I hold the coffee beans in my hands, their parchment skin still on, like little tissue paper jackets or the discarded chrysalis of a transformed caterpillar. There is something very fragile about them in this form. I’m told that what I’m holding in my hand has a 73g yield and is worth 6 soles 40 centavos (around $2 USD) per kilo.
Antonio Oblitas, who is in charge of determining the price of the coffee that the members of the Cooperativa Agraria Rodríguez de Mendoza (COOPARM) bring to the factory, has shown how he samples just 200g of each sack to define its quality. Apparently, anything at 73g or above is good quality and guarantees a better price per kilo for the grower.
I’m on a tour of the facilities at COOPARM, a 540-member strong coffee cooperative in Rodríguez de Mendoza, a town in the mountain foothills of the Amazonas Region of Peru, just 85 kilometres southeast of Chachapoyas.
I’ll admit to being a complete novice when it comes to the world of coffee. As a stereotypical British tea lover, I rarely drink coffee. But the opportunity to visit a cooperative that has been working to bring fair prices to local, independent growers and develop their skills at the same time, seemed too good to miss.
The price is fair and the owner, who must be in his mid-50s and lives a few miles away cultivating two hectares of coffee on his chacra (farm), looks pleased.But it’s not been an easy road to get here, as Ana Quintanilla, the cooperative’s PR director, explains to me on our tour of the weighing room.
Most of the growers used to focus almost exclusively on cultivating Arabic coffee plants, which are known internationally for the high-quality beans that they produce. However, the devastating spread of a plague of coffee leaf rust led many members to abandon these crops in favour of lower-quality plants that are less susceptible to diseases.
When it comes to top quality coffee, though, nothing beats the Arabic varieties. Ana tells me how, despite the epidemic, 18 of their growers still have the capacity to achieve “specialist” status – an accreditation given by the Specialty Coffee Association to coffee beans that achieve over 84 on a scale of 100 when sampled by certified “Q grader” tasters. The coffee is graded on everything from its aroma and sweetness to its acidity and balance.
What matters to the growers here in Rodríguez de Mendoza, however, it that if they can reach this level of quality, they can charge higher prices.
Pulled from the brink of ruin
The staff at COOPARM are understandably delighted with the results of all the hard work that they and their members have put it, particularly as it’s been a wild ride to get here.
Practically run into the ground by the former directors, the co-op was saved from the brink of ruin by the leadership and business acumen of the new boss, Alex Bocanegra from Piura 375 kilometres northwest, and his youthful team that run the main office in Rodríguez de Mendoza.
Nowadays, the 540 cooperative members harvest over one-million kilograms of coffee beans each year – around 10% of the total crop grown in the Rodríguez de Mendoza area. Their collective weight in the market has helped them to maintain prices when they’ve fluctuated locally, as they focus on exporting their unroasted beans to suppliers in the US, Canada, New Zealand and parts of Europe.
After being shown how the beans are weighed and their quality assessed, we walk a few minutes to their cavernous main factory where the process of removing the parchment and sorting the beans takes place. The room is practically empty save for a few heavy sacks leaking dry, green beans onto the floor; I visit in January and the main harvest won’t start until April, when these machines work tirelessly throughout the day and night to process the vast quantities of the crop that they receive.
During the tour, I’m joined by a group of 17 and 18-year old boys who are sons of cooperative members. They’re on an internship programme, spending five months learning about the cooperative and its distinct areas of work, with the hope that they might be tempted to stay and work here or on their parents’ farms in the future.
As it stands, the majority of young people migrate to big cities along the coast of Peru for jobs; the future of the cooperative hangs on finding a way to keep it alive as members gradually become too old to farm their chacras.
Lunch at co-op member Señora Laura Pinedo’s plantation
Our final stop of the day is lunch at one of the members’ houses. Señora Laura Pinedo owns two hectares of coffee plantations in the community of Tocuya, about a 30-minute drive from the town. She welcomes us into her kitchen, which is a chaos of activity between the lemon-yellow painted walls and tin roof that jingles when it rains.
She’s an immediately likeable character, full of energy, and somewhere in her 50s, and she springs around the kitchen, chatting away about her experiences of the cooperative. She’s proud of being a member of COOPARM and even prouder to have watched it come back from near disaster under the careful direction of the new team. For her, the coffee is an important source of income, particularly as the prices they earn by exporting the beans are significantly higher than what she could get for selling them in her local market.
After lunch, it’s down to business. Just a short few hundred meters from her kitchen and we’re deep into her plantation; here, we find a jumble of fruit trees, shrubs and coffee plants damp from the rain. With deft movements, Laura squeezes between the vegetation, pausing to pop the glistening red berries from the plants and leaving the green ones in place.
With half a basket collected, we traipse back to her garden, where a compact metal deshelling machine – operated by hand by a lever – separates the beans from the fleshy berries, spitting them out into a container placed beneath.
From here, they need to be washed and then dried – the latter of which can be quite a task in the humid, rainy conditions of the Amazonas region. Laura tells us how the best quality beans are destined for the cooperative, while the others can be sold for a far lower price at her local market, meaning barely a bean goes to waste.
Back in her kitchen, Laura’s enthusiasm for the cooperative and everything it has done for her and the other partners is pronounced. Meetings are held by COOPARM across the region with all of the members and training about fertilizers and different methods of drying the crop are delivered to help raise the quality of the beans and the knowledge of the growers. The actions of the previous directors almost destroyed her faith in the cooperative, but now, she has nothing but positive praise for the way that it helps her and her fellow members to survive from their land.
As we leave Señora Laura to dry her coffee beans, and we return to the factory in Rodríguez de Mendoza, it is with a sense of optimism for the prospects of the humble farmers in the area. Their hard work and toil, despite the odds, is finally beginning to pay off.
How can you visit the coffee growers in Rodríguez de Mendoza?
The knowledgeable team at Nuevos Caminos Travel specialise in alternative tours in and around Chachapoyas in the Amazonas region of Peru.
Their full-day Ruta del Café coffee tour to visit the Cooperativa Agraria Rodríguez de Mendoza (COOPARM) and eat lunch with one of the partners costs S/184 ($56 USD), including private transport and an English-speaking guide.
They also offer beyond-the-beaten-trail tours to destinations in other parts of the region.
I was a guest of Nuevos Caminos Travel on my coffee tour in Rodríguez de Mendoza, but all of the opinions expressed in this article are my own. For more information about their tours, check out the Nuevos Caminos Travel website.