In Colombia I’ve spent about as much time in offices as I have out in cafetales. This project very early on evolved from being just about coffee growers to being about coffeepeople; I realized very quickly that coffee work criss crosses all kinds of categories and you can’t talk about someone who does one coffee job without talking about the people who do others.
Still, spending so much time in offices might seem counter productive to collecting stories from people who really know and live coffee and get their hands dirty every day. In Colombia, all this office time is necessary, because you can’t talk about Colombian coffee without talking about the Colombian coffee system.
In 1927 coffee growers formed the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC),
and growing Colombian coffee has been a collaborative institutional project, for better or for worse, ever since. In Organization of a Coffee Country I describe all the logistics of today’s institutionality, but what all that organization feels like deserves a post of its own (this one).
All along this trip people have told me, “you should buy your own finca and grow coffee too!” And my answer is always, “if I had money I’d have already bought 3!” Which is true. There’s a huge part of me than wants to put these heaps of theory to practice and see if I could actually do what I spend every day learning, listening, reading, and writing about how other people do: grow coffee.
If I were actually to buy one finca and give it a go, I’d do it in Colombia. I love all the places I’ve been and would be elated to have land in any of them, but the swaying factor making me choose Colombia as ground zero for my first coffee farm is the institutionality of the coffee growing machine.
If I have a question about anything at all related to agronomy, I can go to an Extensionist during his office hours and ask. I can set up a farm visit for him to come take a look and give me advice. If I want to take a soil analysis,
interpret it, and mix my own tailored fertilizer- boom! There are resources for that. If I want to get certified- boom! again; ample resources at hand. If I want a line of credit I have various ones available for various finca tasks. If I want to attend workshops on finance management, safe agrochemical use, or coffee quality- boom! Check the calendar. If I want to have my coffee cupped to see how my work on the farm translates to the palate (“del palo al paladar,” so to speak)- done! I just send in a couple kilos of coffee to the regional Quality Lab.
I would harass every hardware store worker and Extension Service employee any time I had a doubt. I would love to take full advantage of the Colombian coffee institution because I know how to use institutions as resources rather than Bibles. I would read every piece of literature published and attend every talk and training, but I would also keep reading things from other sources, keep asking my neighbors to show me what they do, and keep emailing the coffee growers I know from Nicaragua to Panama to ask them their opinions. I would love to start growing coffee in Colombia because I could tap the system for all it has, but I also know better than to put all my faith in its teachings.
Maybe it’s my liberal arts higher education or my skeptical nature or a sourceless wariness of anything that seems too organized and smacks of militaristic uniformity (like charter schools…), but I would take the Institutional answers to my questions in stride along with all the other answers from less formal sources.
I would follow everyone’s suggestions and still conduct the finca like a lab, experimenting to find out what works best with exactly what I have.
And I would be very different from most other Colombian coffee growers in doing so. Because the institution that is the FNC (with all it’s tentacles) has amassed so much clout over time people tend to take its word as law. If the FNC says plant 6,500 trees per hectare, people up their density and plant 6,5000. If the FNC says plant Castillo, people plant Castillo. The FNC’s recommendations are always backed by stacks of research, but the priorities that prompt the research and inform the conclusions drawn from it might not be the same as the priorities of an individual grower.
The reason I can get behind the FNC is that for all their push towards militaristic uniformity, there’s no punishment for ignoring them (thus bumping them ahead of charter schools on the ‘stomachable’ scale). You can grow coffee however you want, sell it to whomever you want, and pretend there is no such thing as the FNC. You can even have a “coffee grower’s ID card,” get government subsidy money, and still ignore the institutional recommendations without any consequences whatsoever.
Corporations are not people, and neither are institutions, but they can sometimes adopt personal agendas almost as if they were. Remembering that the institution does not have your individual interest first (even if its slogan is “first the coffee grower, then everyone else”) is key to making an institution work for you. Only you live on your farm with your family and your plants and your needs and your goals.
An organized institution is a fabulous resource, but it can’t do your thinking for you. Which is why I would be delighted to start attempting to grow coffee in a place where I’d have a massive institution as an accessible and informed sounding board, but where I’d still be free to stubbornly try and error and fail and recover all on my own without any repercussions for my defiance.
I’d also be delighted to attempt to grow coffee in a place with such an ingenious history of getting things done outside of institutional planning.
One of the coolest things I did on the finca where I stayed in Antioquia was clean out the collection tank for the spring. From a colorful (FNC produced!) cartoon I learned that “where there’s bamboo there’s water!” and the tank we cleaned was in the heart of this thick bamboo grove, an oasis of nature’s own A/C and cool green shadows. I was fascinated just watching how the water literally bubbled from the side of the mountain. As we unclogged leaves and sticks from the drain in the tank that connects to the pipe that feeds the other tank that holds the water for the house, I marveled at how straight up cool nature is. We need water but we can’t make it; and here it is- just gurgling out of the mud and rocks, locatable by the stand of thick bamboo that also needs lots of water to live.
To get to this magic bamboo grove spring, Luis and I had to walk up from his family’s finca through his neighbor’s finca. I asked him if the neighbor also used the spring and he said, “no, he uses the spring from the farm above his. That’s just how everyone does it. The spring on our property feeds the house below ours.”
Even cooler than the fact that water bubbles out of the mountain is that gravity pulls it down hill, so you can’t really make use of the water on your own property unless you have some sort of pump.
So it makes sense to use water from above. Which everyone does. Water in these mountain communities is a free, abundant, natural resource. So everyone just passes their water down the mountain. No institution mandated them to do this or designed a system of tanks and pipes to make it happen; it’s just the functional system that developed organically over time and makes for an interesting- and effective- land use agreement.
There is now municipal water available for the buildings that line the top of the mountain along the ridge, but before institutional water showed up, people already had a system that worked. Some things work really well with a researched plan, and some things work just as well without one.
If I were to try my hand at making coffee happen I would want to do it in a place with space for individual creativity, but also with the support of institutions and lots of neighborly common sense.