International figures shared their global coffee and tea perspectives at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's recent Coffee, Tea & Water conference in Nashville. In his keynote speech, Juan Esteban Orduz, president of the Colombian Coffee Federation, described the role the federation has played in raising the standard of living for coffee growers and their families. Also presenting were Stephen Twining, a 10th generation member of England’s most famous tea family, and Luz Marina Trujillo, the third-generation owner of the Santa Elena coffee estate in Costa Rica.
NASHVILLE -- Colombian coffee is backed by a powerful marketing campaign that has established it among today's savvy coffee drinkers as one of best in the world. Keynoting at NAMA's Coffee, Tea & Water confab, Juan Esteban Orduz, president of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), provided the back story on Columbian coffee, its rise to prominence and the steps the organization is taking to position Colombia as the world's first 100% sustainable coffee-producing nation.
Orduz pointed to the country's unique geography and prime growing conditions as the foundation for the quality of its coffees, but it's also the passion of its farmers and the financial, social, environmental and marketing support the federation provides them that have helped establish a name and a following for the nation's prized beans.
"Coffee is a way of being and a source of national pride for Colombians," the speaker remarked. "It's in the hearts, veins and blood of all Colombians. With that pride comes a passion among farmers to uphold its high quality standards. When you say Colombian, quality is a given and we are working to continue to improve further in terms of sustainability."
Founded in 1927, the FNC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the standard of living for Colombian coffee growers and their families. It represents some 563,000 small coffee farmers, with the average farm occupying only four acres of land.
"Each of the farms is quite small and they're all high up in the Andes Mountains, which provide ideal growing conditions," the speaker explained. "Harvesting the prized berries is extremely labor-intensive. Pickers have to go to each tree six to eight times, picking bean by bean on a very steep slope, which is very tough work."
Orduz also pointed out that another unique advantage Colombia has over other coffee-growing nations besides the quality of its beans is its yield, since its trees produce two crops each year.
FNC plays a vital role in the sustainability of Colombia's coffee supply by working with national and local governments and international agencies to support coffee farmers and their communities in many ways, from building roads, schools and housing, to providing healthcare and agricultural resources. The federation guarantees purchase of green coffee and maintains more than 500 storage facilities throughout the country, but farmers are under no obligation to sell to them, explained Orduz.
The federation's state-of-the-art research center is home to 1,500 engineers, technicians and agronomists devoted to scientific research projects to safeguard crops against disease and keep close watch on the ecosystems in which coffee is grown. "One of the many things they do is study insect ecosystems and birds," explained Orduz. "If the chain's broken, something's wrong with the whole ecosystem." The team disseminates information to farmers and provides them with technical assistance to support their crops.
Orduz pointed out that Colombia was not recognized as an origin for coffee until 1960 and credited the FNC for getting the word out. In the late 1950s, an excessive supply of coffee in the world markets sent the price of Colombian coffee tumbling from 85¢₵ a pound to 45¢ a pound. "And only 4% of consumers even recognized Colombia as a country of origin," recalled Orduz.
The federation responded with an aggressive marketing campaign, at the center of which was the charismatic fictitious coffee farmer, Juan Valdez. "We took a farmer and put him in front of the consumer to show the public the passion, love and hard work of Colombian coffee growers," the speaker said. "He was in the stands at every high-profile sporting event and it worked -- coffee became either Colombian or 'the rest.'"
But then another challenge came in 1989 when the quota system for coffee exports ended and real competition began. "The market went from a limited number of brands to multiple brands, channels and prices," Orduz recalled.
This impelled the federation, in 1991, to work with roasters to sell roast and ground coffee under the Juan Valdez brand and open coffee houses. Juan Valdez coffees have earned a reputation among consumers for their high quality and also pay premiums to the coffee growers FNC represents for the development of social and environmental sustainability projects in coffee-growing areas.
FNC created a separate organization called Procafecol that is owned by Colombian coffee growers to oversee the sale of branded roast and ground coffees, as well as the growing network of Juan Valdez cafes. There are currently 170 shops in Colombia and 66 shops in the United States, Mexico, Aruba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
"Coffee is a commodity, but the next trend is specialty coffees," stated Orduz. "In some cases that's clear, in some cases it's not. Organic coffee is one example; estate is another. Consumers are more sophisticated every day. Our job is to figure out what's the 'green' the market wants. We're working toward that if you buy Colombian, you buy sustainable in every sense of 'green.'"
Orduz said Colombia is well on its way to achieving its goal to become the first 100% sustainable country in the world in social and environmental terms. "That means protecting the ecology and improving the livelihoods of producers and their families through our purchase guarantee program and many more initiatives and by reducing our carbon footprint through use of alternative energy and agronomical practices," he concluded. "We need to give consumers 100% Colombian coffee plus all else that is sustainable in all formats in which coffee is consumed."