Agriculture is termed as such because growing things is a way of life. When you earn a living for your self, and often your family, by growing things, you build your life accordingly; the way you dress, what you eat, what you care about, and how and why you get together with other people follows the patterns of farming. When an entire region, or the better part of a nation, makes its living from growing things, the way styles evolve, what everyone eats, the themes of songs and movies and books and TV shows, the laws and structures of government, and how and why most people gather communally is dictated by the shape of the agrarian life.
In Colombia there are approximately 566,000 families who grow coffee (figure currently touted by FNC- National Coffee Growers Federation- and all subsequent parties who work with them). Most of these families also grow other things, and of course there are some families who grow exclusively other things. Of a country of almost coffee growing families make up a fairly small percent, but the land they grow on occupies a much greater percentage of the nation’s land area.
In Colombia’s history there have probably been much higher percentages of the population belonging to coffee growing families. I don’t know exactly, and the figures aren’t particularly important. Towns, cities, and entire regions are still today bursting with culture rooted in the agrarian life, particularly coffee culture.
In Spanish, the word caficultor is used for someone who grows coffee, particularly cultivates it. The “culture” of agriculture and the root of “cultivate” are not far off; and in Colombia a coffee cultivator is synonymous with a coffee culture maker.
Colombian coffee culture looks pretty much like Juan Valdez. Men wear crumpled old wide brim hats while working on the farm during the day and crisp clean ones when they go into town or to visit their neighbors (or even to sit out in front of the two stores at the intersection and maybe have a beer or an ice cream) in the evening. The men wear white scarves, often with the three yellow, red, and blue stripes of Colombia, over one shoulder. Most people do own horses and donkeys and ride the horses, with the donkey obediently trotting in front or behind with some sort of cargo strapped to his back. It might be coffee, or fertilizer, or firewood, or cement for construction, or groceries, or even furniture.
Most women of coffee growing families seem to occupy more “traditional” roles, and the way caficultores eat, and therefore the way the women cook, is certainly different than that of Medellin or Bogotá. Every morning, the women start the day making aguapanela and arepas. Aguapanela, also called “sweet water,” is made by simply placing a panela, a block of the molassesy sugar that forms from the cooled and hardened “honey” of fresh pressed sugar cane, into a pot of boiling water. The result is a very sweet almost molassesy tasting hot beverage that people drink straight, or use as the base for their coffee, most of which is still instant and called tinto.
In many cases this is prepared on a fogón, a wood-burning stove, usually with three openings that can be covered with metal disks to create burners, that is often fueled entirely with trunks and branches of pruned coffee trees. The arepas are often prepared one ‘burner’ over. After soaking and grinding the soft corn kernels by hand to get a sort of corn dough, women patt out the arepas by hand until they look like thick tortillas (which they kind of basically are, but don’t tell anyone that), which they then set on the special wire arepa cooking griddle that sits over the fogón and facilitates flipping. The food side of coffee culture includes lots of staples that can be grown on the same finca as coffee: yucca, bananas and plantains, corn, beans, and store bought rice by the bagful. In Colombia coffee culture means living on the finca, which is often pretty remotely up in the mountains, and while most people have electricity, not all have refrigerators. Which means that meat gets salted, milk is powdered, cheese is delivered every now and then by a neighbor and finished in one meal, and the only chicken or eggs you eat will be ones gleaned from the coop out back.
The culture of picking coffee is its own subsection of the coffee producing culture. Most landowners who have enough land to need to hire workers therefore don’t end up picking their own coffee. The worker coffee picking culture includes hanging a flat black am/fm radio around your neck (often in a plastic bag in case it rains) to listen to as you pick. Most people (men and women, though the majority of pickers are indeed men) wear a t-shirt over their head, with their face peeking out the neck hole, looking like they started to put it on then stopped, with the sleeves tied at the back of their head to make a sort of protective turban against sun and bugs and scratching branches and the way dirt glues itself to coffee cherry goo. In Nicaragua people harvest with woven baskets, in Costa Rica with plastic laundry-looking baskets, in Panama with 5 gallon buckets, and in Colombia with bins that look a bit like trash cans, of course with the same belt fashioned from a folded fertilizer bag. One cross cultural constant of picking coffee is the way pickers fold an extra fertilizer bag, for hauling picked fruit, into the outside of one of their rubber boots.
The culture of growing things extends beyond those who grow, to those who buy what is grown, transform what is grown, and resell what has been grown and transformed.
The men who work in the “points of purchase” (meaning coops’ or middlemen’s warehouses) of dried coffee in parchment spend their days hauling coffee: off trucks, onto scales, and up the stockpiled mountain of coffee to be emptied. They are all shirtless, with a piece of cloth (similar to the formal scarf men where draped over one shoulder- maybe with common roots?!) tossed over their head, neck, and shoulder- and held in place with their teeth- to eliminate the abrasiveness of the coffee sacks as they lug them and flop them down somewhere else. They all hold metal hooks to facilitate grabbing the coffee, making me not be able to help but think of Peter Pan. The other bizarre tool of the points of purchase is the “sticker,” a hollow metal pointed rod used to stab each sack to extract a sample to determine quality of the lot, and therefore price the grower gets for the day. The process is a bit like a coffee blood test.
Just getting coffee to this point is a culture of its own. Colombians still use quite a few beasts of burden to move coffee to and fro, both as fresh picked fruit and dried beans. Some do cart it by cart or deliver it on horseback/muleback to point of purchase, but most use some sort of vehicle. For those who don’t have their own, they pack coffee onto a public carro, chivero, or chiva. The carros are gritty Jeeps, which often have a bunch of bags of coffee tied to the roof, a bunch of women and children packed into the benches inside, a bunch of men hanging off the back, and maybe a couple teenagers sitting on the roof on top of the coffee, their feet dangling onto the windshields. Even more coffee can be stuffed into the chivas (which is also the slang word for goat…), which are essentially a species of public bus, but look like what would happen if a mac truck, a trolley, and an intricately painted art project somehow mated. In Colombian towns shaped by coffee growing culture, the form of public transit is designed to transport coffee as much as people.
Colombia’s coffee culture is being amplified and diversified as more of the good stuff stays home. For decades Colombia exported 100% of its tastiest coffee, leaving Colombians to drink not quite so tasty variations of instant. Some caficultores have been roasting their own coffee for home drinking for years, but now there are roasters preparing Colombia’s finest for domestic consumption in cafes, restaurants, and for sale by the pound. Colombians have always known they have awesome coffee, but now the country’s coffee culture extends to include drinking that awesome coffee, prepared awesomely.
Today’s agriculture is not the stuff of storybooks, with just a man and his land, toiling in honest harmony with nature. Today’s culture of growing things includes labs of cloned hybrids, monitors refreshing commodity reports every three minutes, pick up trucks and retrofitted flatbeds, upscale eateries and international gourmet tastings, but, in Colombian coffee growing agriculture, the donkeys and the hats are still there.
Will be adding pictures to this as soon as internet permits. Until then, there’s lots to see if you follow whencoffeespeaks on Instagram.