Maria Cristina Potosí was just nine years old when she began to work with coffee on the family farm in Cauca, Colombia. She did the easy jobs, the fun ones for a child, like selecting healthy seedlings that would later be planted.
She learned essential details like how to calculate the distance between each plant and how to use organic fertilizer. She learned to wait patiently for the first coffee flowers, then the cherries, and eventually the coffee harvest.
Waiting for the coffee to grow
The coffee harvest in that area of Colombia normally starts in April and ends in July. During those months coffee growers have an income as they process, dry, and then take the coffee to the co-op to sell.
However, that means María Cristina has to manage the money well, since for the other nine months of the year they don’t have a steady income.
To help them get through those months, they plant sugar cane, corn, and other crops. “With our organic compost we grow choclo, a very good traditional corn. Corn can get you through while you wait for the coffee to grow.”
“We used to grow plantain in between the coffee plants. If you had visited my farm at that time, you would have seen all the plantain. Every two weeks we would cut 50, 70, or 100 bunches of plantain and we’d take it to the market. It was good.”
However, the life of a farmer is one of uncertainties and disappointments. María Cristina explains: “Then a little bug that eats the root of the plantain came and killed everything.”
“We follow exactly what they tell us to do”
Farm management can help coffee farmers be prepared for unexpected events. But how do farmers receive the training they need? Coffee cooperatives can help with needed guidance, insight and experience.
The coffee cooperative in that region of Cauca, Caficauca, taught them about farm management. “The co-op taught us that organic fertilizer is always good for the plants. Using compost from our farm, the coffee plants grow strong and give us big cherries and good coffee.”
“At harvest time, every two weeks we go through the farm and collect all the ripe cherries. That way we also keep the farm clean and there are no pests or diseases. We don’t fumigate.”
Of course, education is only useful when put into practice. María Cristina identifies the key to success: “We received training and we follow exactly what they tell us to do. This has really made the coffee good, and it’s been good for us.”
Harvest time and progress
Of course, that doesn’t mean that life on a farm is easy. As María Cristina says: “Yes, harvest time is a time of waking up early and staying up until midnight until you finish processing the coffee. But you get used to that rhythm, and after harvest it gets easier”.
“Before, we didn’t have equipment, so we had to wash the coffee and then select it by hand. It was hard work. After harvesting the coffee all day long, we had to work until late at night to pulp it.”
“Now, we have electricity. So we have a machine that strips the fruit off the seed. The machine does much of the work, so it’s easier! Things get better every day.”
Coffee is vital for María Cristina to support her family. But it’s more than just her family – they provide work for many single mothers and other people in the community.
More than just a source of income
How does María Cristina feel about her coffee? “The co-op liked my coffee so much they gave me an award. They told me that my coffee, when it is brewed, is red like wine. They showed me my coffee is good, very sweet, and the color is pretty.”
Is growing coffee just a source of income to María Cristina? She doesn’t have doubts about the role of coffee in her life: “I can’t imagine not growing coffee. I mean, at my age…I don’t see any other possibility. To do something else…no, no, no – I couldn’t change.”
How does she feel about the people in other countries who drink her coffee? “I would like you to know that we work hard to produce the coffee that has reached you. So thank you, thank you for valuing our hard work. Thank you for caring about us small coffee growers and taking the time to know a bit about us.”
Written by: Karen Attman - Latin American Coffee Academy