A winding road leads you up to the small town of Anserma as the clouds part and make way for the summer Colombian sun. The journey takes about an hour and a half from the nearest big town of Pereira. And, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart (travellers prone to motion sickness might want to avoid the trip).
It’s here, in Anserma, that we meet Gustavo, Armando and Teresa, three owners of small coffee farms in the department of Caldas. We park our car and see Gustavo across the street in his Jeep. He smiles and waves us across as we hop in and prepare for the ride up to the farms. We try to peer out onto the mountains and coffee plants below amidst jolt after jolt of uneven ground.
Finally, we arrive and we’re greeted by the entire family. A son, a baby, the spouses, their brothers and sisters, the neighbours. Everybody comes out to greet us with besos and abrazos. Soon, we’re ushered into the home and immediately offered a cup of warm coffee. We sit down with a fresh cup of Colombian coffee and begin to talk. Just what is life really like on a Colombian coffee farm?…
A Brief History of Colombian Coffee
Before we’re able to understand what it’s like to live on a Colombian coffee farm in the present day, we must first understand where Colombian coffee came from. How long has it been a part of this country’s rich, fertile land? It wasn’t until 1741 that reports were recorded of the first appearance of coffee in Colombia.
A missionary priest by the name of Jose Gumilla wrote about sowing the coffee plant in his book El Orinoco Ilustrado y Defendido, during its introduction to South America. The cultivation and sale of coffee were both initially met with reserve by Colombian natives. People were hesitant due to the fact that a coffee tree takes three to five years to yield its first crop.
The first record of coffee grown for commercial purposes in Colombia appears in 1835, with reports of coffee grown in the Santander region in 1840. Santander, however, is not technically part of what is considered to be the modern-day Coffee Triangle. The coffee-growing axis, known for its ideal location and altitude, is comprised of the three departments of Risaralda, Quindio and Caldas. Today, we’re in Caldas, and it’s where the story really starts.
Waking Up On A Colombian Coffee Farm
Armando kicks everything off. “My alarm goes off at 5:30 every morning,” he says. “Because at 6 am, you’ve gotta be out the door. The workers are already arriving and it’s starting to get light out. So, the work begins.”
Gustavo, the father of two young sons, begins his day a little later. “I’d say I’m waking up at about 6 or 6:30,” he says with a smile, one that never leaves his face the entire time we’re there. They both, however, agree on one thing. “The first thing I do as soon as I wake up is drink a cup of coffee,” they both seem to say simultaneously.
If you spend enough time in Colombia then you’ll realise just how deeply-rooted the love of coffee here is. You never go anywhere without drinking at least one cup, if not more. It’s woven so intricately into the daily lives of not just coffee farmers, but every Colombian.
Hand-Picking Colombian Coffee Beans
After coffee, daily life on a Colombian coffee farm consists of putting on boots, perhaps a poncho if it’s raining and grabbing the machete. Coffee farmers head out to make their way to the crop. It’s time to pick the cherries…by hand. This is tedious work but it’s part of why Colombian coffee is so high-quality. Because they pick the beans by hand, they’re able to select only the freshest, highest-quality beans.
But, as all three coffee farmers note, it’s still hard work. Picking one pound of coffee cherries (which hold the beans inside) won’t even produce one cup of coffee. You need about five pounds, or 2,000 cherries, to produce just one cup of coffee. To even further put that into perspective for you, coffee currently sells for just over $1 USD per pound in Colombia.
Even talking about that can’t wipe the smile off Gustavo’s face. He genuinely loves what he does and he won’t stop telling us about it. Their days don’t stop as they spend their time working under the strong sun. If it’s raining, they still go out. If it’s sweltering, they still go out. Life doesn’t stop for anybody here in the coffee region.
Time For A Coffee Break
Just an hour or so in, we’re asked if we’d like another coffee, which they serve with panela here as is standard in most Colombian homes. Speaking of a coffee break, Gustavo continues his story. “Around lunchtime, we head back to the house to see how the coffee we picked before is drying.”
Solar drying is the most used method by Colombian coffee farmers. After picking the beans out of the cherries they lay them out on beds to dry. It’s both economical for the farmers and safe for the environment. It also usually yields a better final taste.
We walk out with Gustavo and Armando who show us where they’ve got their beans drying…the roof of their home. With direct sunlight beaming down, however, there truly is no better place. “It takes about three to four days for these beans to dry if there’s a lot of sunlight,” Gustavo notes.
“There’s no moment to relax,” Armando chimes in. “It’s time to go straight back out after a quick lunch. Then, we stay out there until about four in the afternoon until it’s time to come back and start weighing what we’ve picked.” Gustavo adds, “And if you de-pulped coffee from the day before you have to think about washing it so you’re able to dry it.” There’s a lot going on here, but they take it all in stride and with smiles.
Keeping An Eye On Coffee Prices
After such a full day of hard, physical work, we ask what they like to do in the evenings. Surely, they must make time to check their social media (which they all have, they’ve already added us all on Facebook) or to engage in hobbies, right?
Teresa and Gustavo both like to watch the news. Armando likes to sit out on the porch with his mom. Gustavo says that he prefers to “eat dinner in front of the TV so I can watch the news. I want to see if the dollar went down because that means that coffee prices likely went down too.”
“Ay, Dios mio,” he says, pausing for a moment, “whenever that happens I wake up the next morning with more energy, more desire to produce more and more. I want to take care of my family.” It’s a sentiment they all share, not just here in Anserma, but across the entire country of Colombia.
Cultivating A True Passion For Coffee
Coffee prices aren’t too high right now, but none of the farmers we visit in Anserma seems to look worried or has even the slightest bit of worried energy about them. They’re cheerful, smiling and friendly as nearly all Colombians are. We press on a bit further and ask, “The job is so hard. Why do you keep doing it? What makes it all worth it?”
All three smile, laugh almost, at the question. Teresa answers first. “I feel really proud, honestly,” she says almost getting emotional, “that the work that we do is going to bring happiness to people around the world, that they’ll taste a cup of our Colombian coffee and think that it’s the best coffee they’ve ever had.”
Gustavo continues and seems to speak for both him and Armando. “You just think about how many people all over the world are enjoying a cup of Colombian coffee right now. It’s so beautiful, it almost hits you right in your soul, you know. They’re drinking something I made. It’s part of me, of my life. How is that not beautiful?”
The passion for coffee fills the entire room along with the smell of another fresh pot. They smile and offer us more and end the day in typical Colombian fashion, with another invitation to visit.
“I invite any foreigner to come and have a cup of coffee with us, to learn about how we make it and to taste the quality. The work we do is hard, but we do it because we truly love it. We love Colombia and we love the earth that we’re so fortunate to get to work off of.”