From Coffee to Conservation: The Inspiring Journey of La Palma y El Tucan
I breathe deeply that thick morning air, cut by the lazy sun still climbing over the dazzling emerald green jutting peaks that dominate the Colombian landscape. The morning dew, soaking my shoes after a few short steps, covers everything in a sparkling haze, slowly evaporating as the minutes pass. A symphony of birds, singing in a distinct constant harmony, the same way they have sung for thousands of years before, greeting the day and passing the time. Looking down the mountain through the filtered light, a world of possibilities opens up across the fertile hills dotted by humble farmhouses. The workers have already been hard at work at the mill, meticulously hand-sorting green coffee seeds for quality control while others check on the numerous coffee drying beds, turning the layers of coffee to ensure perfect results. A steep roller coaster of a road dissects the farm, while the small but mighty Apulo River etches its way in the other direction. This is La Palma y El Tucan, at first glance a simple and beautiful coffee farm and mill, yet a complex and intentional vision for the future of agriculture and the lives of farmers is an integral part of the very foundations of this special place.
What was once a cattle grazing land, cleared of any meaningful crops and vegetation, is now a lush agricultural forest, reminiscent of what we in the North would think of as a jungle to the casual observer. However, as you look closer and the details unfold, each plant and tree is accounted for and mapped out, each flower has a purpose and each footprint leaves its mark on soil that is constantly being enriched and revitalized. Intentionality is seen everywhere on this farm and its positive influence in the community around it as well as the wide world of coffee.
The first phase of the farm saw the implementation of a wet mill, or beneficio, while they prepared their land for coffee production. This allowed them to meet with over 100 coffee producers in the surrounding area that were growing traditional Colombian coffee varieties, to learn about the core needs and challenges that farmers were facing, and to address them head on with a program called Neighbors and Crops. This program not only assists the farmers with providing harvest labor and processing production, but it also is educational and ensures that producers are paid at a higher rate for their harvest yield than any other program in Colombia.
On the La Palma Y El Tucan farm, they focused more specifically on planting more exotic varieties of coffee like Gesha, Sidra and SL-28, a challenge that few had taken on before in Colombia, while also designing and implementing several experimental fermentation methods that complimented and enhanced the quality of the coffee in the cup. During this time, coffee production and processing with an extreme focus on quality was the main focus, and La Palma Y El Tucan was achieving huge success in competition across the coffee world. From the very beginning, the standard for quality has been second to none and is a benchmark for every project that they are involved in.
In 2018, Felipe, Elisa and the entire La Palma Y El Tucan team began to have conversations about shifting the coffee production paradigm. What if coffee production began giving back to the earth instead of taking from it? In many ways, traditional coffee growing is not friendly to the land where it is grown and many fertilizers and external inputs need to be used in order for coffee to grow well and produce a plentiful harvest. They began to understand that a farm based on mono-cultural growing was not sustainable, especially with the effects of a rapidly changing climate. They decided that increasing the amount of biodiversity in their land, instilling poly-cultural planting practices and reducing fertilizers and chemical inputs would be the next step in the evolution of the farm. To do this, they would need to risk 1000’s of healthy producing coffee plants in order to reach the goal of having 24 different plant species per hectare of land. They also built a state of the art composting facility that turned farming waste into rich organic compost for the farm and the Neighbors & Crops project as well. They wanted to create a working model for regenerative soil practices that could be replicated across Colombia and the world.
Currently, La Palma y El Tucan is at the center of a multitude of projects that are focused on increasing the viability of the regenerative agriculture movement across the Americas and beyond. "Biodiversal", a project that Felipe and his team started, has taken the compost facilities program to the next level and works extremely closely with the small coffee producers surrounding the area to educate and assist them with transitioning to regenerative practices. If you are not familiar with regenerative agriculture, it is essentially the practice of making the soil better and better each year through a myriad of methods. Using these methods not only increases the quality and sustainability of the produce, but also captures CO2 out of the atmosphere, thus becoming a key player in the race to slow down climate change.
At the heart of all of these projects and innovations is the desire to help the producers that we have partnered with in the Neighbors and Crops project, maintain their farms, produce unmatched quality coffee and improve their lives. Implementing and using regenerative farming practices inherently increases the quality of life for our neighboring producers, giving them a tool to keep their livelihood stable while so many around them using traditional, mono cultural techniques are struggling to keep up. For example, by increasing the health of the soil on their farms, erosion on the farm is less of a concern due to heavier and more frequent rains in the growing regions because the healthy soil is able to absorb all of the water more efficiently. Clearly changing farming practices poses risks, but the rewards are also undeniable.
It is this dedication to the soil and the land that wins over producers like Leonor Rodriguez, one of the earliest Neighbors and Crops partners. Now 71, she has been linked to her land for generations, and in many ways, the soil is in her DNA. She was attracted to the Neighbors and Crops program because, even though it seemed like a risk to change her methods, “I was captivated by the opportunities they offered me and by their focus on the quality of coffee.” One of Leonor's dreams is to pass down the farm to her family for generations to come, and by working with La Palma y El Tucan, that dream is closer to a reality with hard work and dedication along all links of the coffee chain.
Leonor’s story is truly beautiful and shows how important it is to be intertwined with your passions and the land, but not every coffee producer comes to coffee with such strong ties. Didier Burgos purchased a coffee farm more recently, he wanted to “modernize the process” and from there, really grew attached to coffee production. As is the case with many coffee farmers throughout the world, he grew the coffee and with the help of his farm workers, harvested the coffee and then sold his coffee harvest to the various mills and coops that exist throughout the region. He saw a different opportunity with La Palma & El Tucan, a sustainable model, not just environmentally, but also for the community as “100% of the coffee we sell is manually selected.” Meaning, instead of outsourcing to cheaper labor or using machinery, in the Neighbors and Crops program, harvest labor is conducted by a team of local coffee pickers who are experts at selecting the most ripe cherries, ensuring quality coffee and reducing waste. They are also paid a premium for their expertise, something that is very uncommon in the coffee industry. It is important to note, that the Neighbors and Crops harvesting team is employed by La Palma y El Tucan and not the farm owners themselves, which also relieves a lot of the financial burden from the farmer. Farmers in this area typically have very small farms, which increases their exposure in a volatile coffee market that sees labor costs and market costs constantly fluctuating.
At Futura Coffee Roasters, we are very proud to be able to not only serve the coffees that these hard-working farmers are producing, but we are dedicated to continue to work alongside them in very real ways. We are committed to not only purchasing coffees from the producers in the Neighbors and Crops program in Colombia, but additionally 3% of all of our sales is reinvested in supporting the growth of regenerative agriculture in coffee growing areas as well as the communities we are a part of in the United States. As a company that is vertically integrated in such an intimate way, the hands that touch these coffees are few and every step in the process from the ground up is intentionally focused on giving the producers we work with a better quality of life through better soil which always leads to a better cup of coffee.