The Land of Avocados and Roses, Nariño, February 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Nariño for the first time.   Nariño, of course, is famous for great coffee and I had cupped outstanding Nariño lots at the Cup of Excellence before.  So I was excited to get to know this department of Colombia, its people and, of course, its coffee.

A view of the valley in Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino, where most of the El Aguacate farms are located.

A view of the valley in Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino, where most of the El Aguacate farms are located.

Upon arriving in Nariño, my first impression was “grand”.  I expect each place coffee is grown to have unique geography.  And where I feel that Cauca generally has high rolling plateau and Huila has steep slopes, Narino was “grand”.  The vistas are huge, the scale is big and the feeling is a sense of “massive”.  And yet, most everything is very close, centered around Pasto, relatively easily accessible.

We started by visiting the Creciendo Con El Campo group in the Santa Barbara community in the municipality of Sandona.  Sandona is on the backside of the Galeras volcano from Pasto and less than an hour away. This group produces the coffee that we call El Aguacate.  

Meeting with the members of Creciendo Con El Campo, in Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino

Meeting with the members of Creciendo Con El Campo, in Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino

We began by meeting with the group, hearing about how things are going, how we can improve and how to take action steps to get there.  Virmax has a new Quality Analyst, Esteban Solarte, who is Pastuso, lives in Pasto and will be visiting the groups in Nariño regularly to fully implement the Virmax model in this area.

The town of Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino

The town of Santa Barbara, Sandona, Narino

These producers are very small.  The average farm size is half a hectare, annual production of about 9 bags.   At this small scale, production is personal, and it is hard, which was made evident to me when we visited some of the farms.  The community of Santa Barbara is at 2400 meters, so we had to go down to the farms.  Most of the farms are located next to each other in the valley between two massive ridges.  We parked on the side of the road and started off on a footpath.  

Vista of the switchback pass on the ridge that the producers of El Aguacate have to descend and ascend everyday to bring their coffee back to their homes for drying.

Vista of the switchback pass on the ridge that the producers of El Aguacate have to descend and ascend everyday to bring their coffee back to their homes for drying.

We descended for about 400 meters, until we reached the first farm. This was a steep, rocky, switchback which I found to be a difficult hike.   For some of these farmers, it takes them one and half hours walking until they reach their farm.  And this path is accessible by foot and mule, if you are lucky, and that’s it.  So these producers walk over an hour to get to work, spend all day working their farm, and they have to leave at least an hour and a half before dusk so they can get back home.  And if they are harvesting, they depulp their coffee at the farm and take their wet, de-pulped coffee up to their homes to wash, ferment and dry at their house.  On a mule, if they are lucky, or on their backs if they are not.  That’s right, ascending at least 400 meters on a rocky switchback with a bag of wet coffee parchment on your back.  Massive. I struggled to make it back up carrying just myself.

One of the producers of Creciendo Con El Campo at a rest station, half way down the ridge.

One of the producers of Creciendo Con El Campo at a rest station, half way down the ridge.

So the impact of a quality premium to these producers is greater than it would be for bigger farms.  And fortunately, the quality produced from these farms is above average.  For the current harvest, however, an untimely December dry spell stunted the development of the cherries and coffee delivered reached an AA level at best.  A good coffee, with a good quality premium, but not the AAA and ML level that we are shooting for, so we have work to do.

Virmax Quality Analyst Esteban Solarte with the members of the Creciendo Con El Cambo group.

Virmax Quality Analyst Esteban Solarte with the members of the Creciendo Con El Cambo group.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this group evolves and improves with the help of Esteban and the PECA team.  I’m very confident that we will see significant improvement in the quality of the coffee and the number of microlots generated from Creciendo Con El Campo.

View of the waterfall from the central park of the town of Sandona, Narino.

View of the waterfall from the central park of the town of Sandona, Narino.

One more thing about Sandona.  This town is known for making very fine hats that are sold all over Colombia.  After the visit we went to the central park of Sandona which is itself unique with an ornate church on one side and an mountain on the other side, complete with natural waterfall.   A couple of blocks off of the park was the hat-making district where hats were being pressed and shaped.  So I bought one, custom made while we watched, a really nice hat that would fetch hundreds of dollars in the big cities.  Fine hats and fine coffee, great reasons to like Sandona.

Saludos,
Badi Bradley