Is the FNC Working for the Best Interest of Colombian Coffee Farmers?

I have been traveling to Colombia since 2008.   Each time I am there, I am amazed at how big and influential the FNC actually is.  Colombia is one of the few coffee-growing countries with a massive NGO that is working to promote coffee as a viable export.  Created in 1927, the National Coffee Federation (FNC) was developed to help small farmers get a fair price for their coffee.  The FNC not only promotes fair pricing but also guarantees member farms that they will be able to sell their coffee and offers financing and agricultural assistance to all 563,000 members.

The FNC is also in charge of marketing Colombian coffee to the world.  Juan Valdez is the FNC’s trademarked mascot.  For those that remember, Juan Valdez was everywhere in the early 80s and is/was perhaps one of the most successful marketing mascots of the modern advertising age.  In the early 2000s the FNC attempted to take on Starbucks by opening Juan Valdez coffee shops all over America.  That attempt to cut into Starbuck’s market share in America was less than successful, but Juan Valdez coffee shops are now pretty common in the more affluent areas and shopping malls in Colombia.

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Contrary to what their marketing suggests, however, the FNC does not work towards “quality” or specialty coffee but rather the organization works to increase Colombia’s volume of coffee that is exported.  For this reason, I could argue that some of the FNC policies are not in the long-term best interest of the farmers they supposedly serve.

Sure member farmers are promised a coffee sale via the FNC but the amount the farmer gets is usually around the C-market pricing.  C-market pricing is based on “commodity” coffee, not specialty coffee.  Yuban, for example, is commodity coffee.  Right now the C-market pricing is very, very low.  So low, in fact, growing commodity coffee today is simply not a profitable venture.  On the specialty market side, growers who produce outstanding coffee will garner prices several times more per pound.

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters saw first hand the FNC’s shortcomings while on our sourcing trip to Colombia last week, November 5-10, 2013.  While at one farm, El Carmel, we were joined by a represenative of the FNC.  With our handlers, farmers who were present, and the FNC representative, we all began to discuss why we (as a group) were not eager to buy the “great” lots offered at auction.  The FNC representative was surprised we did not find the coffee delicious.  (Click here to see our recent sourcing trip article on Colombia.)

One of the questionable recommendations the FNC has delivered to its farmers is that the Castillo varietal is the only/best way to combat Roya, a leaf rust that has been devastating for many coffee-growing countries.  Castillo is not considered a “specialty” varietal but is a high yield and disease-resistant coffee strain.

Mike from Klatch was the first to chime in after some awkward silence.  Tension grew, but we all joined in with the same message: the FNC should not be telling farmer to plant Castillo as the best way to fight Roya.  As timing would have it, I had the last three of our Sustainable Harvest Roya Project books in hand ready to pass out.

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We pointed out that there were alternatives to simply planting new, inferior tasting varietals, as a way to combat roya and that the FNC should be focusing on those alternatives if they want to give farmers an opportunity to sell true specialty coffee for a special price.  Why isn’t the FNC producing something like these packets to distribute to farms?  No comment.  (The FNC representative refused to even look at the books.)  Unfortunately, few farmers growing Castillo will be able to get much more, if any, than C-market pricing for their crops.

The FNC representative responded saying that the farmers have a choice in what they plant and that farmers don’t have to follow the FNC’s guidelines.  Of course, what he did not mention is that the FNC does not provide financing to farmers who are not growing Castillo.  Some choice for the farmers.  And the little detail that the FNC forgets to mention, they get 6 cents for EVERY pound of coffee exported from Colombia.  Much better, then, for the FNC to push a high yield varietal over a high priced, lower yield coffee varietal.

Much has been written about the falling prices of coffee and how the impact to farmers is devastating.  For specialty coffee roasters, this scenario has been out there for a long time, and is being exacerbated by roya.  Getting this message to as many farmers as possible is why small companies like Bird Rock Coffee Roasters spend so much money and effort traveling to origin.

Queremos que pagar más por el café que es de alta calidad.
We want to pay more for coffee that is of high quality.