Back to the land

On a farm in Colombia, one coffee-grower has gone back to his roots to make a difference - not just to his crops, but also to the land and the people that work on it.

Buying a cup of coffee is a simple exercise when you're drinking on a small scale - choosing between regular and decaf is usually as hard as it gets. But buying a whole crop of organic coffee is somewhat more challenging. For a supermarket like Waitrose, there are many factors to consider.

  • Is the farm using methods that protect the environment?
  • Are the workers well-paid and well-treated?
  • Does the farmer put quality before profit?

The easy way to buy coffee is simply to get a broker to do it for you; but that wouldn't answer any of these crucial questions. So our coffee buyer, Ted McFadyen, set out to find an organic coffee supplier for himself...

Down to earth

In Bucaramanga, Colombia, on the farm of Mesa de los Santos - which translates as 'Table of the Saints' - Oswaldo Acevedo is growing coffee on an estate that was founded by his great-grandfather. Having acquired the farm from his cousins in 1995, Oswaldo is combining generations of experience with the demands of modern coffee-drinkers. In 1996, he changed the production process so that it was fully organic, just as it had been over 100 years ago, and set about restoring the land to its former glory. He was exactly what Ted was looking for.

Ted discovered what Oswaldo already knew when he took over the farm - that Mesa de los Santos is a particularly good place to grow coffee. As the midday heat rises from a vast natural valley that runs alongside the farm, it creates a strong wind that sweeps across the plateau, rapidly cooling the coffee bushes. During the day, the farm bakes in temperatures of over 30°C, but at night this drops to around 5°C. Like grapes, coffee beans benefit from these large fluctuations in temperature while they grow, and the resulting coffee is smooth and full-bodied with a noticeable sweetness.

Although taste was the first consideration, Ted also had to be happy with the way the coffee was farmed. Many farms in Colombia have suffered from disease, over-intensive farming and deforestation in recent years, leaving them barren and hard to work. But Oswaldo has restored an almost forgotten level of fertility and productivity to his land. He has expanded the farm from 100 to 500 acres, replanting an astonishing 45,000 trees to improve the farming conditions.

'Conventional farms consist of perfectly straight rows of just coffee bushes,' he says, 'but walking round this estate is like walking through a wood.'

Circle of life

Oswaldo's coffee bushes are interplanted with over 45 different varieties of trees, which provide natural shade and cut down on soil erosion. They also provide a home for nearly 120 species of birds, which is good for the local bird life and good for the coffee, as the birds eat the insects that might otherwise damage the crop. The farm breeds wasps to prey on the insects too, and plants herbs such as mint and lemon balm among the coffee plants, which act as pesticides. Even the fertiliser is a mixture of chicken manure, leftover skins from the coffee cherries (the fruit of the coffee bush), banana leaves and other natural ingredients.

A fair price

Ted's third concern was that a fair price be paid for the coffee crop. The world coffee market is a volatile place, and competitive price-cutting can be devastating for a community whose sole income is from its coffee.

To avoid this, Waitrose pays a guaranteed price above the market rate, which means that Oswaldo's workers can rely on a regular income. Organic farms produce a lower yield than normal farms, so it is essential they have a regular buyer who is prepared to pay that bit more.

The relationship Waitrose has developed with Oswaldo benefits both sides, not least in terms of quality. 'One excellent thing about this kind of relationship is that it puts the buyer in direct contact with the producer,' explains our coffee consultant, Hayden Bradshaw. 'Since the 1920s, there has been a great divorce between the coffee farmer and the buyer, and in that situation you get a faceless buyer who has no idea of how the coffee is produced or what farm it comes from. It takes away from the farmer any incentive to produce something decent and people lose interest in the fine differences.'

Quality control

Producing a coffee of distinction is certainly something that Oswaldo cares about. 'We work hard to produce and supply an excellent coffee,' he explains, 'and Waitrose customers are helping to benefit the workers through the fair price they pay.'

The workers are, of course, crucial to the farm's success. Coffee bushes ripen erratically, so a machine can't do the harvesting work effectively. Instead, the farm workers go round the bushes once every 10 days from August to December, picking the ripe coffee cherries by hand. Once the beans have been milled and washed, quality checks are also done by hand. The farm's taster or 'cupper', José Antonio Martinez, checks a sample from each batch of beans, which he roasts, grinds and tastes on site to ensure that the quality is consistent.

'We produce coffee in the traditional way,' explains Oswaldo, 'while improving the lives of our workers. This kind of coffee is good for the consumer, good for the environment and good for coffee growers.'

So when you make the decision to buy organic coffee, you can be confident that not only will it taste superb, but that your action will help to improve the lives of Colombian coffee-workers thousands of miles away - not just today, but for years to come. Not bad, for a simple cup of coffee.