El Fénix : The sixth month update
Welcome to the six month letter of news from the El Fénix farm and Raw Material Team.
Our tale began back in December 2016 with the help of almost 400 smashing Kickstarter backers worldwide. The goal was and remains the creation of a community wet mill located in Quindio, Colombia. Once complete, this project will provide the region's farmers with the possibility to have far greater control over their coffee quality, and income security through a fixed price payment system. We think that this kind of investment in accessible infrastructure is one of the steps required to make good on the promise of development through trade. This newsletter aims to give you some insight into how this goal has taken form over the past few months. So kick back, Kickstarter-ers, with a fine warm beverage and your reading hat atop your head.
The Raw Material Team
FARM FACTS ‘N’ KICKSTARTER STATS:
The El Fénix farm is nestled at 1,680 - 1,800 metres above sea level near the town of Calarcá, in the department of Quindío, in Colombia. It faces west toward the Cauca Valley and the central mountain range. The farm has ideal climate conditions for arabica coffees with a strong sun reflection off of the valley and an average rainfall 2275 mm a year. The main harvest comes in from April to July, with a fly crop from November through December. Natural spring falls provide water for all the farm's needs. The soil is mainly volcanic and in some areas there are red californian worms wriggling through and aerating the soil. All weeding is done by hand and no herbicides have ever been used, enabling microbial and fungi activity to really let loose.
- 117 people chose the reward of getting at least one tree in their name.
- According to Kickstarter, the median age of El Fénix supporters was 35 years.
- Backers from 20 different countries came together to make the construction of the community wet mill at El Fénix possible.
- Our pals in the USA chose the raw green coffee reward more than any other country. This is neat considering that Raw Material does not yet supply green coffee to roasters in that part of the world. Fingers crossed some of it is roasted and served in cafes on North American turf. If you happen to see it in the wild, please post us a photo via the community Facebook page.
- New Zealand peeps chose the delivery of roasted coffee more than any other country. This isn’t surprising as Matt’s mum bought a whole bunch.
- Each of the 1000 rare tree lots at El Fénix was backed. Recently we have received enquiries about the possibility of new lots on the farm, and thus we’ve allocated more space! So if you and your friends would like to be involved, you can now shimmy through to the get involved page to peruse the new lots we have made available.
12,000 COFFEE TREES
The past six months have seen enormous change through a lot of hard work on the farm. The farm has transformed entirely with 12,000 coffee trees planted across 6 hectares. And this mighty number of seedlings is growing alongside a varied range of other plants. We do this because by surrounding coffee trees with different crops, resilience to pests and pathogens improves. Growing varied species also allows for improved shade, mineral contributions to the soil, attracts useful animals to the crops, provides edible foodstuffs, and creates other forms of income for the farm. Phwoar.
Of these diverse crops, around 130 are guamo trees which are planted throughout the farm. Guamo trees (Inga edulis) are from the legume family (Fabaceae), famous for being one of the few plants that don’t demand nitrogen from their soil. Instead, almost all Fabaceae contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within nodules in their root systems. These neighbourly bacteria produce nitrogen compounds (a process known as “fixing”) that help the plant to grow using the abundant supply of Nitrogen found all around us in the air. As parts of the Guamo fall and decompose, the fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants. They also create a broad dense canopy, giving considerable shade for the coffee trees beneath. This is important for shifting that cherry’s development gears down a notch.
Another feather for the guamo’s cap takes form in its fruits. The pods it bears contain black seeds, each of which is encased in a thick white pulp that tastes like vanilla ice cream. Growing guamos essentially means you can eat ice cream in the shade of the tree that grew it for you, safe in the knowledge that your cherries are not getting ahead of themselves by developing too fast too soon.
Our new trees started life as seeds propagated at El Fénix and some nearby friend’s nurseries. These babies were escorted home in batches across the past few months, depending on which parts of the farm were ready to receive the seedlings, as well as their individual progression from seed to plant. The seedlings are protected from direct sunlight for typically 10-12 weeks. By this time the first leaves should have developed, and are followed by a new set every 3-4 weeks after that. The little ones are ready to fly the nest once 5-7 pairs of leaves have sprouted, and the seedlings stand between 20 and 30cm tall. Once planted, those in charge of the crop’s health thoroughly clean the base of each tree to ensure that they can grow skyward.
In support of the project, Kickstarter backers were able to choose from a selection of rewards, from a tree planted in the backers name, right up to an entire variety lot. Some backers chose a raw green coffee reward, which has been growing on these mature trees right up until this past harvest. For these trees which were already in production at El Fénix (Castillo), the main harvest was pushed back by sporadic and heavy rainfall. The rains also held back construction of the mill, but with the help of a temporary drying station, we have seen over 10,000kg of cherry picked, fermented, processed, dried, milled and shipped worldwide. If you chose this reward, they’re on their way so keep an eye out!
Following the harvest, the planting of Tabi, Gesha, Wush Wush, and Pink Bourbon varieties began. The Castillo trees on the farm were steadily replaced with the newly acquired seedlings, meaning that the lots supported by backers began to take shape.
As mentioned above, the past six months saw the construction of the farm hit by some hefty periods of rainfall. The unpredictable weather patterns postponed and affected any construction that was planned. In this time, the space allocated for the mill was cleared of its inhabitants - a few Castillo coffee trees and clouds of mosquitoes. Here are the construction plans for the main building compared with the current main structure :
When eventually the heavy rains subsided, the building of the wet mill got into full swing. To make sure that we were able to use the land to its utmost potential, Gabby and Miguel collected soil samples from around the farm, so that the land could be assessed. A topographer was then able map to out the farm for the planning of the wet mill, drying beds, and other areas where construction would take place.
One of the most important aspects of the wet mill’s skeleton are the retaining walls, which bind earth between two different elevations securing the foundation upon which the mill will stand. El Fénix is a prime example of hillside farming with this kind of need, so the thick walls we are building shall stand at around 3-4 metres high.
But hang on guys, why use a slope if it makes building difficult?
Great question, imaginary but inquisitive person. Throughout the coffee's processing, we use gravity as our reliable form of transportation. The mill’s structure will stagger down the hillside, housing coffee as it travels through floating channels (sorting by density), screens (sorting by size), tables (sorting by optics), down to different pulpers and beyond, without the use of any pumps. This is efficient AND future-proof! Building on a slope also allows for our temperature controlled fermentation room to be built underneath the sorting tables, which is insulated by the earth surrounding it. This also repurposes the thick concrete slab base of the mill as its ceiling, while still being easily accessible and requiring no double-handling or lifting.
ROLLED UP TO THE ELBOW
The creation of the project up until this moment has been heavily aided by some trusty volunteers. One of those volunteers was Tomasz, who was a great help in the field, friendly with the workers, and an operations buff. It was a pleasure to have him in the team for as long as we did. Another is Charlotte, who is still here in Colombia and is doing a great job. During her time on the farm she designed the impact assessment survey and interviewed many of our neighbours collecting baseline information. This survey determined the key households to be tracked over the next few years to find out how impactful our project will be for the community. As time progresses, we will adjust our strategy based on these findings to ensure our goals are reached.
Our hard working volunteer Erik, spent his first days on the farm stripping cherries and cutting branches off of the trees to make room for new development on the farm. He then helped the team organise, drill, paint, and hang all 397 of “tree in your name” plaques.
Then there was Lukas, a German student studying sustainability, who came to Quindío to observe the farm and pitch in with the project. Two more generous helpers who joined the team were Matt’s Mum and Dad, Helen and Steve. After issues with the motor that ran the pulper, Steve created a new base for the motor. After some wonderous wiring with Helen, the motor was repaired, and the freshly picked cherries were able to be pulped just moments later. We were all very happy to see those first beans come through the machine. Our volunteers were with us at varying times throughout the past six months, and we would like to say thank you to every one of them for all of their help!
As the project grows we will be looking to involve for more hardworking and curious folk to join us. Download our internship information booklet here in English or in Spanish, to read about how you can help out in person like Tomasz, Lukas, Charlotte, Erik, Helen, and Steve! Once you have had a read and think you'd like to apply, please hop over here to start your application. Cool!
It took an enormous amount of reshaping and structuring to get the land at El Fénix to where we see it today. We began with large amounts of land to clear, which included masses of ferns and brush. Some old banana trees were also cut down, and other trees were trimmed back. Once this was complete the land was ready for coffee plants. We can testify that planting trees is very intensive (especially with all the mosquitos on the farm), so seeing the very first Tabis in situ was especially rewarding.
The workers at El Fénix cleared the farm in stages. They began with the far north lot, removing old plantain trees, ferns, and remnants of old coffee plants, whilst Gabby and Miguel marked off the lower boundaries of the lots and planted the first seedlings. Those who work with us through the year often move across the country throughout the seasons to work picking coffee. They travel from farm to farm where work is available. And as such, word spreads quickly about the quality of life whilst working and living on a particular farm. The work is strenuous and so a good quality and well-portioned meal will make a farm favourable. In recent years, the reliability of mobile network coverage has also become enormously important on how people choose a farm to work on.
In contrast to all the talk of heavy rainfall, the current climate on the farm is dry, meaning we must water the seedlings every morning. With such unpredictable weather, the hydration of the plants always needs to be monitored. It is always a balancing act, and the intense rains of the past months have meant that several of the mature trees were affected. Plants by their nature will absorb more and more water as it is supplied, and potentially far beyond what is useful. For us on the farm, this affected the yield of some plants, as the cherries began to split due to taking on too much water. “Don’t stop til you drop” style.
A TREE BY ANY OTHER NAME...
As you might have seen, The Tree in Your Name Kickstarter reward proved to be mighty popular. Backers had untouched creative freedom to name their plants as they saw fit. Thus, we are now proud to be growing the likes of “Robocop” alongside “Lifetime Guaran-tree”, and their buddy “Tree, I am a tree.” With the help of our volunteers, we attached all 397 name plaques, to their respective seedlings. The plaques themselves were made by Seira Rincon, who engraved every single sign by hand with a wood burner, thank you Seira!
Originally, these coffee plants were intended to be Mokas, but unfortunately the levels of rainfall damaged half of the plants. In their place, the team decided to swap out the Mokas with Gesha seedlings. Not a bad trade by any means.
By the time of this newsletter, we have begun to see some of these trees begin to blossom. They are still far too young for their flowers to move into the fruit development stage, but it is a real treat to see them healthy and growing. Cherries begin to appear after the blossoms have been pollinated, where the genetic code of a male part of a flower (pollen) has mixed with that of the female (ovule). This code is the genotype, and the mix can result in positive new characteristics for the child plants. And depending on the intentions of the farmer, cross-pollination can work to improve the longevity of the plant, improved resistance to coffee leaf rust being one example of this.
The work has only really just begun, and there shall be plenty more to update you on in the coming months. In the meantime, please feel free to catch up with us on Instagram, and talk with each other in the Facebook group. We hope that this update has sparked your intrigue, whet your whistle, and tickled your brain fancy for future updates on the farm.
Have fun, until next time!
The Raw Material Team