You can’t scroll for more than 5 minutes on Instagram without seeing a picture of someone’s coffee, and I’ve seen so many people comment or caption “coffee is life” or “coffee is everything” (including me). But until you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of a coffee farmer, you really have no idea what that actually means!
I was recently invited to join Keurig Canada and 3 other content creators on a coffee origin trip in the Eje Cafetero (traditional coffee-growing region) in Colombia. To the average coffee drinker, like me, this obviously sounds like an incredible opportunity on its own. In fact, I jumped up out of my chair and nearly spilled my coffee over when I received the email! But, at the time, I wasn’t truly prepared for what I was about to experience and how it would alter my life and perceptions of coffee.
Quite simply: I will never look at coffee the same again, nor will I take a single cup of it for granted in future. Why? Because I’ve now witnessed, first-hand, the conditions and realities faced by the caficultores (coffee growers) in Colombia.
What is Coffee Growing Like in Colombia?
We’ve all seen the commercials and images of Juan Valdez and his trusty mule, Conchita. A fictional character created by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC), Juan Valdez became a symbol for Colombian coffee around the world. Colombian coffee is some of the best you can find. It has a unique richness in flavour (due to the climate and soil conditions in Colombia) and is 100% hand-picked by farmers and farm workers growing only superior quality Arabica beans. But the image of Juan Valdez does not tell the whole story, and that good quality bean actually comes at a high price.
Here are some of the facts:
- Coffee is Colombia’s most important agricultural export.
- There are roughly 550,000 small coffee farmers in Colombia, each farming on average 2 hectares of land.
- 70% of people in Caldas (one of the 3 departments in the eje cafetero) are involved in coffee production. Coffee literally is their way of life.
- Present day small farmers have to cope with challenges, such as:
- Low yields
- Rising production costs
- Volatility of the price of coffee in the market
- Lack of access to education, resources, and infrastructure
- Climate change and weather conditions, like drought, mudslides, and erosion
- Climate change is putting coffee farms at risk – with low lying farms losing suitability. There is limited space to move to higher altitudes, and new plantings could cause environmental risks.
- The vast majority of farmers never even get to taste their own coffee. Hot cocoa is what I saw most Colombians drinking in the morning!
- The legacy of coffee growing in Colombia is threatened due to a lack of interest from the next generation.
- Traditional forms of wet-milling (the process of washing coffee cherries and extracting the seeds) uses high volumes of water. In some communities, water is scarce. In others, the wastewater produced from wet-milling is a significant source of contamination in the local water supply, and is causing many people to get sick downstream.
- The wastewater produced from wet-milling is a significant source of contamination in the local water supply, and is causing many people to get sick downstream.
That all being said, Colombian farmers are so proud of their coffee and warmly welcome you onto their fincas (coffee farms) and into their homes – a true testament to the hospitality prevalent throughout the country.
What Does Sustainable Coffee Sourcing Mean?
At a base level, sourcing ethically means procurement processes respect certain international standards. But beyond that, sourcing sustainably is about so much more. For Keurig Canada, it’s about actively assisting in implementing good coffee practices, supplying access to resources and education, and initiating special social and environmental projects. In Colombia, there is a complex network of relationships between the coffee growers, Cooperatives, FNC, other NGOs and non-profit organizations, and buyers and roasters like Keurig Canada, all of who work together to improve the conditions of coffee farming.
Cooperatives are owned by coffee farmers and are their strategic allies. They sell coffee to buyers, while ensuring fair prices for the farmers. They also perform special social and environmental projects, like improving infrastructure and climate change adaptation work. Yet only a small percentage of the over 550,000 coffee farmers in Colombia belong to a cooperative.
What is Keurig Doing?
Keurig is the largest buyer of Fair Trade certified coffee in the world and a leader in coffee sustainability. Beyond buying traceable coffee, Keurig’s goal is to responsibly source 100% of its coffee (from every origin country), engage 1 million people in the supply chain and improve the quality of their life by 2020. Connecting people to clean water is an integral part of that. So, Keurig collaborates with key partners to ensure good water management and access to clean water in coffee communities. Keurig also sends employees on origin trips each year, and works with sustainability partners to:
- Improve farming techniques,
- Mitigate the effects of climate change, and
- Strengthen farmer organizations.
As a content creator, I’ve worked with many different brands – each obviously as enthusiastic and committed to its brand message as the next. But I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a team as dedicated and passionate about sustainability and social responsibility as the Keurig team.
These efforts felt very much grassroots. Corporate executives from Canada, the U.S., and Switzerland quite literally were getting in the trenches, rolling up their sleeves to dig and plant coffee, and drinking mystery elixirs at shaman ceremonies, rather than just sitting behind a desk in the comfort of their offices. This was not some parade of corporate responsibility to improve brand image. I can tell you, wholeheartedly, these people care.
So, What Does this Mean for You?
Can anyone partake in a coffee origin trip? Yes, absolutely! There are a number of organizations who offer these experiences online. So, if Colombia is in your travel plans, then I highly recommend spending some time in the Eje Cafetero.
Even if you’re not planning a trip to Colombia, there is so much you can do right from home:
- Be an informed consumer. Read about Fairtrade and other certifications, like UTZ and Rainforest Alliance.
- Demand sustainability. Expect buyers and coffee companies to be committed to ethical and sustainable sourcing.
- Donate. There are a number of organizations online, like SOCODEVI, who ensure donations go directly to sustainable coffee growing and to the coffee farmers.
- Make responsible buying choices. Read coffee labels and join many other consumers who are prepared to pay a small premium to buy sustainably sourced or certified coffee.
Without efforts to increase sustainability and responsible procurement of coffee around the globe, coffee production will literally go down the drain. I was so impressed by Keurig’s efforts in Colombia. I am grateful for the opportunity to have gone beyond the cup and capture the essence of coffee farming in Colombia through my lens!
*This post was done in partnership with Keurig Canada. But as always, all opinions are 100% my own.