September 1, 2016

Producer Interview: Direct Trade Is a Two-Way Street


Chalo Fernandez would like to know how you’re enjoying your cold brew on this warm summer day. A fifth-generation coffee farmer who’s turned his family’s farm into a model for sustainability and crop-to-cup partnerships, he frequently travels between Colombia and Canada. Sometimes he even spots his coffees in cafés.

Yet he doesn’t have to rely on luck to know where his coffee ends up. Direct trade closes the gap between the producer and consumer, increasing interaction between the two. And so he can trace his beans to the very bottles of cold brew hitting Canadian shelves today.

Spanish Version: Entrevista con el Productor: El Comercio Directo es una Vía de Doble Sentido

Chalo’s Farm cold brew coffe

Chalo’s Farm cold brew coffee for sale in Canada. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

An Opportunity for Better Coffee

For over 110 years, Chalo’s family has worked the same land. During tumultuous times, when the coffee trade was causing more hardships than valuable income, his grandfather switched from growing coffee to growing sugar cane. Yet six years ago, Chalo, his brother, two cousins, and his brother-in-law saw an opportunity and so bought the farm from their grandfather.

sorting coffee

Chalo’s son and father sort through beans together. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

That opportunity was the rise in demand for single origin coffee, led by the third wave. Chalo and his family took such pride in producing the quality beans that we crave that they started over completely, planting new coffee trees from seeds.

In 2013, they had their first harvest. It was the beginning of partnerships that have now led to friendships, and a grassroots movement that has grown through word-of-mouth and social media exposure alone.

coffee sack

Chalo’s Instagram account takes all his followers through the processes of farming and trading coffee. Credit: Chalos Coffee

SEE ALSO: How Micro Mills Help Producers to Have Economic Independence

How Direct Trade Connections Begin

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (Fedecafé), established in 1927, represents over 500,000 coffee-growing families in Colombia. It offers convenience and clarity to its members, who can sell their beans directly to it. And so seeking alternative trade partners takes high levels of aspiration on the part of the producer.

For Chalo and his family, this aspiration came from experiencing craft coffee in Australia and Canada. It motivated them to take their beans to a similar level, and so they set out to market themselves to a different type of consumer. At present, Chalo sells some beans direct trade; the rest goes to Fedecafé. Yet he hopes to be exclusively direct trade soon.

Chalo and his wife Diana (who is Canadian) started cold calling and visiting roasters to share both their beans and their story. Not just any roaster would do: they were discerning in their choices, seeking out only those who shared their devotion to coffee and sustainability.

Making the Right Connections

One cold call led to Chalo and Diana meeting Tim Trebilcock, a coffee roaster near Toronto, Canada.

“The minute he walked in the door, we were friends,” Tim recalls. He was so fond of Chalo’s family, story, and – of course – coffee, that he started introducing him to nearby cafés and roasters. And as time went on, they also began to buy his beans.

Tim, along with his brother and father, started roasting beans in their kitchen over a decade ago.  Today, they have a successful roasting operation which ships beans across Canada and beyond. It’s relationships like the one he has established with Chalo and his family, however, that motivate and drive him today. “Having dinner in their homes, that’s where the passion comes from,” he says. “This is a business about people.”

Chalo also met Alfonso Tupaz, CEO of Hatch Coffee, through a cold call. At the time, Hatch Coffee was finishing up building their cold brew factory. After meeting with Chalo and tasting his beans, they decided to make him one of several farmers they partner with.

Hatch Coffee goes through great measures to ensure their cold brew coffee reaches its highest potential: small roast batches, optimal maturation times specific to the particular beans, precise grinding, brewing in small batches at controlled temperatures for extended times, and finally double filtering prior to bottling. They’re just the kind of dedicated coffee roaster that Chalo wanted to do business with.

coffee farm

Tim Trebilcock (front left) and other artisan roasters during a site visit on Chalo’s farm. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

Direct Trade Is a Two-Way Street

Chalo and Diana believe in being both innovative and eco-friendly. They run the only wet mill in the region, which they also let other farmers use, and they have empowered themselves with sustainable equipment and applications. This dedication to the environment and the community is possible because of direct trade; it’s also what, in turn, leads artisan roasters to choose Chalo’s coffee.

For Alfonso Tupaz, direct trade means having a partnership rather than a business transaction. The practices that he has refined through his business experiences are also applicable to Chalo’s farm. And so on a recent origin visit, he and some other roasters started establishing plans with Chalo to help streamline some of his operations. By sharing their knowledge, they are improving the trade at every part of the process.

Tim Trebilcock, for example, has a mechanical background and so helps Chalo with preventative maintenance plans. During visits, he hosts workshops on equipment maintenance and repair for Chalo and neighboring farms. He’s brought down refractometers and moisture meters, the former to measure the sugar level in coffee cherries and so test ripeness, the latter to ensure the beans aren’t over-drying or too wet.

measures the sugar level in coffee cherries

Chalo’s father Alberto measures the sugar level in coffee cherries with a refractometer. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

What else comes full circle on Chalo’s farm? Seeing the reaction of his team as they are able to sample those products that were made with the beans they harvested.

“It is important to remember we are coffee producers, most of us not consumers, so we know how to grow coffee but not how to prepare and drink coffee,” Chalo explains.

When tasting Hatch Coffee’s cold brew (and in particular the batch named “Chalo’s Farm”), his team couldn’t believe that people drink coffee cold – or what a delicious flavor it could have. There was also great astonishment at the fact that 5 Paddles Brewing in Canada use Chalo’s beans to make a stout beer.

coffee stout beer

Chalo’s team trying coffee stout beer in Colombia. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

During another visit, Tim Trebilcock brought in beans that were roasted on the Saturday to be sampled on the farm on the Monday. The reactions of Chalo’s team and other local farmers brought him to tears.

Direct Trade Has Its Own Challenges

With direct trade, farmers can potentially sell their beans for much more than they can by going through a commodity market. However, with these successes there also come tribulations.

Chalo and other farmers like him incur the responsibility of getting the beans to the roasters without the support of a federation or a professional coffee importer. Establishing the necessary relationships with roasters isn’t easy.

What’s more, logistics can also be a challenge. The first major shipment Chalo sent to Canada came through the United States and had to clear US customs, a time-consuming and costly process – especially when it ends up incurring demurrage fees.

To offset any potential calamities, Chalo packages his beans in GrainPro bags so that moisture won’t affect the green beans. They have also vastly refined their logistics procedures since reestablishing their farm. Yet it was an expensive lesson to learn.

coffee export

Chalo proudly displays his first major coffee export to enter Canada. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

Mother nature can also cause difficulties. Since moisture is a major factor in growing coffee, drought and high humidity can greatly affect the output of coffee cherries on a tree. Chalo’s farm is 25 hectares; one hectare is approximately the size of a soccer pitch and contains about 5,000 trees. In a perfect year, each tree would produce about a kilo of coffee.

But Chalo and his family have yet to experience a full yield. The new farm is still young, and so Chalo stays positive, motivates his team, and works hard to achieve that full yield.

coffee farmers

Chalo (right) with a fellow farmer. Credit: Chalo’s Coffee

With the support of roasters like Alfonso and Tim, Chalo and his family continue to hone their practices and grow their equipment inventory. This allows them to keep producing the excellent coffee that boosts both their farm and region. And as they make improvements and work towards long-term relationships with artisan roasters, they’re also increasing their exports which in turn brings us consumers better coffee.

It’s not easy, but progress is visible. And as Chalo says, “We are very dedicated to producing the perfect cup – this is a lifetime goal.”

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With thanks to Chalo, Tim Trebilock, and Alfonso Tupaz of Hatch Coffee.  For additional information and to express interest in contributing to Chalo’s farm and his community, contact Chalo directly.

Hatch Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. This interview was conducted in accordance with our editorial policies, and Hatch Coffee has had no greater influence on the final copy than any of our other interviewees.