"It will never become the best coffee in the world, but that is not the goal with the project either," says Nordic coffee whiz Tim Wendelboe of the beans he plans to grow on a farm he's developing in Huila, Colombia.
While it’s not unheard of for a coffee company based in a non-coffee growing region to own a bean-producing farm—even Starbucks possesses a coffee farm in Colombia—it is unprecedented for a coffee roaster to launch such a venture. And that's exactly what Wendelboe is doing with land, called Finca el Suelo—The Dirt Farm, or The Soil Farm— he purchased from Elias Roa, proprietor of adjacent Finca Tamana, a farm from which Wendelboe has sourced beans in the past and land that even inspired a book.
"It will never become the best coffee in the world..."
Wendelboe, who won the World Barista Championship in 2004 and the World Cup Tasting Championship in 2005, is the founder of Tim Wendelboe Coffee and co-founder of Nordic Approach, a sourcing company that seeks out the finest coffees in the world and cultivates direct relationships with farmers. He's credited with instigating fashionable coffee trends like ultra light roast single origin brews and direct roaster-farmer relationships. But that’s not enough: He wants to learn more about farming.
"I feel that I need to learn more about the agriculture part of coffee and what really affects the coffee quality, other than cultivars and processing at farm level," explains Wendelboe. "There is not a lot of literature about how to improve coffee quality before the cherries are harvested, and not many farmers who can answer when I ask questions about how, for instance, pruning, shade, and fertilizers affect cup quality."
Wendelboe's curiosity is right in line with more recent trends in winemaking, where producers have started to focus more on the conditions in which grapes are grown to improve a bottle as opposed to just blending juice once the wine is already made.
"I feel that I need to learn more about the agriculture part of coffee and what really affects the coffee quality ..."
As for his farm site, Wendelboe felt comfortable in Colombia because he already had a long-standing history of working with farmers in the area—also having teamed up with Roa in the past to improve bean picking and processing techniques at Finca Tamana.
Since the farms are next-door, Roa will act as Finca el Suelo's caretaker while Wendelboe is out of the country. And his land will serve as the "control farm" against which Wendelboe will compare the results of his experiments.
Wendelboe's plan for Finca el Suelo is to cultivate the property as a research and development project to test ideas about growing coffee plants—a luxury that most small farmers don’t have. "I have a lot of crazy ideas that might or might not improve the coffee quality, but I am not willing to ask the farmers I buy from to risk their income and coffee in order to test and experiment for me," said Wendelboe. "So, naturally I had to start my own farm."
"I have a lot of crazy ideas that might or might not improve the coffee quality ..."
The crazy ideas he’s talking about? It starts with a blend of both biodynamic and organic farming practices paired with soil science. Wendelboe believes he can grow coffee of "better quality and with the same yields and lower cost." The only problem is that it will be years before Finca el Suelo is producing a sizeable crop.
Meanwhile, Finca Tamana is already a great coffee farm, and will no doubt continue to produce quality beans. Wendelboe is obviously chasing ever-greater heights in coffee quality, but there is also another serious reason to start rethinking coffee farming practice. Finca el Suelo and Finca Tamana both sit around 1650 to 1700 masl (meters above sea level) which, according to Wendelboe, "in the future will be considered low due to global warming." As temperature changes, the ideal coffee growing elevation will creep up, but Wendelboe wants to use both soil science, organic methods, and shade to "manipulate the microclimate on the farm" in order to continue to produce quality coffee.
The idea, distilled, is that better soil will lead to higher quality coffee, more productivity, and superior climate change resistance.
Starting with a blank slate and trying to improve millennia of coffee growing technique is nothing if not a challenge, and Wendelboe is betting the farm on what’s in the name: the soil. After deciding that biodynamic farming wasn’t right for him since it is "a bit unscientific and very labour intensive," Wendelboe looked for other options. It wasn’t until Ed Bourgeois, another renowned coffee expert, told him about soil scientist Dr. Elain Ingham that Wendelboe found the path his farm would take. The idea, distilled, is that better soil will lead to higher quality coffee, more productivity, and superior climate change resistance.
In addition to intense attention paid to soil microbiology and fertilizers, Wendelboe has planted eight different non-coffee plants to provide shade. The additional plants will help regulate the soil's microclimate chemistry. "I believe the shade will help create a better eco-system for my coffee because they regulate the amount of sun, shade, and temperature well," said Wendelboe. "From what I have read, growing coffee in shade can produce beans with higher quality and higher density due to longer maturation, but I have yet to see proper scientific research on this and want to figure it out for myself."
Finca el Suelo is a long-term experiment. While the farm itself might never produce "the best coffee in the world," it is still aimed at producing great coffee, and helping other farms produce great coffee, despite changing climates and growing conditions. If the "crazy ideas" Wendelboe puts into practice do lead to superior coffees with higher yields, then he will help other producers, like Roa at Finca Tamana next door, implement the same systems. But it’s not an initiative he takes lightly: "I have to prove it first."