I had a chance to ask Tim Cummings & Ana Monsalve a few questions about their experience farming coffee in Colombia. Tim is an Arizona native, and moved to Colombia and now grows coffee.
What’s a typical day as a coffee farmer?
That’s a good question with many answers. It really depends on if it’s harvest season or not, those times are generally between Oct-Dec and March-June each year. During those times my day consists of mainly processing all the harvested coffee that day by Javier (sometimes another worker if really busy). I first weight the days harvest for records, then run it all thru our de-pulper (leaving just the beans) using only natural spring water. We only have spring water, not connected to any city municipal water system up here in the mountains, but we do collect rain water as well to have just in case. After being de-pulped the beans then rest in a big water tank to “ferment” which removes the slippery skin (mucilage) still on the beans. We take all the waste from processing (pulp) to our composting bin where it turns back into healthy soil to be used again;) This all happens at the end of the day, during harvest season I spend most of the day dealing with the coffee that’s drying in our big outdoor solar dryer (Javier built).
This is where I pick…and pick…and pick all day long removing all the unwanted beans (defects/skin/debris) it’s a very slow and tedious process, but very necessary to produce high quality coffee. My wife Ana spends her day doing a variety of things around the farm, she’s the one that really keeps everything in order around here…we have a big garden she spends a lot of time on, does laundry (a lot by hand), deals with the animals (dogs/chickens/cows), cooks, cleans the house and surrounding areas (things get dirty fast here) and anything else she can think of to improve or maintain things on the farm. She’s the glue that keeps it all together, does a lot more than me really, my job is coffee.
During the “off” season there’s plenty to do around here to keep us busy. A big part of my time, year-round is landscaping, or simply put cutting grass & weeds. Everything grows so fast here….especially those annoying weeds. We don’t use pesticides or herbicides here on the farm so landscaping is very important, otherwise things overgrow very quickly. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ll be doing that day as weather can play a part, it can look relatively clear when you wake up but turn to pouring rain just minutes later which then changes all your plans. We’ve learned not to get attached to any idea of how your day will go, it’s a 50/50 chance something else will come up to change your plans. There’s tons of little projects or chores to do at all times, the work here is never finished. It’s nice though, you never get bored with doing just one thing.
The nice thing about where we live, our fabulous mountain view over a river (all you can hear at the farm, besides animals/birds…no people/cars/planes) we always make time to stop and look around, enjoying the view….and think “how cool is this”.
Why did you choose to farm coffee and is Colombian grown coffee the best?
Choosing to live here in Colombia was easy, my wife Ana was born & raised in this area so most of her family is nearby along with countless friends & relatives…..she knows the area so well it made the move very easy. I really can’t imagine moving to a completely unfamiliar area and trying to do this not knowing anyone or the surrounding area. Before moving here we made many trips to visit and each time I felt more and more connected to the beauty of the countryside, being from Arizona (born & raised, so was my father & grandfather) it’s a total 180 from what I’m used to, from dry to wet, brown to green, hot to almost perfect weather (temperature wise) that never changes since we’re so close to the equator (no season, except rainy or not).
Colombian coffee is delicious but we would never call it the “best” as everyone has their preferences when it comes to coffee region origins. Where we live now, in Santa Rosa de Cabal, Risaralda is darn near perfect for growing coffee. Weather is perfect (60-80 year round), plenty of rain, and volcanic soil (we live about 36 miles from a active volcano) all which makes coffee very happy. We live in the “Coffee Triangle” of Colombia which consists of 4 States, Risaralda, Caldas, Tolima, and Quindio all which produce some of the best coffee in the country and the world.
What was your biggest surprise culturally when moving to Colombia?
First thing is people here move at a different pace, not as urgently like back home, things get done…eventually, but never expect anything to happen quickly. This drove me a little crazy at first when we were building on the property and exporting coffee back to the USA but I’ve learned to expect it, and deal with it. Driving here is a little nerve-racking, especially dealing with the insane motorcycles….they drive & pass on the left, right, middle…anywhere they can fit so you have to keep your head on a swivel. Luckily we only drive to town every week or two (errands/groceries) so it’s not too big a deal, unless we have to drive to the big town of Pereira and those days we dread;)
Another thing is availability of “stuff”. Back in Arizona, thanks to the bevy of stores all around and use of the internet (mail order) you could find & get practically anything you wanted. Here, I’m amazed how many simple items are not available or extremely hard to get….kitchen items, health related stuff (essential oils, etc) tools, on and on…..so you have to make due with what you got most the time.
When in town I’m usually the only “gringo” I see anywhere but people really don’t notice me unless I talk (Spanish is limited/horrible). I have dark hair and a decent tan so I don’t really stand out, keep my mouth shut and no one gives me a second look No big deal though, people are mostly very friendly here and usually a little amazed we moved here (from US) to do what we do….it’s usually the other way around, people want to go North, not South;).
One funny thing that happened recently that I got a kick out of…..Ana and I gave a ride to a couple young guys (20-ish, helping on relatives farm) and I played some of my music for them (I’m a “rocker” at heart) and their reaction was priceless. I can’t remember the exact band I played, more like a few different ones during the ride and they just looked at each other with weird expressions. I asked Ana to find out what they were thinking…..they just laughed and said it sounded like “devil music”, not in a scary way, just crazier than what they’re used to. They really have no idea what music is like back in the US, and don’t really care either;) Loved that, would be fun to get their opinion on various bands & songs that are popular back home….I’m sure it would be funny stuff. Other than that, they we’re just like any other 20 something guys I’ve ever met;)
How big is your farm, and what does your crop look like?
Our farm is about 17 acres (about 7 hectares), half of which is planted with coffee. We don’t have an exact count on how many coffee plants we have, probably in the 10,000 area. We are going thru a big renewal project right now to get our production at a optimum level. We just planted about 3500 new plants the past 1.5 years, we rejuvenated another 3000-4000 (“stumped”, basically started the plant over) and we just bought another 2200 new plants to be planted soon. When coffee is about 2 years old up to about 6 it’s their “prime time” of production. So we’ll be producing high quality coffee for the next few years and hopefully continue to raise our “cupping” score and get to the prestigious 90+ area (now about 86.5). Our plant variety is mostly Castillo and Bourbon, both very popular in this region.
Our farm worker Javier (who lives here with his wife & son) is in charge of all things coffee here at the farm. He basically grew up on a coffee farm (in this area), worked on one his entire adult life and now runs the show here at Finca Timana. We may be his boss but we never tell him what to do regarding coffee farming, it’s the other way around really, he tells us and we do what he says….we’d have to be crazy to do otherwise;) He’s the nicest guy, hardest worker, best “employee” we could ever wish to find and we thank our lucky stars he’s here, we’d be lost without him. One of our goals is to be successful enough in this venture to ease his burden of hard work and give him more of a managerial position (and more $ of course), would love to do that for him & family. Honestly, he impresses me all the time with what he does.
Is your life better after moving to Colombia? What do you miss about Arizona?
Absolutely! We wanted a simple life, away from cities/people to enjoy nature and live in peace & quiet. Once you get used to this kind of living, at least for us, you dread going to town, the energy is completely different, the air, traffic, and overall tenseness of crowded city life is something we never want to deal with again. Not to bad mouth it though, some people like the excitement and convenience of city life and that’s great too, we’re all different in what we want, we just want more of secluded life away from everything and live how we want with little interference….and we found that here.
I’ll always miss AZ as it was my home my entire life, my family goes back 3 generation in the State so I’ll always be connected to it. My father was born in Jerome, my grandfather in Camp Verde and me in Tempe at the old St. Luke’s Hospital. I grew up in Mesa until 5th grade, then to Tempe thru high school & a little college. Bought my first and only house in Chandler where I, then Ana, lived for 21 years, loved the relatively quiet neighborhood. Most of my friends still live in AZ, some family, I never lived anywhere else until now so it will always be “home” to me. Change is good sometimes, I felt stuck in a rut there, never really satisfied with any job I had (quite a few over my lifetime) except for the floor cleaning business I started (and sold) and ran myself until we left…though tired of that as well. Most people thought I was crazy, some still do, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made….we’re really enjoying the adventure and learning a new, completely different way of life. Ana and I are putting our heart & soul into this coffee farm, we love it, and hopefully it comes thru in our finished product.
Where did you live in Arizona?
Born in Tempe, lived in Mesa (graduated from Westwood High School), then Tempe, then Chandler for the last 21 years. A lot of family history in the Cottonwood, Clarkdale, and Jerome areas.
Where can people find your coffee?
First place is online at cafezentimana.com , we have friends in AZ that just took over our inventory and distribution needs in Chandler, we ship via USPS Priority mail. We’ve found a few markets/cafe’s across the country in various states selling & serving our coffee. WA, NM, MT, WI, OH, just started at a place in UT to name a few, sadly we’ve recently lost a few due to some going out of business….sad to hear, small organic markets (groceries) have it tough competing against the big boys. We are currently looking for places in AZ to sell & serve our coffee, I’m actually getting a little frustrated that I haven’t found one yet. It’s my home state for Pete’s sake! We have a lot of very loyal customers who buy our coffee (online & at markets) and we’ve only gotten wonderful reviews so far, just need to reach more people. We live on a very strict budget so advertising is very limited (mostly social media), we rely on word of mouth.
Do your roast your coffee, or do you sell green beans?
We have a roaster here in Colombia, in nearby Pereira, that handles our product right now and does a great job. The manager there loves our coffee, especially how clean it is when we bring it in (I’m super picky on that). He’s spent his life dealing with coffee, so here’s another guy we’ve relied on to help make our coffee better and better. We try to be like sponges here, gaining coffee knowledge from all those we come in contact with that are in the business. Coffee is a way of life here so it isn’t hard to find people to learn more from, an endless supply of hard working people in the biz locally.
We are also looking for buyers of green coffee as well. A roaster in OH has visited us twice already at the farm and made a purchase recently, and very happy with our coffee at his Cafe which specializes in micro lots from different regions.
We handle all shipping/exporting paperwork here to make it easy on those back in the US. There is no need for a import license or broker with us, all is done here in Colombia so it’s a pretty easy process for those interested. We only ship by air freight (in GrainPro bags) so shipping prices are a little higher than containers (ship) but there’s less problems and time associated with the process. Of course the more you ship, the cheaper it gets.
Can people visit your farm? Do you sell direct to roasters?
We welcome all visitors if in the region, just give us a heads up and we’re happy to show you our farm, we’re very proud of it;) We also welcome all inquires about buying our coffee, green or roasted.
We hope to one day have such a demand we can start buying from neighboring farms as many around us have high quality coffee and would love to make a little more money than selling locally. That’s the goal really, to help other coffee farmers make a better living, including us;)