An interview with coffee farmer Amparo Maya Guerrero.
We would guess that a large portion of coffee drinkers might think operations are overseen by large estates equipped with the most robust mills and modern technology. But did you know that 70% of the world’s coffee producers can be characterized as “smallholder” farmers? It’s a stunning majority of the coffee industry. Smallholder farmers traditionally grow a mixture of cash and subsistence crops, which rarely exceed 5 hectares. A more important factor often overlooked is the role women have in our industry. While the numbers vary from study to study, some reports estimate that women make up 70% of the labor force on coffee farms; planting, processing, picking and sorting. Women are the hidden heroines of the coffee industry. They have a much lower representation when it comes to land ownership with estimates range from as little as 5% to higher estimates of 20% in coffee-growing countries. Amparo Maya Guerrero is one of the many smallholder farmers worldwide, with her plot clocking in at 3 hectares. We touched down in Colombia to pay a special visit to a truly memorable woman and her farm in Chachagüí. When it was time to wrap and head back home, we all walked away buzzing with inspiration from her words of wisdom and excited to share our experience and her story with you all.
Amparo’s farm, El Convento, grows avocados and citrus fruits alongside the beautiful rows of coffee trees. The combination of high altitude and moderate temperatures slow the rate of maturation but reward her cherries with heightened sweetness. Her signature sweet coffee awarded her first place in the Cup of Excellence in 2004 and again in 2008. The bright acidity in this single-origin espresso met with nectarine sweetness continues to blow us away every time we taste it. Amparo’s peaceful energy permeates the surrounding space and her commitment to and connection with the land is a palatable force. Her dedication and guiding principles are reflected in her coffee.
“It begins with the earth. In the earth is where we begin and we have to make the connection with the earth. We have to see it, feel it, and listen to it to find what it tells you. There is so much to learn behind the coffee: I take a sip from this coffee and 'Wow, I need to share it.”
Q: What has growing coffee taught you?
A: I have been farming coffee for 35 years. I really didn't know anything about coffee. It begins with the earth. In the earth is where we begin and we have to make the connection with the earth. We have to recognize that the earth is where the coffee starts and finds its significance. We have to see it, feel it, and listen to it to find what it tells you. There is so much to learn behind the coffee: there is an individual, a collective, social and a psychological component in coffee. Once you get all of the components, that is when the coffee becomes important, significant, valuable. In the fields, we have to learn to give respect and value to all of the things in the land. I take a sip from this coffee and ‘Wow, I need to share it.’ The personal aspect is that I have had to overcome a lot of things. First, the unknown from the field. Toxic masculinity is a big thing in the fields that I have had to deal with. I have had to fight hard in respect to this. I don't have anything against men; I treasure them and I do not think there is anything different between us. They are as strong and beautiful as a woman. Sometimes in the field when a woman feels tired, it is frowned upon. Men feel the same way: however, they do not show it.
"When the whole world tells you that you can't, you begin to believe that you can't. But there is a moment where you have a glimmer of belief inside yourself that says 'you can' that you have to hold on to. Anything you have in your mind you can create. Everything in our mind is able to be unraveled and actualized."
Q: How has coffee impacted your life?
A: Before I started farming coffee 35 years ago, I really didn't know anything about it. You cannot sit back and dwell on your misfortune. There is a learning in all of it. What is interesting about human beings is our ability to move beyond our problems. The problems we have encountered are infinite. At the end of the day, all your problems are nothing more than a silly scare. Behind the problem lies your fear. The problem is our opportunity to overcome the difficulties in the world. People die from fear.
Q: What makes your connection with coffee so unique?
A: Coffee is a cultivar and apart from the highs and lows that is has and that it is not the easiest to manage. When I started in coffee, it felt impossible to make a difference. The biggest challenge is fighting your own ignorance. Second, you have to fight the outside voices that say you can't. You have to generate something unique, to be true to yourself and to serve those around you. It presents an amazing opportunity and we want to provide an incredible product. It's a perfect opportunity to share and communicate with the world through the end product.
"You are the one behind the coffee cup. You are the essence, you are the one drinking it. My desire to give the world something good."
It is my opportunity to share my work with the people. It's an equal exchange between the drinker and me. You are drinking the final product of 35 years of work. You are drinking my strength and my love for life. It is my opportunity to share my work with the people. It's an equal exchange between the drinker and me.
Q: Do you have any plans for the future?
A: I want to finish planting the farm. There is one more section to complete. But more importantly, my mission is to feed the people in Colombia. There are many that are suffering from hunger. I want to build an empire that creates a viable livelihood for me and for the people who work here. It is hard to raise the price of the coffee with the current coffee price crisis. There is always a speculative market that hurts us and does not have a conscience. There is a population that only wants money and that is a challenge; capitalism is such an intense force. It's a part of the unconscious of the world. But I know in my heart that we are all the same and we are all searching for the opportunity to unravel ourselves.
The Verve Coffee Roasters green coffee buying team has visited more than a few farms, to say the least, in the past twelve plus years. With that being said, it’s easy for new or even an established buyer to become desensitized, blaisé or disenchanted with origin visits. It becomes a part of the grueling seasonal grind and the faint of heart quickly lose that once bright wanderlust sparkle in their eye. It was an honor for us to have the time to connect with Amparo and listen to her experiences. It is rare to find a place where you can feel the courage, devotion and force from a producer so strongly. It’s reflected in each cup of coffee she shares with our community.
Gender inequality is an issue all industries are facing, not just the coffee industry. Consumers are becoming more aware of the disparities throughout the supply chain. Verve Coffee Roasters supports each hand involved in the coffee journey. From seed to cup, we’re committed to positively impacting our local and global coffee community. By connecting the people who love to drink Verve with the coffee producer, we’re creating an open line of communication that transcends language, culture, and distance. Farmers, roasters, and baristas all play an integral role in crafting the cup. We’re connecting the farmers at Farmlevel with you at Streetlevel. We believe this initiative is vital to the future of coffee. It brings much-needed attention to the coffee farmers, spotlighting their knowledge, dedication, and love of coffee. Verve understands the intense effort and commitment necessary to produce quality coffee. Direct trade relationships allow you to experience the most incredible coffees in the world while knowing that you’ve positively impacted global communities with every sip.
The stories from Farmlevel are always pushing us forward so we can continue to discover the next best coffees on earth. “If you can accept the weight of the unknown, have the stamina to always play through, believe in the purpose of the job and changing the world, and are the type of person drawn to knowing what’s just over the next ridge, then this job might just be for you,” says co-founder and veteran coffee buyer Colby Barr. Stay tuned for another Farmlevel adventure.