Picking Coffee in Peru – or how I spent my summer vacation!

This July I had the amazing opportunity to visit Coyona, Peru with Equal Exchange to harvest coffee with the Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui Co-op (JGC) and to learn about how Fair Trade works in the most fundamental way.

The co-op began in 1969 in Coyona, Peru and four of the original 34 members are still participating. They now have 250 members, both men and women. The warm hearts and friendly faces endeared these people to me as we spent 3 days side by side sharing in their homelife, their harvest, and a fiesta. Here’s what I learned.

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Equal Exchange began partnering with JGC in 1997 through Cepicafe. Cepicafe is an umbrella organization that represents 6600 small producers in Northwestern Peru. Those 6600 producers are grouped into 90 smaller organizations. JGC is one of those co-ops. They send their coffee from Coyona to Piura to be processed and exported.

Coffee has been grown in Coyona for 70 years. They use a wet process on the cherries which yields a better quality end bean. Their processing facility is in the middle of the village and is impressive for it’s efficiency. You see, they built it right into the mountain so they could use gravity to their advantage. The entire co-op helped build it – they figured it would ‘cost’ one week of labor per co-op member so they all pitched in, most working more than their one week commitment. Those who were unable to work the week ‘paid’ in coffee to the co-op. Side bar – I particularly loved that the patio where they dried the beans featured soccer goals and seating for community games!

Our second day in the village we picked coffee cherries in the mountains alongside the socios, or co-op members.Image

The co-op has their own land and the individual farmers also have private land. The members get day wages to pick coffee on the co-op land thus supplementing their income. We picked on the co-op land which was steep to say the least! In the 4 hours or so we were picking I don’t think my feet were ever on level ground.

Picking the cherries was was simultaneously exciting and frustrating. Sergio, the GM of JGC, warned us of two diseases that are affecting the crop, Ojo de Gallina (rooster eye) and Roya Amarilla (yellow rust).ImageImage

It’s become so bad that 4 years ago they were producing 225,000-250, 000 lbs of export and this year they are hopeful to get 100,000 lbs. When we asked what was causing the disease the reply was climate change. The clouds which usually come in and go out allowing the coffee bushes to dry thoroughly have been literally hanging around too long. The excess moisture is what’s causing these diseases to occur. Even worse is that if you touch the yellow rust and then move on to another tree to pick you could pass the disease on to that tree. While it doesn’t affect cherry quality it significantly reduces the quantity of cherries that bush will yield.

The day we picked with the co-op we picked a total of 40 lbs of export. Not bad but I could definitely improve technique. The masters picked double what we could in the same time frame!

Once we picked the cherries they were moved, by burro, down to the processing facility. The first step was to dump them into the water and those that floated were skimmed off and the ones that sunk were good and moved on to depulping. First they are passed through a sieve to remove the outer layer by hand.Image

This doesn’t remove everything though so then it’s on to the electric depulper. This removes all of the outer fruit to reveal the ‘green bean’. From here they were put into the fermenting vat to sit for 24 hours. When they’re ready to go the beans are run through a switchback canal to wash them again and then they go underground across the road to the patio.

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Once they reach the patio they are ready to be spread out and dried, needing to be raked every 6 hours to make sure it’s done evenly. Once dried they are bagged and taken to Piura for hulling and roasting.

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There is a tremendous amount of leftover cherry shells which they compost. By the following season those are ready to be spread on the co-op land as nutrient rich additive. There are a couple of agronomists who work with the co-op to promote sustainable agriculture and to help get the most they can out of the land.

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The people of Coyona were great hosts. We had a big community party with lots of dancing and an impromptu banjo session with Joe from Greenstar Co-op in NY state. We also got a special treat from the primary school. We were there right around their Independence Day (Fiesta de Patrias) and as a result got to participate in their celebration.

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It was an amazing experience I won’t soon forget. Stay tuned for more!

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Claudia works at MOMs Central.

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