In hopes that each cup may be better than the last…

Time was ticking. This was our last full day to finalize our results before we made our final presentation to the FCC the following afternoon. We had finished visiting 16 farmers over the past 10 days collected pages of interview notes and created a vast spreadsheet to organize and analyze our findings. But one thing remained, empty cell after empty cell of missing soil analyses data. From each farm we visited we collected approximately 3 soil samples that transected the farmers’ fields from the top of the slope, through the middle, to the bottom. Gathered at the FCC’s organic compost making facility, we were staring at 50 sheets of paper holding sieved (to remove rocks and non-decomposed debris) soil air drying in preparation for their examination.

However, Arlen, the FCC field technician, wanted to round out our intercultural exchange by sharing with us a very intriguing method he uses for soil analyses, called Pfeiffer Chromatography. Developed in the 1950s, Pfeiffer Chromatography uses large filter paper impregnated with dilute silver nitrate to basically create photographic paper. A sample of soil is mixed with dilute sodium hydroxide and that solution, when applied to the filter paper via capillary action, creates a stunning image of the soil. Through understanding the the color, form, and patterns of the results, it’s theorized to give information about the quantity, quality, and interaction of the soil’s 3 Ms: minerales , materia organica, and microorganismos


One of the goals of our working with the FCC is to develop a soil analysis “kit” that is rapid, affordable, and can done with relatively simple means. This would help farmers keep tabs on soil health in the hopes that could help with making decisions about the application or purchase of soil amendments, as well as give them an idea of how their management is affecting their soils. In our first rendition of this test the parameters we measured included:

  • color
  • texture
  • pH
  • presence of earthworms
  • Active Carbon

Perhaps in the future we can corroborate our customized soil health kit with the corresponding Pfeiffer Chromatography to create a hybrid quantitative/qualitative test.


Though the Active Carbon tests was originally designed to be conducted in the field as well as a  lab, without precision scales, micro pipettors, and volume-setting pumps, running the Active Carbon test outside of a laboratory proved to be trickier than initially imagined, but not insurmountable! Due to technical difficulties we had to leave the factory and conduct the Active Carbon test in the kitchen of our hotel in the wee hours of the night!

But without struggle there is no triumph, and so we ended up delivering a successful presentation highlighting out preliminary findings. Reinstating our promise to continue our data analysis and to share our final results, the FCC was genuinely pleased with our work so far and has welcomed us to return to continue to develop this investigatory partnership


Thanks to the FCC who welcomed us in; thanks to Don Arlen who gave us a window to another way of thinking; thanks to the 16 farmers who hosted us, answered our endless questions, let us eat their coffee berries, and fed us excessively; thanks to Cornell’s CIIFAD program for providing the funding and opportunity!


Coffee, Coffee Everywhere and Not A Drop to Drink

After spending Monday compiling the data from our first week in the field, we hit the road on Tuesday and set out to another nearby coffee-yu region to continue interviewing farmers and taking soil samples. After our experiences the week before we felt much more prepared for field work and were able to increase both the efficiency and quality of our work. Team members conducting interviews were able to ask their questions more precisely, quickly, and effectively whereas team members in charge of soil analysis not only took samples but involved the farmers in some of the soil tests.


One of the most popular tests amongst the farmers was the pH test. As a color-based visual indicator of pH, soil acidity, and ultimate soil health, people of all ages and backgrounds could participate. Our team leader, Juana, came up with an excellent analogy for explaining the importance of pH. She would ask the farmers to imagine the best San Cocho in the world (a traditional Colombian soup that we often had for lunch that includes all three original staples of the region: yucca, corn, and potato). “If the San Cocho is too salty you won’t eat it no matter how good it is,” Juana explained. She went on to relate soil pH and level of acidity with a plant’s ability to utilize or “eat” nutrients in the soil. If the soil is too acidic, the plants will not “eat” the nutrients no matter how abundant they are. Farmers and their children enjoyed watching the colors of the pH kit dyes change before their eyes and then matching the color they saw with that on the pH value card.


It can be tantalizing to walk through fields of thousands of coffee trees. Thankfully, each farmer generously welcomed us into their home and gave us plenty of coffee and homemade treats. By the end of the day we had collected some of our best data and felt prepared and ready for our final day in the field.


Compost juice, the next big juicing trend?

On Thursday, our team visited the FCC’s organic compost and biofertilizer production plant. Surrounded by lush green hills on both sides, the cows that contribute their manure to the compost munch away contently on the pasture next to the production facility. Arlen, the plant manager (pictured below) runs a comprehensive operation consisting of many different stages of waste processing and fermentation. 

The compost and biofertilizer spray are not only about meeting organic production standards. They are an important part of protecting farmers’ health. In Colombia, small producers often spray agrochemicals with no protective gear and suffer from the effects of exposure to the toxins. Some of the most dangerous chemicals that have been banned in the U.S. for health safety reasons can still be sold and used here. The commonly used word for pesticides in Spanish, veneno, literally translates as “poison.” Arlen spoke of some of the fatalities from agrochemical poisoning, which have included his lifelong friends and children. 

To illustrate the safety of the biospray to some skeptics during one of his field visits, he challenged the farmer to drink his fertilizer or pesticide. The farmer obviously did not, but Arlen showed how safe the organic biospray was by drinking some of it in front of the farmer. While he is telling us this story,  Arlen uncovers one of the barrels where the concoction is fermenting. He takes some of the juice and sips it before us to emphasize his point. We  try to process what he had done. Did he just drink that?! He smiles and says, “The first time you drink this it will give you diarrhea, but after that it’s fine. It’s all natural. Safe.” 


Over the mountains, through the woods



On our second day here in Popayán, we had an early start to meet some of the coffee farmers in the Morales municipality. Our adventure began at 7am when we set off to meet our first farmer, Hermes. He showed us around his own organic farm, as well as three other farms in the Asociación campesina en agricultura limpia Morales (ASOCALM). Of the four farms we visited, half were organic, but each farmer was dedicated to environmentally-friendly production.


At each of these farms, we asked questions regarding every aspect of production including size of the farms, inputs on the land, and difficulties they faced. Each of the farmers mentioned the hardships of climate change and the impacts the increased rain and temperatures have caused upon their production. From there, we traveled around their plots collecting and sampling soil. Some of our tests included pH, soil texture, and soil color. The soil samples were analyzed in-field to show the farmers a variety of tools they could use to better understand the health and requirements of their individual soils. We also took samples from these farms to be tested for biological activity once they have dried.


During our time in Morales, we were given a delicious lunch of San Cocho (yucca, corn, and potato) and even witnessed a few musical numbers from a local family of coffee farmers.


Meeting FCC

We arrived in Popayán, known as “the White City” on January 9th. It is calm, cozy, and cosseted community and we found out within a matter of about 45 minutes that it would be hard to get lost here.

For our first day of research in Colombia, our team met up with our stakeholder, the FCC (Federación Campesino del Cauca) in Popayán. During our meeting, we briefed the FCC on previous SMART projects, presented slides about our goals for our SMART project, and opened discussion with the FCC to review any doubts and set expectations for this year’s project. After an open discussion we decided on a schedule, set up plans for the week, and finally moved on to coffee tasting!presentaiton.jpg

We were taking to their cupping laboratory where we were shown different machines and stations that coffee beans go to on their way to being prepared for cupping analysis. This process included pulping, drying, roasting, and grinding beans, as well as the process of cupping. It was very nuanced: coffee is ranked on a scale from 0-100 based on a set of well-defined criteria. image4-1Indeed, the highest rating yet has been a 88 points!  We enjoyed the taste testing and learning more about the coffee making process.smellCoffee.jpg