Finca El Suelo Q + A

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Since I will be heading down to the farm again two days from now, I sat down with Cori Ready, to discuss the answers to some frequently asked questions. Here's what she asked me: 

 

How far have you come with the planting of the trees and soil improvements?

Overall we have planted 9000 trees since 2015, we have 600 left. Mainly they are Geisha trees that we planted in the fields in February 2018. Some of the shade trees we have planted have survived and some have not. At the moment, the shade trees are being eaten by ants. In terms of the soil improvement, we have managed to increase the microbial biomass slightly. It’s nowhere near where it should be as there is not enough shade and there are not enough plants or organic material in the soil. We have also experienced long periods of drought in 2016 and 2017 and that certainly pulled us back. There’s also the matter of the time crunch that is a result of not being there full-time.

 

What are the weather conditions like at Finca el Suelo throughout the year?

We have the wet period where it rains 200 to 300 millimeters per month. We have dry periods that see 50-80 millimeters of rain per month, if any rain at all. The driest periods are typically July and August, but it can also be quite spread out. On average over the last two years (and we’re writing this in the last days of July 2018) we have had 1400 mm of rain per year including very dry periods from June to September. Normally it should rain around 2000+mm per year.

 

When do you think you can have the first harvest?

We picked one coffee cherry in 2017. We will 3 cherries in July 2018 and maybe 8-10 in November 2018! And hopefully around 2020 - 2021 we will have enough to make some coffee (but not a lot), maybe a kilo or two.

 

How many times a year do you travel to Colombia?  

3-4 times per year. Four times in 2017 and four times in 2018, for example. Each trip lasts two to three weeks at a time.  

 

Who takes care of Finca el Suelo when you're not there?

I manage it through the magic of WhatsApp. And my colleague, and friend, the farmer Elias Roa of Finca Tamana hires seasonal workers to do the necessary farming tasks.

 

Which coffee plants are you planting?

Right now, we have 100 Typica trees, 400 Geisha trees and 30-50 Caturra trees.

 

Tim, you don't currently live on the farm. Will you ever?

No. But the plan is to build a house eventually and live there during the harvest, hopefully in the next five years.

 

Are there any other roasters that have become farmers?

Yes but none that actually work full-time  on the farm as far as I know. Some colleagues like 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic do have farms. Phil and Sebastian out of Canada just bought a farm in Honduras. Toby's Estate owns a farm in Panama. Starbucks owns farms in Costa Rica. Friele is part owner of a farm in Brazil, just to name a few.

 

How is what you are doing different or similar to permaculture or biodynamic farming?

Biodynamic farming is quite old-fashioned, there are a lot of rituals and preparations based on traditional agriculture and old learnings, not science, but most of them do promote microbial growth in the soil and I know that a lot of wine producers have succeeded with the techniques. However I would have to live on the farm in order to work in this manner. We use a microscope to assess our soil and we make compost specifically to boost the microbes that we need, but we do have a lot in common with biodynamic techniques. Permaculture is more of a holistic design model for farms which is something we don't adhere to, but we have a lot of crossover in our methods. You could use our techniques in permaculture AND biodynamic farming.

 

Does Finca el Suelo have an internship program?

No. But, I do want to be able to bring people over to Fincal El Suelo to work. In fact, right now, I am looking for a person who could come, live and work there for a year. They would need to be able to speak Spanish and English and be willing to learn about biological farming techniques (and being bossed around by me of course).

 

Can people visit the farm or work there?

We don’t have room yet for many visitors but we do occasionally have visitors for a few days.

 

 

 

The start of a new project

I started this project back in 2014 when Elias Roa, the owner of Finca Tamana, offered me to buy 7 hectares of his land to start my own coffee farm. I immediately started working on the paperwork, and planted my first coffee seeds in March 2014, not really knowing anything about farming coffee.

My goal with this project is to learn about coffee farming, and how to better improve coffee quality through sustainable farming practices.

As I have never grown anything in my life before, I had to read a lot about farming practices. I started learning about conventional (mineral fertilizer based) farming practices, organic and biodynamic practices. The more I learned, the more I realized that I was not going to be able to follow the biodynamic practices unless I stayed long periods on my farm, and also had animals on my farm. Since my business is based in Norway, I am not able to live in Colombia for long periods, so I had to dismiss biodynamic practices. (Although I still follow the lunar calendar.) I did not want to use mineral fertilizers and pesticides, so my only option was to look for organic practices that just works well. I started researching heavily about organic farming, but was getting pessimistic messages from most farmers I talked to. They all said that organic farming is fine, but your yields will drop about 50%, and it is more expensive.

It was not until I met Ed Bourgeois, a farmer and coffee enthusiast, on a coffee conference in Mane, that I started getting on the right track. Ed told me about the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, and how microorganisms work together with the plant in order to feed it. HE said that most likely I could grow more coffee with better quality, if I only applied the right biology into my soil. I did not really know what to believe, but was curious to learn more. That same night, I went back to my hotel and googled Dr. Elaine Ingham, and watched hours of her lectures and videos on YouTube. It was all very impressive, so I decided to take her online classes, which started in February 2015 and finished in August 2015. That is how I have learned most of my understanding of soil biology, and how I can grow plants without the use of mysterious cow horn preparations or chemicals.

After a lot of bureaucracy and visits to my lawyers office, I finally got my papers in order in June 2015, and I could call myself a landowner in Colombia. By that time, I had already planted the seedlings into the field in February 2015, and my trees were really suffering because of the stressed soils they were planted in. Based on what I had learned in the past year, I started making my first compost during my visit in June, and when I came back in October, I applied the first round of compost extract to the soil. Since it took me over 8 months from planting until the first application of compost extract, I have had to replant a lot of trees due to drought, and lack of nutrients. Still I am optimistic and confident that I will be able to grow the trees in a more healthy way as soon as the biology in my soil is better.

I now have two varieties planted: Typica and Geisha. In about two or three months, I will be planting Caturra as well. The reason why I am doing that, is so that I am able to compare my Caturra with my neighbors' (Elias') Caturra, as I am growing coffee with the help of biology, and he is growing coffee with the help of mineral fertilizers. That way we will be able to directly compare the coffee quality to see what approach is better, for quality purposes.

Cleared land