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by Angelica Cox-Vazquez

For several years the people of Colombia have been fighting against the perception that they are all part of the narco-trafficking trade. A leader in this effort has been the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC). The FNC, which is a non-governmental organization, has been working with and supporting coffee farmers since 1927. They do this by ensuring that profits go back to coffee farmers, promoting the Colombian coffee around the world, assuring that the farmer's coffee is purchased, and providing technical assistance in each community to create the highest quality of coffee. One of the many projects the FNC has implemented is to introduce buyers from around the world to the coffee growers, a practice uncommon in the conventional coffee buying world but one Peace Coffee has been doing for several years. The FNC invited two representatives from our importing cooperative to join them at the 2nd Annual Expo Especiales International Specialty Coffee Fair in Ibagué, Colombia. Erik Iverson from Larry's Beans and I happened to be the lucky representatives from Cooperative Coffees to take part in this amazing educational trip. Others in attendance were producers, non-profit organizations, traders, buyers, entrepreneurs, certifying companies and producers.

My adventure started in Bogotá, Colombia, where I met other representatives from different coffee companies from around the world. Our host from the FNC, Nicolas, took us to visit the famous Museo de Oro where we saw pre-Hispanic gold work and learned more about the history of Colombia. After a trip to the museum and after a delicious Italian lunch, we decided to take a tour of the FNC headquarters office. The drive there was fascinating, because it allowed us to see the streets of Bogotá. I saw several beautiful and colorful murals as well as the mountainous hills that surrounded the city. Following our drive was the tour of the FNC cupping lab where coffee is evaluated and cupped. The cupping staff explained how their lab is used to control the quality of coffee. Before being exported, all coffee must have at least 4 or 5 cuppings (cupping is one of the coffee tasting techniques used to evaluate coffee aroma and the flavor profile of a coffee, and is also used to assess a defective bean). Since one of the main goals of the FNC is to export quality coffee, the cuppings are an essential stage in the exporting process. Our second stop was to the FNC Juan Valdez Café, where we had a "tinto" (black coffee) and learned about the quintessential Colombian cafetero Juan Valdez, who has come to symbolize the Colombian coffee farmer. Our afternoon ended with a trip to the airport and a flight to Ibagué, where we were to spend the next few days at the Expo Especiales fair.

To kick off the fair, we took a trip to a local coffee farm in Tolima called Los Naranjales, which is owned by the Torente family. They gave us a tour of their land, where they showed us their processing plant, worm composting system, and coffee farm. From the Torente family farm, we took a trip to the local cooperative warehouse, which houses all of the local pergamino coffee, and then to ALMACAFE, the exporting agency that is part of the FNC.

During the fair, there were different workshops and presentations that focused on the U.S. coffee market, the Colombian specialty coffee market, the Q quality program, and the best drying process practices. There was also a certification process panel, where coffee farmers had the opportunity to ask questions about the process and the value of having different certifications. It was extremely educational for me because prior to this trip I knew very little about the Colombian coffee industry. The next stop was Ocamonte de Santander!

Since Eric and I were in Colombia, the FNC organized a trip for us to visit the Asociación de Pequeños Cafecultores de Ocamonte (APCO), the coffee cooperative Peace Coffee buys coffee from in the eastern mountain range of Colombia. This was Peace Coffee's first time visiting the cooperative, so I was honored to be the first to meet with the Ocamonte association. To get there from Ibague we had to take two plane rides and a two hour drive. Once we arrived we met with Pedro and Nestor from the FNC, who were our "tour guides" during our stay. On our drive up the mountain to Ocamonte, they pointed out the diversified land. I noticed the beautiful mountain ranges that were full of sugar cane, plantain, various fruit trees, and, of course, coffee! The morning of our arrival we met with members of the association and the Board of Directors. Don Miguel Antonio Chacón, the president of the association, invited us into their communal hall that serves as a church, a meeting room and a dance hall. The group welcomed us and showed us a homemade video of their district. They shared their stories about how Fair Trade premiums have benefited their livelihoods, their families and their community. It was remarkable to hear their stories first hand and to hear how thankful they were for the Fair Trade system. 

After our meeting, we drove over to Doña Rosita’s home where she was preparing our first "real" Colombian lunch: rice, local fish, fried plantain, soup, and yucca. After lunch we toured the farms of Doña Rosita, Don Luis Antonio, Doña Graciela, and Don Miguel. They showed us the beautiful coffee cherries that were bright red and ready to be picked. Additionally, each member demonstrated how the Fair Trade premium benefited their families and workers. Most of the farmers used the fair trade premium to improve their kitchens and drying patios. For example, Don Luis Antonio added tile to his kitchen and an outdoor restroom. One important observation I made was that all of the coffee farmers had their own processing plant. With Fair Trade premiums and with assistance from the FNC, coffee farmers throughout Colombia have the opportunity to have their own processing plant, which is uncommon in many countries and allows farmers more control over the quality of their product. 

Once we were done with our tours, the clouds came suddenly and the sky turned dark. The rain transformed from little raindrops to a huge thunderstorm. Don Miguel then gave us a ride to our host family's home where we were to stay the night. Sonia and her son Luis Antonio welcomed us into their home and showed us to our rooms. The thunderstorm had come in strong so the lights went out as soon as we got there. We had our dinner by candlelight and played a card game with Luis Antonio. Following the card game, we tucked in for the night since we needed to wake up bright and early the next day.  

On our last day, Erik, Pedro, Nestor and I took a tour of Aguas Frias, the local elementary school. The principal gave us a tour of the school's coffee farm, which is used to teach students about sustainable farming practices. The students prepared a presentation for us in which they read a poem, sang the national anthem and gave us a beautiful wooden plaque carved with our names in it. Tears came to my eyes as we parted with hugs and the four of us went down the hill to the Cooperativa de Cafecultores de Santander, which is the cooperative that APCO is a member of. We met with Don Luis José Villareal, who explained to us the warehouse system. During coffee picking season the coffee farmers of Santander take their coffee to this warehouse after it is picked and dried. Here it is tested for quality, and if it passes the test and the batch has a small percentage of defects, the farmer gets paid more. This in turn creates an incentive for them to produce good quality coffee, and an additional bonus is that farmers are paid right when they turn in their coffee instead of weeks later, which happens in other countries. In addition, coffee farmers are able to see the exchange rate, the stock exchange and what the price of their coffee should be displayed in a real-time on a sign inside the warehouse. It is a very impressive and very transparent system.

Sadly, this was our last stop during our tour.  After this, it was back to Bogotá and then home to Minnesota. Reflecting on my trip, I am amazed by how much transparency and trust there is in our relationships, and how much care about the people, the environment, the community and the coffee goes into each bag that we buy.

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