are right. But for as long as we’re alive every good bone in our bodies, I’m sure, is restless to do something that contributes to a solution — this is also part of our human nature. These two heroes have actioned on this restlessness we share and that’s why I want to tell their story to you. They give hope in a time of darkness that we can contribute fundamentally to a better tomorrow. And even if on the grand scale there is still no guarantee, we can at least resign ourselves to the sound knowledge that the big picture is indeed made up of lots of small parts and that we did our small part.
Saving Armenia with Sebastian Velasquez
There are two Armenias in Colombia and indeed three in the world. One Armenia is a city in the coffee-producing capital of Colombia, Quindio. The other is a little heard of the town, blanketed by mist, nestled in the mountains of another department called Antioquia. We are adventuring to this second Armenia for our first story.
It was built just over 120 years ago and one of the sons of the original settlers, a man with worn brown leather shoes, proper trousers, a polished wooden stick, and a large slanted grey cap under which you can glimpse the shadows of his wizened, creased skin still enchants the cafes of the stoney town square from which views of deep valleys and high mountains roll. It’s a magical place that the locals say snows twice a year, they’re referencing the brilliant white inflorescence of the coffee flower which seasonally mats the hills around the town.
Or at least used to.
At its peak, Armenia is said to have been populated by 40 000 people and this was just a couple of decades ago. The work that sustained the population was largely coffee production which was quite lucrative at the time. However, amongst many other factors, mass production of coffee in Brazil had pushed the market price down to the point it cost more to produce than sell.
Naturally, farmers began to sell their land to seek opportunities in cities or pull their coffee out and replace it with other products namely, cows. You see, whilst the price of coffee had been falling the price of meat had only been going up due to burgeoning global demand. Cows then provide a great solution for the landowner as they take care of themselves, feed themselves, keep the land maintained as pasture by themselves. So costs are minimal and so is labour, it only takes one person to check on a bunch of cows and this is the crux of the disaster.
A hectare of coffee can hold up to 3000 plants and require up to 100 experienced and skilled people to pick the cherries during harvest according to Sebastian, even off-season there’s a lot of maintenance work to do. But for cows, several hectares would only require a single person. Essentially, as the coffee goes so do jobs in Armenia, and thereafter the fate of these workers is unknown. Likely, they would enter poverty as they resettle in pricier cities and other towns. Moreover, there’s an ecological disaster too as cows keep the land clear of trees allowing water to erode the soil and wreck water sources. It’s painfully clear when you look out on the landscape which farms hold cows and which hold coffee. The land with coffee is dark green, lush, with tall trees and thick soils capturing carbon from the atmosphere. The land with cows a washed yellowy-green, empty hills crisscrossed by lines of compacted soil left by cow hooves and are becoming more commonplace in Colombia.
In 2020 when Finca El Diamante too was set to become another cow farm Sebastian heard of a solution to save his town, the people who he’s grown up working with, and his tradition — speciality coffee. He heard that by producing coffee differently he could create flavours unique to his farm and then connect with buyers directly to fetch prices well above the market value. But this also required him to take a huge risk.
In the same year, he took the leap into speciality coffee and used nearly his entire harvest to undergo 300 experiments testing out different methods to produce flavour. He had also to retrain his workers, invest in new infrastructure and new farming techniques. It was a total overhaul to achieve something he believed in with no guarantee of outcome. When we met Sebastian for the first time in March 2021, a few months after his new coffees were released, can you guess how many of the 300 experiments worked? One, yes only one but it held the key to exquisite flavour and the solution for his farm.
What amazed me was that through all the investment he still paid his workers nearly double what’s usual and this year he wants to pay them more if he can. He believes in the benefit of coffee farming for all. The great news is his coffees this year are tasting even better. If I may indulge for a moment, we tasted juicy passion fruit and pineapple in one sample. And if I may divulge for a moment, I think if we could support him it would make a difference to this town of Armenia. Perhaps you could visit one day and see the difference you made yourself. If this sounds like something you’d be in to then please tell your local coffee roaster about our partnership at chetventureorigins.coffee and get them to write in or better still, sign up to our newsletter so we can ship you Sebastian’s flavours.
Omar Arango — paradise can be more productive
Stepping onto Omar’s farm is a life-changing experience. It was here my perspective over what’s possible changed. If anyone told you that we are destructive creatures, that we have to rip forests and spay toxic chemicals to feed our population, well then, after visiting Omar’s farm you can say:
‘No, I know of another way’
Omar is more than a farmer, he is a steward of the land. A land for all, man and beast alike. On his farm, American eagles come to nest. People breathe freely liberated from toxic chemicals that typically cause respiratory problems. The rivers run clean of fertilizers, crystal and pure and the mists peg lichens to every coffee bush, cherry, and branch. It’s a paradise. And he achieves it without sacrificing wages for his workers, quality, or the farm’s productivity. How does he do it?
Farms like Omar’s are rare. In a year of searching, I only found one farm which harmonised ecological practices, such as organic farming and agroforestry with quality and that was, indeed, his farm. Often, organic farms are such as the coffee is left to take care of itself. There’s no pesticide use or fertilisers or maintenance. The quality is low, the production is low too but since there are no costs involved it can still be profitable especially with the mark up from the organic label. On the other hand, Omar is a keen award winner coming on top of competitions with his coffees in Korea, Colombia and Europe. On his farm, you can see the careful and thought-out creation of things. The coffee is planted at a density that reduces stress on the plants, the native trees which dominate the farm are planted for their ability to produce organic matter enriching the soil with essential nitrogen, nutrients, and carbon. Pests are reduced as they exist now in a functioning and balanced ecosystem maintained by Omar’s daily walks and watchful eye. Not only does this produce a coffee that tastes pure, a clear snapshot of the place it was grown but that is also extremely complex as the fermentation the coffee cherries undergo occurs with a full microbiome. It’s taken Omar 25 committed years to create this symbol of hope for the world, that there is a way to farm productively in harmony with nature. He also supports local farms and the town by generously sharing his knowledge and coffee.
And so my ode to Omar is to say that it takes a maverick, a visionary, a person committed to a better world to risk it all and try a new path he believes would lead to a better future for us all. Let’s support Omar in his mission and in so doing maintain this island of hope showing the world there is a different way, a better way.
Global Coffee Price Chart: https://www.macrotrends.net/2535/coffee-prices-historical-chart-data
Global Meet Prices: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PBEEFUSDQ