Travelogue: Allegro Coffee Buying in Peru

Christy Thorns is the lead coffee buyer for Allegro Coffee Company — experts in the coffee and tea business who have been part of the Whole Foods Market family for a quite a few years now. 7/11/08 Oro Verde co-op, Lamas, San Martin, Peru peru3_0.jpg

Christy Thorns is the lead coffee buyer for Allegro Coffee Company — experts in the coffee and tea business who have been part of the Whole Foods Market family for a quite a few years now.7/11/08 Oro Verde co-op, Lamas, San Martin, Peru

I am travelling through the northern Peruvian provinces of San Martin, Amazonas, and Caja Marca with our other Allegro buyer Darrin and Claudia and Angel from Sustainable Harvest Importers. Sustainable is helping build labs and train cuppers at the four cooperatives from whom we source coffee beans in this vast agricultural region situated between the Amazon and the Pacific. In the last few years we have moved our sourcing from the southern Cuzco province, which perhaps is more romantic given that it is the home of stunning Machu Picchu, to this northern coffee belt where we aim to build more direct links with growers and find more consistent quality. From Lima, we caught a flight to the bustling town of Tarapoto in San Martin, which at one time was the epicenter of the coca trade in Peru controlled by the FARC-like, MRTA (Revolutionary Movement of Tupac Amaru*).  The MRTA brought a temporary prosperity to San Martin, where according to the locals, everyone benefited in some way from the coca trade and walked with their pockets stuffed with silver. It was also a time when there was very little worry about crime with the paramilitaries acting as the local law enforcement. Fear of a knock on the door by men in camouflage discouraged most lawbreakers. Supposedly the MRTA so controlled the area they used the local roads as landing strips for their airplanes that would literally land, dump bags of money out one door as people on the ground would load up bundles of coca in the other in less than a minute without stopping the plane. Those days are over now, as coca has been completely wiped out in this region by the US round-up eradication campaign that so destroyed the land which was sprayed that nothing has been able to grow there for the last 15 years. Farmers moved into new areas to plant coffee in the highlands and cacao, rice and palm in the valleys. The pockets of the locals may no longer be overflowing with silver, but Tarapoto is once again bustling as the center for legit agricultural products and noisy with the sound of the local motor taxis or tuk-tuks imported from Korea it seems.*Tupac Amaru was a revolutionary Incan leader who led a failed revolt against the conquering Spaniards. The MRTA used him as inspiration for their movement.7/12/08 Lamas, Peru

Today we are visiting with the Oro Verde group in the small, hillside town of Lamas near Tarapoto. The co-op has 1000 members after starting in 1999 with only 53 farmers. The group is starting a new Rainforest Alliance carbon offset project, first with the planting of a variety of trees on land around the coffee farms to add some additional income for the members. Down the road this may also add some agroforestry income. On the coffee side, the co-op is developing an appellation focused database for each farm, documenting environmental aspects of each including shade levels, soil type and health, elevation, etc…and tying this to the cupping profile of the coffee that comes from each farm.  Oro Verde is both a coffee and cocoa producer, the cocoa coming from the farms lower in the valley and coffee from farms above 4000 feet. This morning we walked through a cocoa field and tasted the sweet, slippery pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside each colorful gourd-like pod. The Oro Verde group is Fair Trade certified and we saw first-hand the benefits of the social premium that is being used here to build a new dry mill for coffee, a new cupping lab, and new fermentation tanks and drying patios for the cocoa.7/14/08 San Ignacio, Cajamarca, Peru

The two day drive from Lamas provided us the opportunity to see the ever changing, dramatically beautiful scenery in this rugged countryside of northern Peru, reminiscent to me in a way of the drive through the four corners area of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, but with the addition of rice patties and palm trees in the valleys. Spectacular photo opportunities seemed to lie around every bend; stunning red sandstone cliffs rising above green fields of rice; boisterous rivers cutting down through steep canyons of granite with small clay huts flanked by stands of corn and banana precipitously perched on the soaring ledges above; and vast lonely horizons that seem to stretch to the coast. Then the long, battered road literally dead ended in the town of San Ignacio, but what a great surprise this end-of-the-road town turned out to be.

We are buying coffee from three cooperatives in San Ignacio. Our first visit is with the Aprocassi (San Ignacio Association of Supportive Producers) group from whom we buy a couple containers of Fair Trade Organic coffee and aim to support a women’s micro co-op, Programa Mujeres. There are currently 474 members of Aprocassi which has grown rapidly since their founding in 2000. Programa Mujeres was formed in September of 2007 with 69 members, all of whom own and farm their own land. Today we met specifically with the women’s group to discuss the potential for separating their production from the rest of the co-op’s coffee in the future. Currently 50% of their farms are certified organic, 21 are in the 2nd transition year, and 14 in their first transition year. It takes three years for conversion from conventional to certified organic, so it will be a little while before we can see their full potential volume-wise. We discussed the farming techniques and needs around infrastructural improvements. Cement and ceramic tiles to build better fermentation tanks and materials to improve their drying beds topped the list of needs.  Despite some challenges they feel that they have good quality control and organic practices in place with the assistance of Aprocassi’s three agronomy technicians. They also talked a lot about their focus on picking and/or processing only ripe red cherries. I found it interesting that the women who own large enough farms to hire labor for the harvest prefer to hire other women for the job because they feel women are more selective when it comes to picking.Later we toured the president of the women’s program, Roxana Nuñez’s 4 hectare farm, which she shares with her mother Julia, also a member of women’s group. They showed us how they make both a dry and wet organic fertilizer. The wet from composting coffee pulp, kitchen waste, trunks banana trees, used sugar cane, animal waste with red worms.  The dry was made from a simple mixture of pulp with phosphoric rocks and bird guano. Walking through their amazing diverse and botanically rich farm with one of the co-op’s agronomists we saw a biological predator at work against coffee’s biggest pest, a borer weevil called broca. A natural fungus attacks and kills the broca before they have a chance to enter the bean through the outside layers of pulp and parchment to lay their eggs. We also saw the white fungus that literally attacks a common foliage disease called leaf rust. It was so uplifting to visit with farmers who believe in and understand organic farming and to see the balanced, healthy ecosystem that is the result.7/15/08 San Ignacio

Today we met with members of the two other cooperatives in San Ignacio, Chirinos and Frontera. This will be the first harvest that we will buy coffee for Allegro from these two co-ops, so our initial visits are really to get to know one another and do some cupping to see how the harvest is coming in. From what they tell us, Darrin and I are the first coffee buyers from the States to visit San Ignacio, but it is such a great little coffee town that I doubt it will be below the roaster radar for long. I was especially struck by the sense of community and openness that all of the coffee co-ops shared. Both Chirinos and Frontera cuppers brought their coffee samples to Aprocassi cupping lab for us to evaluate together and we shared meals throughout our two days here with members of all of the groups.Chirinos co-op has 275 members or socios as they are called in Peru, who cultivate their coffee specifically in a small district with the same name outside of San Ignacio. The group is focused on educating their farmers through a clever youth program lead by their head cupper, Abel. Abel trained 14 young socios to assist with cupping sessions with other members that address cultivation and processing problems and their affects on quality. These “jovens” also travel to the various farms to communicate and help implement needed improvements. They feel this program is a success and has brought down defect numbers in the green coffee and led to more consistent cupping scores.

Frontera co-op has 340 socios with an average farm size of 2 Hectares. They gave us an excellent sunset tour of the new wet mill they are constructing on a hillside overlooking town. The mill will use the traditional full fermentation and washing method to process their coffee and we saw a line of brand new pulpers set above a maze of cement washing channels and neat row of fermentation tanks. A large, yet to be used, drying patio extended out to the edge of the hill. We saw an interesting organic planting method which I had never seen used anywhere before. They grow a type of edible white bean plant alongside newly sown coffee seeds (typically we see coffee plants grown in nurseries until they are around three months old and then transferred to the fields) to add nitrogen and a small amount of shade. After three months, when the coffee trees have grown hearty enough, the beans stalks are removed, the pods are hulled by beating them inside big wooden hoppers with sticks, the husks and leftover plant material is dried and used in the compost that goes back into the coffee fields. The hulled beans are then consumed or sold as an additional cash crop by members.We are so impressed by the sustainably focused coffee farmers of San Ignacio and so charmed by the beauty and warmth of this lovely mountain town that we hate to leave, but on to Ecuador we must go. Saludos!

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