We hike the steep path by the side of the road, up and up and up, moving quickly in the failing light. A forest of hardwoods towers overhead, and beneath it hangs a second canopy of coffee. We enter a grove of Typica trees extending up upward into the foliage before leaning back down again under the weight of coffee cherries. The forest feels old, these Typica plants being descendants of the very first Coffea arabica cultivar to be disseminated as a colonial cash crop. The farmer, Samuel, says that these Typica trees are at least 20 years old, and that they have never been stumped. In order to harvest from these twiggy towering giants, pickers reach up with sticks to bend the boughs down, rapidly harvesting the ripe cherries from the tops of the trees. The coffee is organically shade-grown, just like all coffee grown by members of the Huadquiña Cooperative where Samuel serves as a Directivo for this part of the valley. As we continue to walk beneath the canopy, he rushes off to harvest some granadillas growing in another part of his parcel. Taking in the ecosystem in the twilight, we see a few Yellow Bourbon trees interspersed amongst the Typica, but sadly all the trees show advanced signs of coffee leaf rust. Samuel returns to pass out granadillas, and we make our way back down the escarpment in the deepening dusk.
On the way back down to the road we pass by Samuel’s brother’s part of the farm. His brother no longer maintains his parcel and the coffee plants look abandoned; the underbrush between them has grown thick and wild. While his brother moved to the city years ago, Sam lives in Santa Teresa just 15 minutes down the road and is the only member of his family to still maintain the land. When asked if any of his children will continue to cultivate coffee, he laughs nervously, shakes his head and says he does not know.
Peru sits at a critical point in its history as a coffee-producing nation. A leading producer of organic coffee, Peru is on the cusp of becoming a major player in the Specialty Coffee market. When local and foreign coffee professionals talk about the state of Specialty Coffee in Peru, one hears the same word used over and over again: potential. Three years ago, farms (especially organic farms) were hit hard by a major coffee leaf rust outbreak. Peru’s production has been struggling to recover from the initial 30% loss brought on by rust, with current production still 20-25% below “pre-rust” levels. Organic farming is a point of pride for many small-scale producers, and helps cooperatives receive higher prices when exporting the coffee. However, organic production sometimes results from lack of resources or access to more powerful agricultural treatments rather than being an active choice. While many producers I met “believe” in organic cultivation, they are also limited in their options for increasing yield or fighting diseases, and they suffer from chronic shortages in local supplies of certified organic fertilizers.
Last July, in order to learn about these and other issues plaguing the production of Specialty Coffee in Peru, Caravela sent me to work as a quality analyst at the Huadquiña Cooperative in the southern region of Cusco. My colleague Thomas Pingen was similarly assigned to work with various cooperatives in Northern Peru. We encountered very different coffee environments, both ecologically and economically. In the north, the climate is more humid and hilly; the supply chain of coffee more advanced, competitive, and enthusiastic about entering into the world of Specialty Coffee. In the drier and more mountainous south, Specialty Coffee is an entirely new concept to most producers and coops—the idea that the price of the coffee cannot be determined until it is roasted and cupped is totally changing the way farmers think about their coffee. Everyone we worked with and met in Peru agrees that there is “huge potential” for the production and export of Specialty Coffee. However, tapping into that potential is often obstructed by bureaucracy, lack of familiarity with the quality standards of Specialty Coffee, and lack of logistic infrastructure.
In my 3 months at Huadquiña, I cupped a total of 3 lots from Samuel’s farm in the Yanatile Valley, but none were acceptable as Specialty grade coffee due to defects in the cup. Lamentably, small missteps in the post-harvest and storage processes can ruin even the most expertly cultivated and harvested coffee. The good news is that the defects found by cupping Samuel’s lots individually can be traced back to critical quality control points in the post-harvest process like de-pulping, fermentation, or drying. The next time around, Samuel can improve his coffee by addressing the issues we helped him identify. For the first time ever, the members of Huadquiña I worked with were able to receive quality feedback about their individual lots, rather than just seeing their coffee blended away into obscurity. Keeping farmer lots apart and cupping them separately allows producers to not only learn the value of their coffee, but also how to make their coffee better. Whether good news or bad, direct feedback is the crucial first step to improve quality.
By cupping lots individually in order to find out the best ones, we also were able to identify exemplary producers to serve as educators and leaders for their associates. These producers had the opportunity to earn significantly more by selling their lots as Specialty Coffee, again setting a powerful example for their associates. Tapping into Peru’s Specialty Coffee potential will require providing market access to farmers so that they can reap sufficient rewards for their hard work to justify continuing the cultivation of coffee. If coffee farming in Peru is going continue into the next generation, it must be not only a noble but also a financially sustainable way of life. If any of Samuel’s children are going to continue growing coffee in the Yanatile Valley, it has to “vale la pena” as they say.
Our goal in Peru is to help not only Samuel and his associates at Huadquiña, but hopefully thousands of other small farmers across Peru address small weak points in their systems. We were able to work with seven different coops and farmers’ associations in 2016, and we were able to identity some stellar producers as well as where we can help with knowledge and technical support. This year we want to expand our reach by working with even more farmers and associations, to build a small but dedicated team of quality analyst and agronomists to work directly with farmers and cooperatives. By empowering producers with quality feedback, agronomic support, and access to the Specialty Coffee market, we hope to be instrumental in creating a sustainable Peruvian coffee culture focused on quality coffee rather than commodity coffee.
-Benjamin Schweizer, Peru Country Manager