To Better Understand

Finca San Lukas, in El Chuscal, looking towards Chinchina
Finca San Lukas, in El Chuscal, looking towards Chinchina

Often, questions like, “what’s it like to be an agricultural producer?” are met with descriptive answers, but whose descriptions are rather glossy. When we want to know what it’s like to be the newest edge of an industry very much defined by its traditions, we need more than the superficial to be able to really understand.

This story of Lukas, age 29, one of my best friends in Colombia, starts with standard figures and finishes in the middle of the cosmos. Lukas’s words offer an excellent opportunity to really understand what it’s like to be part of many worlds at once, to struggle to reconcile the imagined with sharp reality and to arrive at a reconciliation that shows the sharp intelligence with which today’s newest generation is succeeding in moving fearlessly forward, marching onward and bringing their surrounding environments with them.

RN: What’s your family’s coffee farm like? (how many hectares, how long has it belonged to your family, etc)

LM: My family’s farm is a coffee growing farm located in the municipality of Chinchiná in the neighborhood of “El Chuscal,” which is at an elevation between 1300-1800 meters (4265-5905 feet) above sea level. The farm’s topography is fairly irregular, consisting mostly of steep mountains. It’s a difficult place to work but very beautiful and stunning, because from the top of the farm you can see downtown Chinchiná, the Palestina neighborhood, even the city of Manizales in the distance.

The farm is 90 hectares in total area. I call it “a farm,” but really it’s not just one plot of land, but many small, consolidated plots that my father bought over the years. Now that they’re all connected, it’s managed as one sole farm. My father started acquiring land about 30 years ago, and since then we’ve been dedicated to growing coffee.

RN: What roles do you currently have on your family’s farm?

LM: Right now I’m the majority owner and general administrator of the farm. My responsibilities include paying workers’ salaries, transporting fertilizers and other inputs to the various lots of the farm, general planning for planting, and negotiating the sale of the coffee.

RN: What do you do, as a coffee producer, that is different from what the generations of your parents and grandparents did?

LM: When I started managing the farm, it didn’t have a formal cost structure; there didn’t used to be a detailed log of work carried out on the farm. The first task was then to create a detailed map of the farm, one in which the lots and their respective areas were outlined, as well as the number of trees planted, their ages and varieties—which was something that up until then we had only speculated.

The next step was to develop internal accounting that would permit us to take into account all the activities on the farm to be able to calculate the exact cost of production of bag of dried coffee-in-parchment [the state in which it’s sold]. This was enormously helpful to be able to determine the average number of days a worker spent completing a certain task by hectare [such as fertilizing, planting, pruning, etc]. Thanks to this internal accountability, we could see what the weak points were and which tasks required more time than others, which allowed me to develop strategies to maximize efficiency when completing jobs and improve the cost-benefit relationship of producing coffee. This tool has also allowed me to fully trace all the coffee we produce, which means that when I sell the coffee, I know which lot it came from, what its charactertistics are, and I can then continue to improve both quality and yield.

RN: Have you attended a workshop or training regarding coffee cultivation? If so, who hosted it?

LM: Yes, I’ve attended various workshops offered by the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers. In fact, on August 1st I will attend a workshop about coffee commercialization and exportation for small and medium coffee producers in Caldas [Department of Colombia]. I’ve also attended workshops about disease management and trainings for environmental certification on the farms.

RN: As part of the new generation of coffee growers, what are you doing to “modernize” coffee growing culture and “bring it up to date” in Colombia?

LM: An important factor of the modernization of Colombian coffee growing is the adoption of new leaf rust [roya] resistant varieties. Since I started administering the farm I’ve renovated 40% of the coffee hillsides with these resistant varieties that guarantee a better quality coffee with more production per hectare.

Nevertheless, I think that my biggest contribution to modernizing Colombian coffee growing has to do with a change in mindset towards sustainable coffee production and an ecological consciousness. My parents’ generation was focused purely on producing coffee—without any care for the environment—because back then humanity still wasn’t particularly concerned with environmental problems. In that period Colombia experienced a coffee growing “boom,” where producers could sell coffee at exorbitant international prices, which caused people to become greedy and want coffee however they could grow it, without taking into account the needs of the planet.

Now we are much more conscious of the importance of the environment; the mountains belong to the planet and we are merely borrowing them during our lifetimes. My main objective is to cultivate the mountains and “exploit” them while I grow coffee, but to try to not irreparably destroy them, so that when I die they are still able to return to their original wild state of nature.

RN: Who do you sell your farm’s coffee to? Do you know how far your coffee goes?

LM: I sell the coffee from my farm to various buyers in Chinchiná. The truth is I don’t know where my coffee will end up. I now want to personally want to be in charge of distributing my own coffee so that I can eliminate intermediaries and be able to offer a specific product to a niche market that is looking for coffee with the characteristics mine has to offer.

RN: A little bit about you. Where were you born, where did you study, where do currently live, and what other skills and interests do you have apart from working with coffee?

LM: I was born in the city of Manizales in the Department of Caldas, Colombia. I studied in Chinchiná and at the University in Manizales, and also in Medellin and Buenos Aires. I consider myself a lover of many things that might be considered mundane, like movies, music, science fiction books, and video games. In other words, I’m a bit of a “nerd.

The greatest joys in my social life are to participate in fantasy discussions about characters that don’t exist and belong to the reign of fiction. I am largely disinterested in mainstream news because I consider the reports either disastrous or irrelevant. I am aware that this attitude may seem immature, but I really can’t make myself interested in robberies, murders, gossip, rumors, etc. when every day the world is filled with even more scientific discoveries, technological advancements, new films and forms of entertainment.

I never watch TV and I dedicate my free time to reading books on any number of subjects or online looking for information that I am generally interested in, versus just being fed the information the media wants to provide me with.

Really, I wasn’t born with a calling to be a coffee producer, because what I’ve always been drawn to have been science and art, especially astronomy and music. Ever since I was a kid I’ve felt a fascination for the stars and the cosmos; I’ve always wanted to decode the feelings of things and I believe that the closest we can get to defining the experience of existence is the study of the universe’s physical phenomena. I don’t belong to any religion and I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in life and her complexity, in fragility and beauty, and so I respect all forms of life.

At this point you’re probably asking why I chose this profession, but the reality is that this job choose me. My father, who was in charge of the farm, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was unable to continue working. Naturally, as I’m his only son, the responsibility fell into my hands.

At the beginning I didn’t understand anything and the truth was that I didn’t like it, but with time a learned to love the work, because I started to feel an intimate connection with the earth, with the animals that inhabit it, with the plants, and with the rivers that trace its surface. Although I have not been able to travel to the distant stars or see volcanic explosions on a moon of Jupiter, I can see the infinite diversity and complexity of life every time I walk through the cafetales of coffee growing on the mountainsides, past the rivers and bamboo groves, and come across small, rainbowed insects. At the end of the day, those insects, the moons of Jupiter, and I are all made of the same cosmic stuff, and the daily confirmation of this notion brings me happiness and peace of mind.

My goal is to carry out sustainable coffee production, one that respects the rights of workers and guarantees them a good quality of life, one that respects plants and animals indigenous to the mountains, and one that respects the planet earth, the only place we can call home in this vast and infinite cosmos.

Cosmos? Or a spider web on Lukas's farm last year?
Cosmos? Or a spider web on Lukas’s farm last year?

Lukas was not interviewed for the book “When Coffee Speaks,” but an interview with Aldemar, who manages daily operations on Lukas’s farm, appears on p. 322.

"Cosmovision," by photographer Carlos Andres Mejia Maya of Ciudad Bolivar, Antioquia, Colombia
“Cosmovision,” by photographer Carlos Andres Mejia Maya of Ciudad Bolivar, Antioquia, Colombia

1 Comment

  1. Another fantastic insight to the life of a coffee grower. Reading your book and blog helps me realize that, despite the geographic differences, all coffee growers have the same challenges; but maybe more significantly, that all coffee growers have a respect and a love of the land and its bounties. Thanks Rachel!

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