The Pilot's Blog

A Letter From Normy

Hey I wanted to post Normy’s Adventure Diary from our last trip to Huila. Normy’s journals are always very heart felt and I love to read them so I thought it would be nice to share this one. Reading it makes me feel like I am there in Colombian with all the people we care about. Enjoy!

BACK TO HUILA

SATURDAY MARCH 14TH, 2009
We catch the early morning flight out of Bogotá for a short hop to Neiva in southern Colombia. It’s been eight years since we have been in the state of Huila and it feels like coming home. Eight years ago we had to be cautious as rebels were very active but all that has changed. I remember then being told to keep a low profile but with Danny being six foot eight that was hard to do. Our guides are Roberto Velez and Ricardo Granados who work for out exporter Condor South America. We land safely and start the four and a half hour journey by car south to the town of Pitalito. The mountains loom large as we talk about coffee on the very good roads. We stop on a high ridge to look over the Magdalena River which flows far below, the ant like fishermen are busy at their craft. Back in the car we are soon stopped at a police checkpoint and everyone is searched for weapons except me, the likely reason the rebels have been stopped being so active, we see police presence everywhere (surprisingly we saw less security in Bogota than eight years ago). Lunch is at the restaurant Apepitos for typical Colombian meal of rice, chicken and soup, the portions are very large and if a bowl goes empty they bring another one. A dog in the distance seems to be unhappy and barks relentlessly, we joke that the restaurant should be called “The Barking Dog Cafe”. As we dine we talk about the main Colombia crop which was down 20% (2 million bags) which has made Colombian coffee prices go up, supply and demand in action. The reason is that the rains went beyond the normal time they would normally cease, speculation about why goes from a fluke of nature, El Niño, global warming to the wrath of God. Everyone is wondering about the Mitaca (fly crop) that will be picked shortly, indications are that it too will be short. Colombia like most countries that sit on the equator have a main crop and a second smaller crop each year and Colombia is currently ranked number three in world production behind Brazil and Viet Nam. We arrive at Pitalito a town in Southern Colombia that houses a receiving station for the coffees we purchase, this is not the same building that we visited on our trip here eight years ago, it was much smaller. The warehouse is virtually empty except for a very few bags that represent the last of the main crop, in one corner is a child’s tricycle. We go into the office and cup the last of the main crop coffees, one of them has phenol in it which is a mysterious iodine medicinal taste (theories of what cause it range from fertilizer, the drying process, the varietal or the wrath of God) that is prevalent in Colombia, another cup is borderline ferment which is caused by being in the fermentation tanks too long. Ricardo says that when the coffee arrives from the San Augustine region father south where our coffees are grown they are kept separate here from the other coffees of Huila as they are the best, all lots are cupped and the best are held for the Roasterie. We tour the town and settle into the Hotel Timanco for the night going out for a late supper.

SUNDAY MARCH 15th, 2009
In the morning we are picked up in a Chevrolet SUV that runs on natural gas and we head south for our trip to San Augustine. As we head out of town I ask if Pitalito has an airport and Roberto says yes that is it on the right, both Danny I see nothing but an empty field, any flat field could theoretically be an airport. We discuss the possibility of buying a coffee farm one day and are assured it could be done; it would give us a place to bring customers and employees. We pull off onto a very steep dirt road in the very heart of the San Augustine region trying to avoid the deep ruts, to our right are spectacular vistas, coffee growing everywhere. We park in front of the Finca Villa Sol which is one of the farms the Roasterie buys from and are greeted by the farmer Jose Rubiel Gonzales, his wife and their two teenage children. The farm consist of two hectares (5 acres) and the total production in coffee is 7500 pounds a year, thirty percent being Supremo which is a grade of larger coffee beans and the grade the Roasterie buys. A small dog walks with us as we tour the farm. Jose points at some of the large trees that shade the coffee and says it is called a guano tree and is one of the trees in this part of Colombia that traditionally shade the coffee fields. We walk up hill through the coffee fields; the trees are ripe with fruit as the fly crop matures. Roberto tells us that the Colombia Federation (a non-governmental organization that works with farmers in many areas) is working with farmers to renew their fields with new coffee trees every five years meaning that fifteen to twenty percent of the farm is not producing coffee. He points to trees on the left side of the path that are eight years old which have minimal fruit and to trees on our right that are four years old whose branches are heavy with fruit. Colombia wants to increase production from the current output of twelve millions bags a year to fourteen million bags in the next five years by planting more trees and making sure the trees already in the fields are producing the maximum amount of fruit. These fields are of the varietal Caturra and Typica. The Federation provides seeds to the farmers at reduced cost to encourage the five year renewal program. I ask if the seeds provided are of the current varietals planted here or are they replanting these fields with the hybrids that the Federation has come up with, the main one being Castile, I am assured it is the farmers choice. Jose’s family has no car or truck relying on a small motorcycle for transportation. When the coffee is processed and ready to go to the receiving station in San Augustine it is put in bags and transported on the roof of the bus that comes by daily. I ponder if the children will remain on the farm or like so many places in the world move to the city. We drive farther up the mountain to another farm the Roasterie purchases coffee from, Enpresa Familiar el Diamate which means “Family Enterprise of Farm Diamond”. The farm is owned by Erazo Libardo. It is 6.5 hectares (16.acres) and produces between twenty and twenty five thousand pounds a year. They tell us that it has been too wet and that the flowering has been delayed, they need a minimum of four to five days of sun for the flowering. They also tell us that the broca seems to be more prevalent than in years past, probably because of the rains. I asked about the African wasp that were released a number of years ago to combat the broca and they tell us they have not been very effective, keeping the fields clean of decaying coffee beans on the ground is the most effective way to combat them and keep them from breeding.. They are also seeing more coffee rust on the leaves than in years past. The farm hires 30 employees during the harvest who are paid on how much they pick and are paid daily; any disruption in the harvest affects a wide circle of people. They especially make an effort to hire widows in the community of which there are several and all the workers are provided three meals a day when they are working. A good worker can pick eighteen to twenty baskets a day. We tour the farm and then are invited to sit with the family in their kitchen having coffee and a dessert they have prepared, the farmer and the buyer sitting down together, both part of the chain that brings coffee to the consuming nations of the world, both appreciative of each others efforts.. As we exit the home a Chiva (also called a Escleras) makes its way up the mountain. Chiva’s are colorful buses that you see all over Colombia, this is the twice daily bus (morning and evening) that hauls the coffee to the receiving station in San Augustine where we will go next. Anyone wanting to go to town has transportation both ways. We inquire about Rufino Lazo who we met eight years ago but sadly are told he has passed over. When I think about our previous visit I remember his warm smile and the hospitality he and his wife Carmen showed us. A short ride and we arrive at the small village of Alto de Obispo. It is here that seven years ago the Roasterie built a community center and this is the first time we have seen it, travel here being too dangerous until recently. As we pull up in front of the building we see a permanent sign beside the main entrance of the Roasterie logo, on the left is the Catholic Church where Sunday Morning Mass is being held, beautiful music wafting out the entrance and to our right is an empty lot with a horse lazily grazing in the cool mountain air. They use the building for a community center in the evening and on weekends but have created a day care center during the week, something we were not aware of till now. We are shown around the building; everything is so clean including the spotless restrooms, they have several classrooms and a kitchen. Danny asks if they have any needs and we are told they would like to convert the empty lot where the horse is into a playground but there is no money to buy the equipment. Danny assures them that we would love to purchase the necessary equipment and have it installed. The day care has allowed women who want to work to do so knowing that their children are being fed and cared for. Some young children arrive (perhaps skipping church) and follow us around as we inspect the facility. We are served a meal of steak and rice as we sit at the tiny table the children use. The music continues to come out of the church as a jeep goes by with coffee plants on the roof, surreal indeed. Some ladies are selling jewelry at the entrance of the church and Danny buys everything they have. We say our goodbyes and head down the mountain to the town of San Augustine, going through a check point where motorcycles are being inspected and as we arrive realize they are having a motorcycle race through the streets later in the day, maybe the police organized the race so they could inspect motorcycles coming into town. Many of the streets are closed but we manage to get to within three blocks of the Condor receiving station and walk to it. It is a small building, it is here that our coffees are brought on the bus from the farm, they then go to Pitalito where they are cupped and the best ones then go from there to the dry mill in Armenia where they are cupped again and the best ones are sold to us. We wish we had time to stay for the motorcycle races but we must get back to Neiva to catch our flight back to Bogota. The path for Roasterie Colombia coffee begins at the farm, it goes by bus to a receiving station in San Augustine, by truck to Pitalito where is cupped, from there by truck to the dry mill of Armenia where it is cupped again the highest quality goes to the Roasterie, it is put in a container and taken by truck to the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, by ship to Oakland, California and then by truck to Kansas City. The trip for quality is long indeed.

n

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