Top of the crop
When Nespresso first visited the secluded hilltops of the brazilian state of minas gerais on a quest to find the region's best coffee growers, our teams met a truly gifted farmer. Within a year, he had already doubled the quantity of high-quality coffee he could deliver and was encouraging his colleagues to do the same. Read on to discover the portrait of this top bean.
You have to fly to São Paulo and then change airports to go to Uberlândia, a large agricultural city with a name that sounds like a superhero, but which doesn’t see much more action than a game of draughts. It sits quietly in its patch of minas gerais at the point where this state (six times bigger than Portugal) meets the Meandering Paraná river.
Next, you need to find a taxi willing to take you to Monte Carmelo, a sixty-mile journey rising through abstract landscapes worthy of the French countryside. Then there’s another hour of tracks, dishevelled sugar-cane bushes, finely combed coffee fields in their straight lines and a few zebus that are sometimes as large as a rhinoceros, before you finally arrive in La Fazenda Boa Vista.
This is where Nespresso inaugurated a stewardship and production model called the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program seven years ago. It is more than just a series of disparate standards: it is a model or rather a set of principles that make sure everyone is a winner. Nespresso purchases any coffee grown and processed in this way – respecting the crop, the land and the workers – at a fixed price above the going market rate. This improves coffee quality without reducing the volume, and the producers earn a living without damaging the environment, as each farmer can opt to receive consultancy services from the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies plantations that preserve biodiversity.
It all seems very simple at first view, but simplistic it is not. Firstly, the agricultural world works on a long cycle; it is a cyclical universe characterised by eternal repetition. So any attempt to impose top-down change too abruptly or too directly can be all too much in this culture of rotation. The first time Paulo Barone met the region’s producers, one character in the audience particularly caught his attention: a farmer who seemed interested in his presentation, but who quickly expressed his doubts. A year later, the programme’s Operations Manager found evidence to show that this man, a certain Leocarlos Marques Mundim, had not only been won over by his philosophy, but was also trying to turn it into reality. Paulo says that this farmer quickly became a spokesperson for the programme. “He has not been afraid to share what he knows or to speak in public. He has charisma, which gives him a natural authority among his colleagues, whom he inspires as much as he inspires us.”
His story shows that he only really feels at home when under pressure. When he and his four brothers each inherited a share in their father’s property, Leocarlos decided to consolidate the unity of the family by keeping the estate together. He resigned from a job in the civil service to manage the family land, pooling its resources so that everyone could benefit. Leocarlos quickly understood that increasing his volume of “AAA coffee” would fill up their order book and protect them from the instability of the market.
His experience in applying Nespresso standards soon became an example for others to follow. In a country where coffee-growing differs so much from one region to another, you have to adapt your expectations to the local situation. Leocarlos is a very important contact to have in the huge Cerrado savannah; he acts as a kind of sounding board, helping to get the programme off the ground. Nespresso consulted him when producing the good practice guide that was given to each grower. His contribution was priceless: he had developed extremely rigorous drying procedures, specifying the maximum thickness of the layer of coffee beans and the need to turn them over repeatedly, all with the aim of producing a greater quantity of Nespresso-quality coffee.
His methods mean that he can produce one hundred 60 kg sacks per hectare, as opposed to around 50 sacks for others in the area, and the national average of 20. Regularly pruning the coffee trees and using compost contribute to this excellent yield. Since it rains very little on this high-altitude plateau, Leocarlos has to find a way to make sure that the humus is of an excellent quality. He uses natural products to enrich it, so that it does not decompose in the sun. Alongside his efforts in production, Leocarlos decided to contribute to reforestation in accordance with the AAA Program recommendations: 20% of his family estate is covered with the original Cerrado savannah. A competition was organised in the Cerrado in 2008, with a trip to the Swiss Alps for the producer who could apply the most Nespresso-recommended practices. Leocarlos won the event hands down. And his determination to continue improving has only increased since he returned.
Text: Julien Bouré;
Photography: Olivier Gachen