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Interview at Origin
Back in 2015, our UK Head Roaster Courtney Snowdon travelled to Brazil to visit FAL Group and meet Byron Holcomb, the then Farm Manager of both Monte Verde and Santa Izabel farms. Four years on, and Courtney returned to Brazil to meet Humberto Florezi Filho, CEO of the same two farms in Minas Gerais, and to see how things have changed, what has progressed and how FAL Group are implementing new infrastructure and methodologies to ensure quality in the cup. We’re huge fans of the progress and the vision of FAL Cafe. Not only are they regular placeholders in the Cup of Excellence, but their farms are going from strength to strength and they are renowned for producing some of the best quality coffee in Brazil.
"Through our neighbours and friends programme, we are finding that the producers understand, and are much more invested in knowing about how their coffees are being received by buyers at the cupping table."
Tell us how you started out in the coffee industry? What journey led you to FAL Cafe?
I first started working in coffee when I was 14 years old. My parents had a coffee company which had been in the family for over 90 years – and I was expected to work there around my school commitments. I worked as a waiter, a cleaner and then I roasted samples. When I completed school, I continued to work in the coffee industry – from trading right through to sales – and 25 years later, I am still here.
I was first introduced to the FAL Group when I worked alongside my father in one of the warehouses that FAL Cafe owned. I started working for FAL Café in a sales capacity, and then worked my way through to my present position as CEO in 2017. I absolutely love my job.
FAL Cafe also own and operate the dry mill in Ouro Fino (previously Icatu), where coffee from both farms go before they are exported. You’ve started a Neighbours and Friends Programme over the last few years which encourages farmers around the area to sell their coffee through this dry mill to buyers (like us). How is this programme going?
The Neighbours and Friends Programme is going well. Over the last two years, the number of producers in the programme has increased six fold. Currently there are 94 members.
Members become certified so that the buyers are confident in the coffee that they are buying. It’s really important to us that members also understand why the programme was developed – so the quality of coffee in the region is improved, which in turn leads to higher and fairer prices for the farmers, which in turn increases the longevity of the farms.
As a result, the quality around the region is really improving. In the first year the programme was running, it was hard to find a coffee with at least 81 points, but this is no longer the case. Last year, the best coffee from the Neighbours and Friends Programme scored 87. We love sharing these results with the producers, and explaining why this coffee achieved this score.
How are you working to put local producers in contact with roasters like us to build relationships? Do you have an example of a success story?
Yes, this is one of the first missions of the Neighbours and Friends Programme. And yes, I had one particular producer who was very anxious one day to sell his coffee as quickly as he could to get paid faster. This was a producer from Itagucu, who has also won the annual FAL Quality Contest.
I encouraged him to wait, to be patient and find a better buyer. Your NZ Head Roaster Paul Newbold came here and cupped his coffee – and really loved it! Paul made an offer to purchase the coffee based on quality which was 50% higher than what this producer would have achieved had he not waited to be paid fairly and for the sale price to reflect the quality of his coffee.
Through our Neighbours and Friends Programme, we are finding that the producers understand, and are much more invested in, knowing about how their coffees are being received by buyers at the cupping table.
"When producers visit us, they teach us just as much as we teach them. The opportunity for knowledge sharing is fantastic."
When I was last here in 2015, the office and cupping labs at Santa Izabel were just being built. Now complete, these new large office spaces and cupping labs offer space for everyone to work alongside one another; the management, logistics and quality control teams as well as the farmers. Can you tell me a bit about how life has changed since these new spaces became functional?
It’s fantastic. We now have a space and a place where everyone can work alongside one another with a lot of transparency. Every month we have a Field Day too, where we bring producers from the programme together and teach them how to produce good coffee, and how to take care of the land and other natural resources. It’s an educational space.
When producers visit us, they teach us just as much as we teach them. The opportunity for knowledge sharing is fantastic. We also have a large classroom on the rooftop of the new offices where we upskill our employees. For example, in the past we’ve invited a third-party companies to come in and teach our team and the farmers about pesticide usage.
Last time I was here, the big drying patio had just been built and everyone was super excited about it. It’s the biggest and most purposefully built drying patio I’ve ever seen. It was built with the vision to support meticulous lot separation, which this farm is well known for, and to allow for the farm to grow. Can you tell me about how the drying patio has helped during harvest here on Santa Izabel?
It’s been a big investment but very worthwhile. When we built the patio, we created a system with bigger windows which have space at the top where fresh air flows in, and hot air is released. Previously, the coffee had to be moved in and out depending on the weather. With the new covered patio, the airflow is increased, we enhance quality and save time. The new patio allows us to do more separations of small lots and the cover provides protection from the rain.
"We invest in order to know which variety best fits our region, and build confidence in knowing exactly which coffee to plant in the future."
What made you decide to invest in two different gardens on Santa Izabel?
Variety Gardens are not new concepts in Brazil. But we invest in order to know which variety best fits our region, and to build confidence in knowing exactly which coffee to plant in the future. The Variety Garden investment and experience comes with much responsibility due to the fact that we share all of the knowledge we gain inside of our Neighbours and Friends Programme. We want to encourage a family farmer to plant a variety that fits well in our region and to find success with it.
Over the last few years, you’ve been experimenting with new planting on both farms. Last year, NZ Head Roaster Paul Newbold came to visit and saw 50,000 new trees planted on the terraces at Santa Izabel. Can you tell us a bit more about this process – about choosing which varieties to plant?
We grow Yellow Bourbon and the Yellow Icatu on the terraces. Both of these varieties grow very successfully on the land. We also have 38 different varieties of coffee, and are presently planning for what we will grow in the next 5 years.
The big challenge with this planting is the altitude of the terraces. The lowest altitude on the farm is 990masl and the highest point is 1300masl which is very high for Brazil. The wind brings Forma Disease which is very bad for the trees – it makes their leaves turn from green to yellow to brown, and then their leaves die. When the leaf dies, the tree loses health and its ability to produce good healthy beans that stay on the tree. To reduce the exposure to the wind and reduce the risk of Forma Disease, we planted bananas. The banana trees act as wind-breaks and protect our trees.
Another challenge is frost. One frost is manageable (as usually only the top of trees get affected), but consecutive frosts get into the roots of the trees and kill them.
"We want to share our resources with small producers who can't afford and don't have the infrastructure and machinery that we do - we want to help them."
Have there been challenges with the plantation?
Coffee plantations require regular rainfall throughout their life, and a key challenge for all farms is the drought season during the months of December and January. We are working on getting approval to build some irrigation and combat the dryer months. We are lucky to be surrounded by many natural springs with which to source the water. There are 12 in Santa Izabel and 15 in Monte Verde, which is a lot for Brazil.
Is soil analysis of each lot something that you’ve developed over the last three years? And is this something that is going to develop any further in the future?
No, we have always done this but this is something we need to work on, develop and improve upon every year. Soil analysis is very important for our precision of applying herbicides and pesticides Although we already use very little pesticide on the farm, we need to continue to look to ways to minimise its usage to ensure our natural habitats and ecosystems flourish. We want more birds and insects, snakes and even the deadly Oncilla (big cat) and the mascot of the Brazil football team, the Canarinho bird.
Following the heavy investment put into the farms, what’s the next big thing for FAL?
We have amazing infrastructure in Santa Izabel – with our patio, new office space and cupping facilities and new plantings. At FAL, we are thinking about offering our Neighbours and Friends Programme producers the opportunity to use the facilities at Santa Izabel for a small fee – like the wet mill and patio. This will help them to process their coffees better, and increase the quality of coffee in the region. We want to share our resources with small producers who can’t afford and don’t have the infrastructure and machinery that we do – we want to help them.
"I would like to see all the farmers' children having the ambition to work with their parents on their properties after finishing college - applying new thinking, new methods and improving the performance of the farm as a whole."
Do you feel like initiatives such as your Neighbours and Friends Programme are enough to separate Speciality Coffee from Commodity Coffee, and encourage buyers to pay based on quality rather than the C-Market price? Or do you think more needs to be done?
I think there is always more to be done, improvement must be constant. But right now, I think we are doing everything possible to make the small producers in our region disconnect from C-Market, and focus on the specials. The next step is to set-up a partnership that lets growers have access to our post-harvest machinery. This will add much more value to smallholder coffee, and thus improve their quality of life.