Producer Profile: Nora Nelly Pillimue, Colombia
by Jay Kling, Director of Coffee
We are so excited to be once again offering a spectacular coffee from one of our favorite producers, Nora Nelly Pillimue. This exceptional coffee was the winner of “Lo Mejor de Monserrate” a coffee competition within the Monserrate cooperative hosted by Atlas coffee. This is Nora’s fourth time winning the competition. Tasting the coffee, it’s easy to see why: this coffee is a standout with its sparkling acidity, juicy body, and tropical flavors.
Irving Farm started buying Nora’s coffee in 2016, and it has since become a staff and customer favorite. The juicy tropical profile is unique for Colombian coffees and is a result of the unique varieties that are cultivated on the farm and careful picking and processing.
I had the chance to catch up with Nora on the phone this week, just as the coffee was getting offloaded from the ship and arriving into the warehouse. I wanted to share some of that conversation and my reflections on it so that people might get to know Nora better and understand what it’s like to be a coffee producer in 2022.
Nora Nelly Pillimue is a generational coffee farmer, like most of the producers in Monserrate, Huila, Colombia. Her parents are coffee farmers, her grandparents were coffee farmers before them, her three sisters are coffee farmers. Nora runs the family farm with husband Freddy and her two children Ruben and Dianna. Their farm is 4 hectares, and produces about 65x 70kg bags of coffee each year, in two harvests. The farm, which is called Los Magallanes, is planted with Tabi, Colombia and Castillo varieties and sits at 1,827 meters above sea level. Like most producers in Huila, Nora processes her coffee herself, wet milling, fermenting, washing and drying the coffee all on the farm.
Speaking with Nora, the one thing that’s abundantly clear is how much care and precision goes into the production of coffee at Los Magallanes. The farm is in a nearly perfect place for coffee production, but the spectacular cup quality that you can taste in this Colombia microlot is the result of Nora’s extreme care through every step of the process of picking and processing the coffee. “You have to do things well, you have to do them the right way” Nora told me more than once during our conversation.
If you’ve never been to a coffee farm, doing things well in coffee production might seem obvious – but coffee production is difficult and tedious. Doing things the right way means picking only ripe cherry, going back over and over, only picking cherry when it’s just right. You run that coffee through your wet mill and then you must pay close attention to the coffee as it ferments, checking the coffee for just the right point and washing it just as it’s ready. Next, the coffee must dry, a process which takes 1-2 weeks. The coffee must be spread out evenly and turned over several times every day until it is just the right moisture content. If a surprise rainstorm comes along (a new phenomenon and an unfortunate result of climate change), the coffee must be protected from the rain to prevent defects. This is only the harvesting portion of doing things the right way – there’s year round maintenance of the trees, fertilization, coffee borer prevention, and countless other small tasks that have to each be done well to make a coffee farm produce at the top of its potential. At Los Magallanes, all of these things get done the right way.
We’re so lucky to get to work with producers like Nora Nelly Pillimue. It’s hard to express with words how challenging coffee production is and how precise and hard working a producer has to be to achieve coffee that stands out like Nora’s does.
I was telling Nora that one of the reasons our baristas get so excited about this coffee is because it’s produced by a woman. On our side of the industry, coffee is often dominated by men, and woman-produced coffees hold a special place among the many beautiful coffees that come and go from our menu.
I asked Nora about what it was like being a woman producer in Monserrate, and if there were challenges that came along with being a woman farmer. She did not share any challenges with me, instead sharing that she’s one of 20 women farmers in the group of about 70 producers that grow coffee that gets sold through ProAgroMil, the farmer group that we usually refer to as Monserrate. She stated that “there aren’t things that men do or women do, if there’s something heavy to pick up, it can be a woman or a man”. The perspective that she shared with me was that there generally aren’t issues between men and women in the producer group, it’s a coffee producing community and when it’s time to produce coffee, everyone comes together to make it happen.
Outside of coffee production, Nora and her family also keep some livestock. Right now they have 16 baby cows, which Nora told me she enjoys taking care of.
At the end of our conversation, we talked a little bit about coffee prices. This year, smallholder coffee farmers in the Monserrate group are receiving very good prices for their coffee, because the global price of coffee is the highest it has been in over 10 years. That price increase is driven mostly by a smaller than usual crop from Brazil (the world’s largest exporter of coffee), due to an unusual frost that killed many coffee plants. Supply chain issues have put further pressure on the price, creating the current high price. So, for now, prices are pretty good for Nora and farmers like her.
As I’m writing this, the commodities market is fluctuating rapidly, because of global uncertainty around the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It’s possible that when we go to contract this coffee again, the market will be much lower. But for Nora, her costs will not have changed much, in fact they will almost certainly have increased. The price of fertilizer is around twice of what it was before the pandemic, and will be driven higher by sanctions against Russia. Yet for smallholder coffee farmers, the price they get paid is often tied to the New York “C” market, the global index for the price of commodity coffee. It’s an antiquated system that benefits buyers at the expense of small producers, and for years it has been driving small producers like Nora to the brink.
As a coffee buying organization, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re purchasing coffee sustainably. In this case that means paying a higher price for Nora’s coffee, even if the market retreats. And when we go back to contract this coffee again, that’s what we’ll do. I feel very privileged to be a buyer for a company that purchases coffee this way, always trying hard to form a more equitable supply chain with profits more evenly distributed between each member of the supply chain. At Irving Farm, we feel very fortunate that we have wonderful customers who recognize the incredible work that coffee producers do, and are willing to pay more money to make sure that those producers can make a profit.
Speaking with Nora this week was inspiring for me. She reminded me that each of us in the industry has our role to do, and that we must do it well. Producers work extremely hard, and we should be working as hard as we can to honor the work that they do. When this year’s 10 bags of Nora Nelly Pillimue’s coffee arrive at our roastery, I hope that we can all put the same energy into the coffee as Nora did. That we may profile it, market it, roast it, bag it, brew it and enjoy it in keeping with the tireless spirit and positive attitude of one of our favorite producers.