The perpetual rain cloud that hangs over much of the best coffee land in Colombia and causes cherries to ripen slowly and develop tons of natural sugars is a double-edged sword this year. Cherries are refusing to ripen in many areas and making it impossible to dry harvested beans in others. This is impacting availability of quality lots for several reasons and impacting farm sustainability. We have been traveling around lately surveying the impact on small producers.
Much of the “Eje Cafetero” or coffee belt is experiencing a fly-crop that represents 10% or less of annual production, or in some extreme cases, not having one at all. Most years, in the areas around Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío, and northern Valle del Cau
ca, harvest tends to concentrate around October-November and fly crop in April-May. This year April came and went with no meaningful harvest volume in most areas. (We can never generalize is this land of a thousand microclimates.) Believe it or not, we are still waiting as of today, June 6th. There are some cherries ripening, but gradually, without enough concentration to put together even a 5-bag microlot on most small farms that work with us.
We expect farms in these areas will continue to produce tiny amounts per week for a few months, and do not expect quality to be stellar for several reasons:
1. Pickers: A good portion of pickers are seasonal migratory labor, traveling from one producing region to the next when harvest is heavy, thereby maximizing the kilos the pull in per day. While pickers are in terribly short supply to begin with, when harvest is weak they will spend way more time getting the same about of ripe cherries, therefore making less money per hour worked. The high demand and low supply of pickers forces farmers to relax picking standards, as does the lack of harvest concentration, since pickers need to make a living too. Therefore, unless a farmer has the cash to invest in many hours of post-harvest cherry selection, significantly increasing production costs, weekly output is not going to be the best quality cherries.
2. Price: While our program allows farmers to access a consistent prices based on the price the roaster pay for their coffee, most others do not. Prices are about 35% lower now that and the height of the previous harvest, so farmers that can afford to are holding coffee. Storage conditions on farms tend not to be ideal so we will be watching out for stale notes and precursors through September.
3. Drying: Though there has been a growing trend in specialty markets to look for coffee dried over the greatest number of days possible, we should really be looking at temperature extremes and swings that bring washed coffee from 60% to 11% moisture. For farmers without parabolic (greenhouse type) mesh floor dryers, rather rooftop patios or “elbas”, it is extremely difficult for them to sufficiently reduce moisture content quickly enough to prevent the propogation of fungi and other microbiological activity that negetively affects cup quality. We are finding some earthy and musty cups for this reason. Many that find it difficult to get from about 15% to the 11% goal are bringing it to us with 13%+ which we cannot use. Other farmers are using (abusing) mechanical dryers that in best case burn parchment, and worst case coal or diesel. If cranked up past about 40 decgrees celcius we notice a negetive effect on cup quality. Lastly, many farmers are just saying “forget it” and selling wet imm
ediately after waching to industrial-scale drying outfits at a steep discount off parchment price.
Producing coffee is risky to begin with. A changing climate throwing a wrench in the gears makes it an especially formidable task to perform without losing your shirt. We are continuing to monitor the situation and guiding farmers as best we can, playing catchup developing more consistent drying techniques currently.