Origin Update: Brazil 2023
Brazil Origin Update February 2023
Brazil gets overlooked in the world of specialty coffee, because despite the fact that it is the largest producer of coffee, much of it is lower grade. But like a lot of things in life, there is more than meets eye, and the conventional wisdom that Brazilian coffee equals commercial coffee, misses a very dynamic current of innovative producers and exporters operating in Brazil today.
(Mogiana, Sao Paulo State)
I recently spent a week in Brazil hosted by our friends and partners at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF). I previously wrote about FAF back in 2020, highlighting their focus on sustainability and quality. This visit reenforced the innovative work that FAF is doing, and highlighted the dynamic future for Brazilian coffee producers.
One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of coffee from Brazil is grown in mono-culture, chemical input intensive environments. It looks similar to grain production in the northern hemisphere, is done on a very large scale and is fully automated through the use of heavy equipment.
As Felipe Croce, the grandson son of the founders of FAF and current CEO, drove me with his team from Sao Paulo to their family farm, we passed kilometer after kilometer of such farms. It is a sight to see so much unbroken monoculture coffee production, especially if you are used to the patchwork quilt appearance of rural landscapes where smallholder coffee production dominates.
(Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, Mococa, Sao Paulo State)
Our arrival to FAF couldn’t have provided a more dramatic contrast to this – a verdant, biodiverse, tropical paradise in every sense of the word. Located near the town of Mococa on the Sao Paulo/Minas Gerais border, FAF is a 100% organic coffee farm, in a country where organic is not the norm. Felipe and his family feel strongly that this is the right approach to growing coffee on their farm, and they hope to be an inspiration for other growers in the area and in their network throughout Brazil.
(FAF, Organic Coffee Production)
High Nature Value (HNV)
FAF is that spark in Brazil, working with some 200 farmers in Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, to take elements of organic and regenerative agriculture and put them into practice, one step at a time. FAF calls its approach High Nature Value (HNV) coffee, which has four principal components: the introduction of cover crops, planting shade trees, reduced chemical inputs, and ongoing technical support/soil analysis.
(Felipe Croce, FAF CEO, holding a handful of their organic compost)
Cover crops are used around the world to improve soil health and control weeds, through the planting of annual crops that provide specific benefits to the farm in question. In the case of the FAF network these include sorghum and millet, both nitrogen fixing, and also help maintain moisture in the soil.
(Enilson Lopes, Fazenda Santa Rita, Alto Mogiana, Sao Paulo State, showing the roots of a cover crop on his farm to demonstrate their ability to hold moisture and prevent erosion. )
Shade trees are commonly associated with coffee production, but the reality is that in places where industrialized production of coffee is common, shade often falls victim to a desire for increased production. In Brazil, I would say without having visited all regions by any means, that most production would not be considered shade grown. FAF works with its suppliers to plant trees throughout its farms. The way this is done varies quite a lot from what you would see in Central America, for instance, where shade trees are normally planted sporadically throughout a farm, possibly with some organization, but a lot of the time randomly.
(Fazenda Sao Felipe, located on one of the high planes around Franco, Alto Mogiana)
(Geraldo Sorro, Fazenda Pequena Cachoeira , Cerro do Cigano, Mogiana, looking out over his coffee farm and extensive shade trees.)
Reducing chemical inputs is another important component of the FAF High Nature Value program. This takes the form of increasing compost production and reducing or eliminating the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. This product, which is legal and widely available throughout the world, including Canada, has gained notoriety for the many health and environmental hazards that it is alleged to cause. Without going too deep into the issue, it has been associated with an increased risk of cancer as well as a host of other illnesses, and is known by farmers of all kinds to reduce biodiversity because it is a “non-selective” herbicide that kills most plants it touches. It is truly a “miracle” how effective glyphosate is, replacing expensive manual labor to control weeds with a simple solution and sprayer.
(Longtime 49th partner Joao Hamilton showing us the healthy soil on his farm, Sitio Canaa. Joao, along with his brother Ivan, lead a collective of farmers in the Cerro do Cigano area of Mogiana).
Glyphosate can be a lifesaver for a farm that is weed-choked and short on available labor, but as biodiversity is impacted so is soil health, sending many farmers down a path on which they rely more heavily on herbicides and chemical fertilizers to keep their farms productive. It is not the long term solution, and 49th seeks to source coffee from suppliers that understand this and are seeking a better path forward.
FAF has worked with many of its suppliers to reduce glyphosate as much as possible, and in some cases eliminate it. I can tell you that on all of the farms we visited, it was clear the farmers were on a new path, with cover crops and biodiversity evident everywhere. The farmers without exception talked excitedly about soil health, passionate and motivated to move away from the unsustainable practices of the past.
Still it is worth mentioning that while there are obvious benefits to moving away from unsustainable inputs, farms that do so still tend to have a higher cost of production – we simply have not factored in the full environmental and human cost to using herbicides and for many farmers it continues to be the most cost effective option that they have. This is why is it critical to have organizations like FAF extolling the benefits of regenerative agriculture and providing a roadmap, and then connecting with companies like 49th Parallel, who are willing to support this important work.
The final element of the HNV program at FAF is regular technical assistance. FAF splits the cost of sending an agronomist to each of its partners farms, during which all of the above elements are reviewed, and soil samples taken to determine which specific nutrients are needed. While farmers certainly have an intuitive sense of what their land needs, a well-trained agronomist with a focus on sustainability, can help with specific cost effective advice. Needless to say, the vast majority of coffee producers worldwide don’t have access to technical support, other than that provide by fertilizer salespeople. This service really does make all the difference.
(Fazenda Cruz Alta, a large estate that is partnering with FAF. They are experimenting with new varietals, and have phased out glyphosate on part of their farm).
The importance of the work that FAF is doing cannot be understated – finding practical and innovative solutions for Brazilian coffee producers is hard work, but I do believe they have created a meaningful program that needs the support of like minded coffee companies who agree that we can make the world a better and more sustainable place.
(Joao Hamilton holding a bag of his Brazil Sitio Canaa. He said, “Nothing makes me prouder than holding this bag.”)
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