Longitudinal Review of Sustainable Production in Peru: Revitalizing the Infrastructure

Parts I and II of this quarterly series following a year in coffee on the ground in Peru looked at sustainable supply chain management and the role of certifications. Part III examines the importance reliable infrastructure plays in establishing a self-sustaining coffee supply chain that can respond to changes in climate and market conditions.
By Rachel Northrop

The milling stage of coffee post-harvest production has the ability to make or break both the quality of coffee that has been established up until that point by attentive care in the field and to make or break export sales through proper packing, sorting, and timely shipments.

In the mountains of Peru, access to milling infrastructure and space for business negotiations are both challenging for smaller cooperatives. Sherbrooke, Quebec-based project developer ECOTIERRA’s construction of a mill for the four cooperatives in its Café Selva Norte project will add both value and agility to their supply chains, allowing them to take more responsibility for quality control into their own hands and to increase the systemic sustainability of the region’s production.

Investing in Infrastructure

Karina Santana is the co-founder of ECOTIERRA and all projects pass through her hands, including the construction of a new multi-functional mill in Jaen, Cajamarca that will serve the four Café Selva Norte cooperatives. “The idea of building a mill came from the ideas of the cooperatives,” Santana told Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. “One of the necessities all the cooperatives identified was that they currently do not have access to a reliable dry mill.”

In Peru, farmers grow, harvest and wash coffee on their respective properties and cooperatives function largely as warehouses and points of aggregation. The cooperatives are then responsible for the dry milling and commercialization of coffee, a stage that is crucial to earning adequate returns for their members. Waiting in line to pay inflated fees to use third party facilities and hauling coffee long distances to those facilities means that cooperatives have limited autonomy over their own coffee and therefore miss out on the opportunity to exercise the level of quality control they envision.

“By not having access to a good mill, it becomes a question of timing,” continued Santana. “Coffee is delayed in milling and shipments leave late, the quality of the sorting and milling doesn’t meet the cooperatives’ standards.” ECOTIERRA’s main goal with the construction of a shared mill for the four cooperatives is to stabilize the quality of the coffee. The dry mill represents an investment in processing infrastructure to maximize quality and traceability.

Impact on Product Quality

Traceability is essential to quality control, with each lot being monitored to guarantee that samples and final delivery both match and meet roaster client expectations. Santana also noted that the capacity to guarantee that a certain percentage of coffee does not go missing in the milling process is also essential to cooperatives’ success. Handling their own product the whole way through export preparation controls against the mixing or swapping of lots that can degrade quality and sour a cooperative’s reputation with its buyers. “Transparent controls assure that if one sack goes in, one sack goes out,” said Santana.

Esther Requejo oversees processing for exporter Perunor in Santiago de Sucro, Peru, which receives coffee from eight producer organizations. Each organization groups 200-300 small producers who independently carry out the initial stages of quality control through wet mill processing. Each producer’s respective knowledge of their location determines whether or not coffee is fermented prior to washing, and if so for how long. “Many producers dry their coffee on movable trays in order to expose them to sun and protect them from rain,” said Requejo. “When coffee arrives at the collection points, it is our responsibility to take control of quality evaluation. Perunor handles all dry milling, which includes weighing, sorting, bag marking, and other intermediary activities. All our dry mills are accredited if they handle organic, Rainforest Alliance or other certified coffees.” Requejo emphasized that milling is not one single step, but rather a series of stages that must be carried out properly every single time to ensure quality.

In the dry mill, coffee is hulled, sorted by density, siloed by certification, and always sorted and resorted for defects. There are personnel dedicated to verifying that each step is carried out correctly. The attention to detail that Perunor executes as a private company is what the cooperatives belonging to the Café Selva Norte project also aspire to achieve.

Market Access and Negotiation

ECOTIERRA’s second goal in building the collective mill in Jaen is to create a dynamic, multi-functional space that will allow cooperative leaders and producers to take control of negotiations with buyers to generate increased sales. “The dream behind the project is to build a second home for producers,” Santana said. “Yes, there’s the equipment at the mill, but there will also be a space for members to meet with clients in a private conference room, hold meetings in the mill’s own café, and host workshops and trainings in classrooms.”

Santana explained that producers and cooperative managers, who are also farmers themselves, in most cases travel six to eight hours from their farms farther in the mountains to reach central cities in order to meet with prospective buyers. As origin engagement becomes more important to coffee importers and roasters, it is paramount that producers and cooperatives have adequate spaces to receive visitors and to spend a day or two away from the farm in a facility designed to promote the business of moving green coffee.

Details of accommodations for cooperative administrators might seem insignificant, but access to the differentiated specialty market’s buyers often comes down to the ability to hold a meeting or host a coffee cupping, activities that cannot happen without dedicated spaces. Requejo at Perunor has also observed that changing demand towards individualized microlots consequently expects the dry milling process to be agile enough to process smaller volumes separately. “We’ve seen that facilities are building smaller dry mills within the larger plants in order to process tiny lots,” she reported. “If we were to put small volumes of coffee into equipment designed to manage large volumes it would be very difficult to process. We’ve been learning to implement what the market demands.”

Future Ownership

ECOTIERRA is building the shared Jaen dry mill in its role as the project developer for Café Selva Norte, but the property will eventually belong to the four cooperatives after it is paid over the course of 15 years through the fees for service for use of the facility. But, in spirit, the space will belong to cooperative members from the beginning. Santana described that, “We are already thinking like it belongs to them. We want everyone at the cooperatives to think of it as their space.”

Taking ownership of quality control through the dry milling phase ensures that the quality produced in the field makes it to final consumers. While the work can be tedious, and investment in infrastructure to streamline export preparation activities is an investment in long term quality.

The series conclusion in Part IV will look at digital infrastructure and explore the data captured by ECOTIERRA’s proprietary online Minka platform and discuss what that data can tell all parties along the supply chain about production volumes, coffee quality, and comprehensive sustainability.

Rachel Northrop has been covering coffee for T&CTJ since 2012, while she lived in Latin America’s coffee lands writing When Coffee Speaks. She was based in Brooklyn, New York but has recently relocated to Miami, Florida. She may be reached at [email protected].

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