Sustainable quality at scale in Brazil and Colombia

Coffee quality and sustainability are sometimes seen as opposing goals, that to achieve high quality means eschewing ecological awareness and that an environmental approach to coffee production does not leave room for additional quality standards. But, as farms in Brazil and Colombia prove, large scale coffee production can leverage its size to achieve both cup quality and overall sustainability in tandem. By Rachel Northrop

Brazil’s ample agriculture sector is subject to strict environmental laws. Large coffee farms take these norms especially seriously, knowing that the best practices of a single estate can impact thousands of hectares of ecosystems and human health in an even greater radius.

Ecoagricola grows coffee in the Serra do Cabral plateau at 1,100 meters above sea level in the Chapada de Minas region of Minas Gerais. “Our family has farmed these lands since the 1970s, always with a sustainable and preservation-oriented approach. We preserve large areas, almost half our property, such as the Borralha Private Nature Reserve, which includes more than 2,000 hectares of land,” offered Ecoagricola’s founding partner, Marcelo Flanzer.

Created by legislation enacted in 2012, the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR, Cadastro Ambiental Rural) is an electronic public register within the scope of the National Environmental Information System – SINIMA. Farms register with CAR to record environmental information, including Permanent Preservation Areas, native vegetation, forest preserves, and to combat deforestation.

“The Borralha Reserve is full of trees, streams, and animals, such as the concolor puma, which is the top of the food chain and proof that the ecosystem is well preserved,” said Flanzer. “This area is a refuge to birds that migrate from north to south. Year-round, we [maintain a] native species nursery and donate seedlings to neighbours, city councils, parks, and schools to develop nature education programs.”

Ecoagricola’s irrigation is made with pivots in the low-energy precision application system and every plant receives just the water it needs. “We pump the water during the night when energy costs are lower and keep it in reservoirs at the top of the farm. When we need to irrigate, we use gravity, saving energy and resources.”

Institutional Support and Collaboration

In the Cerrado Mineiro region, the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation, which is a federation of seven cooperatives, acts as a liaison between producers and entrepreneurial and agricultural support organizations. To promote both sustainable farming practices and the production of quality coffees among its members, the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation collaborates with EPAMIG (Minas Gerais state research institute) and SEBRAE (Brazilian support service agency for small business).

“The coffee cultivars validation project aims to test and analyse the productivity, cupping profile, pest and disease resistance, and agronomic characteristics of commercial farm management,” said Juliano Tarabal, director of the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation. “The purpose is to generate reliable data for new planting recommendations.” The project is now in its fourth year with 16 participating towns and 12 varieties planted in each.

The Cerrado of the Waters Consortium is a collaborative public-private platform “to strengthen the coffee sector’s actions regarding the challenges of reconciling agricultural production and the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems,” explained Tarabal. “The project started at the end of 2015 with the revitalization of the water supply for the city of Patrocinio and can be replicated in other cities.”

In addition to assisting producers in maintaining sustainable practices, the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation established the Cerrado Mineiro Designation of Origin, indicated with a seal of origin and quality, to communicate both the sustainability and quality of coffees from Cerrado Mineiro.

Gustavo Guimarães, international market promotion coordinator for the Federation, identifies communication between producers and the Federation, roasters, retailers, and consumers as essential to understanding the origins of coffee quality. “The main traceability tool is a QR [quick response] code that comes with the certificate of origin. The 19-digit code on the seal of each exported sack of coffee or on retail bags of roasted coffee can be typed into the Cafés do Cerrado website.” Giving more supply chain actors, all the way to the consumer, access to the full production profile of the coffee is evidence of the integration between sustainable practices on the farm and final quality in the cup.

The Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation works internally with national and state agencies to maximize the training and research resources available to producers. Structured support affords growers the agility to offer tailored products to clients through coordinating origin visits. “The Authorial Coffee project is an initiative where the roasters decide, on the farm, how coffee will be harvested and processed, resulting in a special edition launched in local supermarkets with the producer directly serving the consumers. This project was done in 2018 with Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas,” said Guimarães.

Planning for Sustainability

Much of coffee quality depends on timing and attention to detail; cherries must be harvested at optimal ripeness and moved between phases of processing to keep flavours intact and avoid defect. Similarly, growing coffee in symbiosis with the surrounding environment requires constant observation and adjustment. These jobs require many eyes and hands, making the coordination of seasonal and permanent workforces essential to producing sustainable quality coffee.

Exportaciones Agropecuaria Farallones is a coffee producer and exporter in Antioquia, Colombia, the department with the greatest number of large estates in the country. “Our farms maintain the balance between sustainable best practices and coffee quality through our practical knowledge of coffee cultivation, careful planning, and execution of organized work plans by trained personnel,” explained Farallones export manager Ángela María Mosquera Vélez. Farallones also coordinates with CORAntioquia, the regional arm of Colombia’s environmental ministry.

Responsible agricultural practices begin with plans made by the farm’s administrators; on large farms, there also must be employee training and motivation to make sure the plans are carried out. Vélez said that “another important aspect to the balance between sustainable practices and coffee quality is the generation of formal employment under dignified conditions. Stable employment increases the sense of belonging and ownership.”

Rather than relying on seasonal labour only for the harvest, sustainable farm practices are lower input and therefore more labour intensive. This creates opportunities for full time positions where employees have a greater investment in carrying out best practices, making coffee more sustainable and higher quality.

In Serra do Cabral, Flanzer describes how Ecoagricola “uses biological controls to avoid pests, such as the pheromone trap, which attracts the berry borer insect in simple recycled bottles painted in red. We produce our own mineral-organic compost to fertilize the soil. We use precision agriculture control where we measure the soil every hectare and use resources and inputs to their specific needs.” Precision agriculture requires a team of experts, further generating demand for coffee farm labour that is both manual and professional. When the whole team working on a coffee farm is invested in both the land health and the quality of the product, the two pursuits become intertwined, and better coffee means tastier and more sustainable coffee.

Flanzer and his brother began planting coffee on Ecoagricola in 2007, when there was already a baseline industry awareness of the importance of sustainability. Adequate planning makes it possible to produce coffees of exceptional quality at different volumes while maintaining low-impact production. “We take great care in all lots, from microlots to full container sized lots,” said Flanzer. “We plan correct inputs and irrigation, from picking to drying.”

Similarly, Agropecuaria Farallones has “a policy in our business to prepare and train our team to fulfill the obligation to care for the environment during the production process and assure traceability for our clients,” said Velez. “Aspects like expertise of our personnel and excellent agriculture practices create the ideal conditions for an excellent final product from Agropecuaria Farallones.”

The Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation also emphasises the administrative components of sustainability. They lead an annual Technology and Innovation Meeting where producers have access to research results in the form of presentations at field stations and mini courses. Producers, consultants, and researchers discuss issues related to the coffee production chain. Additionally, the Educampo program supports groups of 15 producers through training and consulting on agricultural and financial management. The program started in 2009 and today supports around 210 producers from five cooperatives.

Rewarding Sustainability and Quality

There is no shortage of competitions in the coffee industry that reward coffee quality based on cup score alone, but a growing number of sustainability-oriented competitions reward the responsibility of the production process.

The Sustainable Farm Award is held annually in Brazil by Globo Rural Magazine in partnership with Rabobank, the World Wildlife Foundation and the Espaço Eco Foundation. It evaluates all types of farms – from soybean to cattle ranching – and coffee farms are regularly among the top finishers, demonstrating the coffee sector’s commitment to sustainability in the world’s largest producing country. Competing farms receive technical visits and the resulting evaluation reports are the basis for the selection of the winners by a judging committee.

To be considered, farms must be registered with the rural environmental register (CAR), comply with the New Forestry Code and have Permanent Preservation Areas on the property. The award selection committee considers a full environmental analysis, which includes agricultural and social analyses. Participating farms must demonstrate minimal environmental impact, the greatest social benefit, and the greatest productivity per hectare to use fewest hectares possible for agriculture, devoting more land to preservation and reforestation. (For more information about the award, click here).

Certifications also play a role in encouraging sustainability and rewarding quality. Both Agropecuaria Farallones and Ecoagricola are Rainforest Alliance certified. “In this journey we’ve had two Cup of Excellence winners, a first place at the Rainforest Alliance Award as best sustainable certified coffee in Brazil, and two Minas Gerais state prizes representing Chapada de Minas,” stated Flanzer. “Our Serra do Cabral coffees are roasted as components of specialty blends, as well as single origin in many parts of the world.” Sustainable quality at scale means that award-winning microlots and consistent container-sized lots for blending can come from the same farm, one that produces all its coffee with the least impact to the environment and greatest benefit to dignified employment and ecosystem restoration.

According to Flanzer, “the specialty clients we have, together with our certifications, attest we are on the right path to assuring coffee quality, independent of the lot size. Our greatest prize is being able to produce high quality coffees, preserve nature, and work with such an amazing team and great clients.”

As consumers come to expect both high-quality products and social responsibility from the coffee companies they patronise, coffee production at scale makes it possible for both goals to be achieved together through careful planning that recognises the connection between coffee’s sensory attributes in the cup and the impact of the production process that yielded them.

  • 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 lives in Miami, Florida. She may be reached at [email protected].

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