Juan’s World: Organization of a Coffee Country

"Scheme" drawn out for me by a helpful FNC committee member
“Scheme” drawn out for me by a helpful FNC committee member

Juan’s World: A 5 part mini series on the inner workings of Colombian coffee

2:Organization of a Coffee Country

Of Colombia’s 42 some million inhabitants, there are roughly 560,000 coffee growing families. In its recent history, Colombia’s government- and the country as a whole- has been through some stuff, to say the least, and the country’s highways are dotted with billboards that read things like, “where coffee grows, first comes development, then the flowering of peace.”

The source of all the country’s coffee tag lines is the FNC (Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros Colombianos, The National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers). The FNC is not a government agency or officially a part of the government of the Republic of Colombia, but the two are certainly in bed together. Not because they’re siblings that grew up having to share things, but because they’ve mutually consented to form a union as love/hate as any.

The FNC has a presence in 364 municipalities across 15 coffee growing Departments (equivalent of US States). Every four year the country’s cafeteros elect representatives to serve four year terms as Departmental committee members and members of the National Congress of Coffee Growers. The last elections were held in 2010 and reported a 64% rate of eligible voters. An eligible voter is a coffee grower who’s part of the national coffee paper trail, meaning they’ve registered their finca’s stats in the national “Coffee Growers Information System (SICA) and registered themselves to hold a “Smart Coffee Grower ID,” which is a nifty little card that serves as identification AND a debit card to which the FNC can transfer funds for things like subsidies. It’s not linked to a bank account nor is it contingent on holding any other type of ID. The FNC is proud to say that it reaches places in the country the government still doesn’t. So you, in paper trail terms, be off the government’s radar, yet receive government subsidy funds, administered by the FNC, through your Smart ID. In bed together enough to split the bill, but not enough to merge contact lists.

FNC initiatives are almost always referred to in the media as “guild activities,” using a delightfully Medieval vocabulary to remind everyone that coffee growers are dignified craftsmen, not just your average farmers. I’m many hours of research away from figuring out if it was one person in the FNC or the body as a whole that is responsible for its astounding success in such marketing choices as vocabulary and branding, but one of the main perogatives of the FNC has been, and still is, promoting the image of Colombian coffee growers, both domestically and abroad, as one of dedicated artisans working tirelessly to better their craft and foster domestic tranquility. In what translates to English as an almost corny hippie sounding refrain, the words “coffee” and “peace” are never far from one another in Colombian press.

In the March/April edition of one Departmental coffee growers’ newspaper, an excerpt from a press release by the FNC General Manager in response to the recent strike concludes a paragraph with the profound, “the path to peace in Colombia passes through a cafetal.”

In the February edition of another regional paper, a quote from a coffee grower participating in the strike reads, “we call this [strike] the Movement for Dignity of Coffee Growers” because the dignity begins with us ourselves, and for that we insist that our members always behave admirably, that they don’t generate violence. We’re an example of peace because we demonstrate it with examples because peace is in the countryside; we’re the builders of peace.”

The FNC has been preaching coffee growing as a peaceful enterprise for generations, and coffee growers are proud to make that the reality and remind the government- and themselves, and everyone- of it.

Marketing has always been one of the FNC’s fortes, but is by no means its only function. It’s other main task it to take the funds from its government bedfellow and put them to use. One of the main destinies for such funds is to be funneled into one of the country’s many Cooperatives to ensure that those Cooperatives can continue to offer a full guarantee of sale, all year long, every year, to any member who shows up with any amount of any quality of any coffee. This is huge in the agricultural commodity world, and it ensures that small scale production will continue to be viable even if bigger producers spring up in the same area.

This guarantee of sale does not mean that farmers will get the same price if they turn in stellar coffee or moldy, insect-bitten beans, but they at least won’t ever be turned away and lose that lot completely.

The “presence” the FNC maintains in those 364 municipalities across 15 Departments is manifested in Departmental and municipal committees, also determined by popular vote. The FNC uses its own money, generated from things like selling instant coffee domestically and Colombian coffee (30% average of annual production) internationally, to operate offices in each of these municipalities, where it offers extension services like sending out soil analyses and helping farmers read them to determine next steps, distributing (often gratis) roya resistant seeds, receiving the necessary paperwork so that subsidy money can show up on growers’ Smart IDs, and sending extensionists into the field and onto the farms to troubleshoot and collect data firsthand about things like levels of insect infestation and erosion to feed into a national database to help inform unified plans of action against widespread challenges like pests, plagues, and climate change.

Local FNC committees also collaborate with Coops to offer trainings, courses, and workshops, which range from single session to many months. Municipal level educational content is usually geared towards the basics of production and processing (think planting, maintaining, and depulping), but Departmentally the FNC works with the National Learning Service (SENA) and Departmental governments to offer courses about more “elective” topics like coffee cupping and barista-style beverage preparation.

At both the municipal and Departmental level the FNC also works with SENA to offer more continuing education. Sometimes non profits get involved, but only recently.

These collaborative educational experiences really can take place in the church of a tiny town up in the mountains, in the lobby of a local Coop’s office suite, or in conference room of the Departmental committee. The FNC really gives the word “outreach” a run for its money. If there’s a tiny pocket of people growing coffee anywhere up in the mountains, the FNC knows about it. This is not a case of people showing up to sell a product and no one caring where it came from, it’s a case of a grower going over a soil sample with a FNC extensionist in a municipal office and being able to say, “you know, it’s the part of the lot up by the road, where we planted the seedlings in between the pruned trees,” and the extensionist actually knowing what he’s talking about.

The FNC is in a rocky- but committedly intimate- relationship with Colombian government, but it has a lot going on the side. And everyone gets with everyone, such that the “Basics of Coffee Production” course held in the field across the country is the love child of the FNC and SENA, while the Coffee Promoters ongoing monthly course is the spawn of a non profit and a local Coop- but members also get a free annual soil sample through the Departmental FNC committee- and the Antioquia Cup of Excellence belongs to the Government of the Department of Antioquia, the Departmental FNC committee, and all four of the Department’s Coops.

In Juan’s world cafeteros know nothing of the simplicity of a two-parent household; they’re privy to the joys of growing up in a place where it takes a village to raise a coffee grower.

As I’m currently still up in the Colombian coffee mountains the internet won’t let me add pictures here, but it will let me upload them to whencoffeespeaks on Instagram.



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