Every day, more than 500,000 coffee growers throughout Colombia fulfill a family tradition, one that has been passed down from generation to generation. Growing premium-quality coffee beans across nearly 2.2 million acres of Colombian highlands is an important part of their heritage. For Colombians, coffee is not merely a bean, but a part of their national identity. In fact, coffee growing is the largest source of rural employment in the country. The centrality of coffee to Colombian society and to its international image is exemplified by the nation’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, who spent much of his career representing the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) at the International Coffee Organization.
Colombians pride themselves on their reputation for high-quality coffee beans, which result from rich volcanic soil and predominantly shade-grown cultivation. In addition, the alternation of wet and dry seasons supports two harvests, one running from September to December and the other running from April to June. Coffee is grown in the highlands of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta as well as on the slopes of the three sections of the Andes mountains that traverse the country. It can be planted at altitudes of up to 6,400 feet, where the climate creates superior beans by favoring increased acidity. Because the terrain precludes the possibility of significant mechanization, Colombian coffee is harvested by hand at its optimal ripeness and cleaned to prevent mucilage from permeating the beans. This process differs from that of other major coffee-growing countries, such as Brazil, where coffee is produced on a massive scale at altitudes below 3,200 feet and is often not cleaned immediately. In addition, Brazilian coffee is harvested mechanically, yielding what many believe to be a lower-quality product.
Harvesting coffee by hand in Colombia results in not only a higher-quality product, but also the broader involvement of coffee growers in the industry, which, by necessity, employs a large number of small-scale farmers. Some 95% of Colombian coffee growing families operate on small plots of land, averaging five acres each. This characteristic distinguishes Colombian coffee production as essentially a family-run operation, in which all of the harvesting and post-harvest processing is carried out by the growers themselves.
Originally published by Knowledge@Wharton January 2, 2013 as part of The Lauder Global Business Insight Report 2013: Building Blocks for the Global Economy.