June 3, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Colombian Cherry Picker


It was 1920 in the small town of Jerico, Colombia, when my grandfather, Gilberto Velasquez, made the decision to leave behind his family and made the 80-mile trek to the small coffee town of Risaralda. He was 8 years old. He mastered the coffee trade, climbing the ladder from picker to farm administrator, making a name for himself and gaining the respect of the local coffee community.  His hard work paid off and he acquired several coffee farms and married the daughter of a prominent local coffee producer, with whom he had 16 children – my father being one of them.  My grandfather has since passed, assassinated in 1983 by the local mafia for refusing to pay the monthly “vacuna” (extortion), but his legend and passion for the beautiful plant lives on.

Spanish Version: Un Día en La Vida De Un Recolector de Café en Colombia

These are the kind of stories behind the hard working coffee workers that start their day on the farm before sunrise and end them after sunset.  Many of the pickers travel from far away towns in search of work, leaving behind their loved ones for months at a time, doing whatever it takes to provide for their families.  This third wave coffee movement has done an excellent job focusing on Farm-Direct sourcing, paying premium prices for a premium product.  We are more aware of how labor intensive the production of coffee is and how unfairly some of the farmers are paid.  But in actuality, how much do we really know?

Man heading through the fields

Raul, Finca El Ocaso’s administrator, heading through the fields to check-in with pickers

The view from the mountains in the town of Salento, Colombia

The view from the mountains in the town of Salento, Colombia

From Sunrise to Sunset

For many of the pickers at Finca El Ocaso in Salento, Colombia, the day starts at 4:30am with a several mile walk to the farm.  The pickers are greeted every morning with a hot cup of “Agua Panela”, which is a typical Colombian drink made of brown sugar.  The agua panela provides a natural energy boost, just what’s needed for the workers to begin their day in the coffee fields.  Braving various types of weather conditions, from cold winter rain to blistering summer heat, the workers begin their hike up the mountain promptly at 5:30am.  Picking goes until 8:30am, when the workers come back down the mountain to the farm-house and are given a hearty breakfast, which usually consists of an arepa (corn tortilla), eggs, plantain, and hot chocolate.  Thereafter, the workers make their way back up the mountain for round two.  Picking continues until 12:30, and by this time the first sacks are just about filled up with anywhere from 40-60 kilos of coffee cherries, sometimes more depending on the season.  The pickers meet at the weigh-station and line-up to have their morning pickings weighed out.  After weighing, lunch is served, and by 1:15 the workers make their way back up the mountain to continue picking straight through the afternoon.  The second and final weighing of the day is done at 5:30, followed by a satisfying dinner.  After a 12 hour day, of which 10 hours are spent on the mountain picking coffee, the night sky brings closure – it’s time to go home and rest.

Workers heading back out to the coffee fields for the afternoon pick

Heading back out to the coffee fields for the afternoon pick

Man holding ripe cherries

Jorge, El Patron del Corte (head picker/field manager), showing us the quality of the pick. Ripe cherries only

Man picking the ripe coffee cherries

Jorge in work mode, picking the ripe cherries, leaving the green ones to continue maturing

SEE ALSO: How a Barista Single-Handedly Grew & Roasted Coffee in Australia

Hats off to the Chef

As important as the coffee pickers are to the overall coffee process, the dedicated ladies who cook all of their meals are just as essential to the flow of operation on the farm.  Sandra, the farm administrator’s wife at Finca El Ocaso, runs the kitchen, waking up at 3am during main harvest to light the wood stove and cook the meals for what can be up to 40-50 workers.  If you struggle to make yourself 3 meals a day, imagine cooking for over 40 hungry working men!  Three hearty meals a day are part of the worker’s compensation and provide the energy needed to work the fields from sunrise to sunset.  It’s definitely a team effort on the farm with each job as important as the next.

Woman cooking lunch

Sandra heading up the kitchen, cooking lunch for the hard working pickers

Workers having lunch

Sandra heading up the kitchen, cooking lunch for the hard working pickers

It’s All About Fair Compensation

The pickers are paid per kilo of coffee cherries that they pick. There are many farms that focus on quantity not quality, and instruct the pickers to pick every cherry in sight – red, green, yellow, black, or even rotten.  The objective is to leave the trees bare as each cherry has its worth.  There’s definitely a market for this type of coffee, but as you can probably suspect, it’s not Specialty Coffee grade.

At Finca El Ocaso, and many other specialty coffee farms, things are done differently.  A bonus is paid per kilo, but with a catch:  pick only the RIPE cherries.  One underdeveloped or overdeveloped cherry can completely throw off the final cup.  Finca El Ocaso trains their pickers to only pick the ripe cherries, the ripe cherries that have given the farm its notoriety in producing one of the tastiest cups in the region, and a qualification to the Cup of Excellence finals in 2010.  It’s this kind of instruction and on-the-job training that helps in producing a high-quality bean.  Each weighing session is closely monitored and if a picker brings in more than a handful of green or underdeveloped cherries in their sack, a strike is given, and just like in baseball, three strikes and you’re out.  It may seem like a harsh reality, but at the end of the day, it’s a business, and the farm needs to run like a fine oiled machine.  One bad picker can spoil the quality of the final product, reducing its value, and reducing the return to the rest of the hard-working team members.

Pickers weighing the picked coffee cherries

After a rainy morning in the fields, the pickers arrive for the first weighing of the day

Workers weighing the picked coffee cherries

Raul, the farm administrator, weighs each sack, writing down each worker’s total weight, so they can be paid at the end of the week

workers putting ripe coffee cherries in a container

Raul, the farm administrator, weighs each sack, writing down each worker’s total weight, so they can be paid at the end of the week

Making the Connection

Coffee workers come from all walks of life, many of them dedicated mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, trying to earn a living and make ends meet.  Many of these coffee professionals may be poor in resources, but they are rich in spirit, with goals and aspirations just like anyone else.  As coffee lovers and world citizens, it’s imperative that we understand the importance of transparency in our coffee and are conscious of the lives behind the hot beverage we can’t live without.

Article edited by N. Bhatt.

Perfect Daily Grind.