Twenty years ago Antonio Saavedra sold his farm at 1200 masl in Tolima, Colombia, and bought another further up the hill at 1715 masl. Yep, twenty years ago. Before anyone was talking about global warming and its impact on coffee, Antonio realized that temperatures were rising and it would soon be impossible to grow great coffee on his lower altitude farm.
To reach his current farm called El Placer, located in the San Antonio municipality of Tolima, you have to travel one and a half hours by horseback from the nearest road. It’s the kind of trip Antonio is accustomed to making. He once travelled eight hours by horseback to reach the town of Planadas in Tolima, in order to deliver a sample of his coffee to Alejandro Renjifo from Fairfield Trading, our partners in the region. Things are spread out in that part of Colombia and roads don’t always take you where you need to go.
This is why Antonio created a school on his property. Seven children from neighboring families attend the school, which covers both primary and secondary curriculum. Of course, “neighbor” is a relative term. Their farms are quite far from Antonio’s, too far for the kids to travel back and forth on a daily basis. So they arrive Monday morning and stay until Friday afternoon.
Their teacher is also the head cook and chief caretaker. She walks one and a half hours up the hill to Antonio’s property on a Monday morning, then teaches, cooks and cares for the kids until they all go home on Friday. Next to the school building is a vegetable patch and part of the kids’ daily activity is to maintain the garden and prepare meals using the vegetables they have grown. The kids could attend a government school, but it is further from their homes than Antonio’s farm, and it doesn’t provide housing during the week. If it wasn’t for the school Antonio built on his property for his neighbor’s children, it is unlikely they would get a continuous education.
The dedication of the teacher and the children is a reflection of Antonio’s own serious approach to life and work. The quality of his coffee is a result of daily persistence and willingness to learn. Antonio renovates his farm regularly to keep the trees young. His pickers are trained to collect only the ripe cherries which he depulps immediately and ferments for 36 hours in lidded containers filled with just enough water to cover the cherries. He washes the coffee up to four times to remove all trace of mucilage, and dries it slowly in a solar drier for around 15 days. He personally inspects every truck that will transport his coffee and accepts only impeccable cleanliness, his last chance to ensure his precious product isn’t contaminated by a smelly truck on its way to a buyer.
“I have coffee in my blood,” Antonio explains, when asked for his secret to producing quality. “I have been a coffee grower for 40 years. Coffee brings me food, life, love. I’m so proud when people buy my coffee and enjoy it.”
Through his connection to Fairfield Trading, Antonio is now working with several buyers he describes as “very serious people who understand coffee,” in other words, people like Antonio. Through these buyers he hopes to learn how he can improve his coffee even more. “I have a lot of discipline,” he said. “I tend to my coffee every day, I will work every day to make it better.”