#41: The Challenges of Being a Biological Coffee Farmer | Tim Wendelboe | CoLab: Bucharest

Today’s episode was recorded live at CoLab: Bucharest in 2018. Co:Lab is as Barista Guild event dedicated to connecting a local barista community with the international barista scene that includes lectures, workshops, and activities.

Tim Wendelboe joins us as he explores the challenges of being a biological coffee farmer. Today’s talk is actually a follow up to his CoLab: Paris talk in 2015, where he first introduced Finca El Suelo and the work they were just beginning, using soil biology to grow coffee free from pesticides and mineral fertilizers. Tim explains the challenges the team faced and the lessons they’ve learned since they first started farming at Finca El Suelo.

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Table of Contents

0:00 Podcast introduction
1:00 Introduction
6:00 The farm had little microbiological activity prior to planting coffee
9:45 Tim began planting trees and realised the soil wasn’t giving the trees enough nutrients, so he began finding ways of creating better compost.
13:45 Tim then found he needed to stop pests and needed even more high quality compost, more shade trees, better mulch, better weed management, introducing row crops along with better timing.
24:30 Reasons why Tim’s farm isn’t producing more coffee and why he’s doing this in the first place.
Q&A with Stuart Ritson –
29:00 How different is Tim’s farming practices compared to his neighbours?
31:30 Why didn’t Tim consider starting a farm in a forest?
33:00 How much coffee do you expect to harvest when farming coffee organically?
34:30 Tips for making better compost
37:15 What institutions offer classes for farmers to learn more about soil biology? And in farming communities, is there long term awareness for how to compost better?
40:30 Outro

Full Episode Transcript

0:00 Podcast introduction

Jessie May Peters: Hello everybody, I’m Jessie May Peters, Vice Chair of the Barista Guild, and you’re listening to the SCA Podcast. Today’s episode was recorded live at CoLab: Bucharest in 2018. Co:Lab is as Barista Guild event dedicated to connecting a local barista community with the international barista scene that includes lectures, workshops, and activities. Check out the show notes for relevant links and a full transcript of today’s episode, or visit baristaguild.coffee to learn more about this year’s schedule of events.

Today, we’re excited to have Tim Wendelboe join us – figuratively speaking – as he explores the challenges of being a biological coffee farmer. Today’s talk is actually a follow up to his CoLab: Paris talk in 2015, where he first introduced Finca El Suelo and the work they were just beginning, using soil biology to grow coffee free from pesticides and mineral fertilizers. Tim explains the challenges the team faced and the lessons they’ve learned since they first started farming at Finca El Suelo.

To help you follow along in this podcast, I’ll jump in occasionally and explain what’s up on screen.


1:00 Introduction

Stuart Ritson: So, this is Tim Wendelboe, everybody. If you didn’t know or you forgot he won the World Barista Championship in 2004 and World Cup Tasters championship in 2005 and owns a cafe and a little Roastery in Oslo, Norway called Tim Wendelboe and we were lucky enough to have Tim join us three years ago in Paris, I know a few people were there to talk about a new project he’d begun in Colombia, the farm Finca El Suelo which is a parcel of land that he was then in the process of purchasing from Elias Roa who is the farmer of Finca Tamana, if any of you guys know that farm as well. He’s back today to update us and give us more information and talk about the challenge, the challenges of being a biological farmer. So, I’ll let you take the floor Tim.

Tim Wendelboe: Thank you. This is going to be a lot of information. This is me. So, a lot of information very fast. So, at the workshop afterwards. I will go much more into detail on what biological farming is so you can actually learn. So, if you have questions that you don’t understand what I’m talking about I will try to answer them later. So, just to give you the first big challenge of being a biological farmer is actually I don’t live in Columbia. My farm is down here, In the mountains down here close to Nieva and it takes me about 24 hours to go from when I leave my apartment until I’m on the farm.

So, obviously, I’m not there every day. I try to go there four to five times per year and I’m there maybe two to three weeks at a time. So, that’s the biggest, by far the biggest challenge that I have at the moment. I’ll just briefly explain to you how biological farming works. It’s actually just using nature as it was intended to be done. You have any kind of plants producing photosynthesis and with that photosynthesis it produces sugars that it leaches through its roots to attract bacteria and fungi. The fungi eat the sugar, they keep nutrients in their body. They can actually mine phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil, it doesn’t matter and then it attracts bigger animals such as nematodes, beetles, amoeba and they eat the bacteria and fungi, but they don’t want all the nutrients that are in the bacteria and fungi. So, they poop out some minerals and that’s when the plant can suck up all those minerals and get fed. So, this is how nature feeds itself and if you don’t believe that this is true just look at any forests or any tropical system or any plant in the universe.

Most of them aren’t fertilized by human beings, but they grow like crazy. So, of course nature knows how to feed its own plants. The benefits of biological farming is higher yields. So, a farm that has a good soil with good organism should be able to produce a lot more than any other conventional farm.

This is because the plants are fed all the time 24/7 with all the nutrients that it needs not just the NPK that the people are putting on and because of this you should be able to have higher quality and more taste, lower cost because you don’t have to buy fertilizers or pesticides. The only labor is to make compost. So, the costs are actually the labor. Because microorganisms creates structure in soil. You have more air pockets in the soil. So, it works more or less like a sponge. So, when it rains, the soil is able to hold water in a much better way which makes it more robust for drier periods. Carbon storage is the thing that is major. We could store a lot more carbon in our soils if we had more fungal biomass in our soil because the fungal biomass is mainly made out of carbon. So, that means the tubes that the fungus is creating to create structure in the soil are made of carbon, but the problem is we put salts on our crops, and we kill the fungus so there’s no fungus left in the soil.

So, that means we can reduce the environmental impact of farming on a big scale. But also, on a small scale we don’t pollute water. There’s no leaching of nitrogen into water. We don’t use pesticides and fungicides. We don’t pollute the environment which also means the health of the workers is much better. We don’t need to wear masks when we are farming.


6:00 The farm had little microbiological activity prior to planting coffee

So, let me just tell you how what I’ve done on the farm so far. When I bought the farm, which was in 2015 officially, but I started working there in 2014 the land looked more or less like this. It was a grassland that had been grazed by some cows and you can see the waves. The soil has some waves and that’s actually erosions because when it rains in Columbia, it rains a lot and there’s a compaction layer here because the soil is not protected with trees and organic material.

So, compaction layers makes the water kind of slide down the hill and takes the soil with it. So, it’s pretty bad soil. It’s actually more dirt than its soil. Today, it looks like this and this is one of my biggest regrets is that we cut down all the trees before we started to plant coffee. And this was based on some recommendations from Elias the farmer that is my neighbor now. He said it’s better to plant the coffee and then plant the real shade trees to grow with the coffee. Obviously, that didn’t work so well. If you look on this in the soil on the soil in the microscope, this is what it looked like when I started farming.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture up showing lots of white space and some lonely looking splotches of bacteria.

Tim Wendelboe: Which means it doesn’t tell you anything. I’ll talk more about this later but the particles you see are basically mineral particles and there’s some bacteria that you can barely see for instance. These little circular things is bacteria, and this is a very poor soil, it doesn’t have the organisms that we need in order to grow plants in a healthy way. This would be an example of very good soil.

Jessie May Peters: This new picture is very busy, with lots of different shapes.

Tim Wendelboe: where you see the kind of hair thing here is a fungal strand. You see this little egg-shaped animal, it’s an amoeba that eats bacteria. You have lots of aggregates of bacteria, lots of organic material. So, this would be a healthy soil that plants could grow very fast in it. This is actually a sample of my compost. So, this is what I want my soil to look like.

So, let’s see what I’ve been doing so far. I started in 2014 even before I had purchased the land to plant seeds because I expected the land to be mine within the next year. So, we started planting seeds. I planted Geisha planted some Typica, and we planted the traditional Colombian variety Caturra. To see if we could succeed in biological farming, we needed to plant not resistant varieties to see how they cope with leaf rust, so that’s why I chose these varieties also because of quality.  Then we started cutting down all the trees that were on the farm. A lot of them are not so good as to use a shade tree because they don’t have foliage all year round.

So, in some sense, it makes sense to cut them down and plant better varieties, but we should have kept the ones that were nice. So, it basically meant that when we started planting the soil or the lamb look like this.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture of a barren hill with clumps of brown dirt between small patches of green grass and a single tree.

Tim Wendelboe: Not a lot of organic material on the farm and also a lot of weeds growing which is you know, I should probably call myself a weed farmer more than a coffee farmer because that’s what’s growing on my farm at the moment. You could really tell that the soil had problems because it was rock hard. Even the places where you had good organic material. We still needed to use machines in order to make holes that are not even more than 30 centimeters deep. So that means the soil is very compact and you can see around there, there’s not a lot of good organic material. It’s just a little bit of grass growing and weeds. So, not a lot of accumulation of organic material.


9:45 Tim began planting trees and realized the soil wasn’t giving the trees enough nutrients, so he began finding ways of creating better compost.

Then we started planting in 2015 in the beginning. We planted around 8,000 thousand trees mainly the Typica and the Geisha and little bit later we also planted the Caturra and we also planted the shade trees, probably 300 shade trees. Most of them are now dead. So, we have to plant a lot more. I was also making what we call compost tea, which is basically a brew of compost. If you don’t have a lot of compost you can make these kind of teas and then spread, it all over the land because I wanted to kind of recover the soil on my whole farm. I didn’t make my own compost at this moment, so I had to buy some wormy post from local farmers. And it ended up when I looked at it in my microscope. It was actually not very high-quality compost. So, when you buy compost from other people you have to be very careful because it can be really bad compost with the wrong set of organisms for your soil.

So, at the end of the year, I had 8,000 trees planted in a field that look more or less like this.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture up of a hillside dotted with holes.

Tim Wendelboe: To me this looks very dead. It might look green and beautiful to you. And then I started taking a class in the early 2015 about soil biology and I started to learn how to make compost and at the end of the year I finally could make some proper compost which takes a lot of time. It takes at least two to three weeks to make a good compost actively and then it will take another couple of months before it’s ready to be used. So, this was kind of the problem. I should have taken the classes two years before I even started with the farming and make compost and plant shade trees before I even started planting coffee.

At the end of 2015, this is how my coffee trees were looking and you can see the leaves are very yellow which is a clear sign that they’re missing nitrogen, which is funny because we also analyze the soil in a chemist lab, and it said we have a lot of nitrogen in the soil. So, go figure it doesn’t work. So, the lessons learned during this first year is obviously I learned about soil biology. I was not really sure how to start my farm. I don’t know anything about farming. So, I was thinking maybe I should do a combination of conventional or mineral fertilizer with some organic practices, I don’t really know. But after I learned about soil biology and how it works, I mean once you learn that there is no way back to mineral fertilizer that’s for sure. I learned that I had to make a lot more compost than I am at the moment. And also, I learned how to gather material for the compost because in Colombia, it doesn’t rain all the time. It’s sunny sometimes, weeds grow at certain times. So, I have to start planning when to gather the material for the compost.

So, the following year, 2016 at the beginning of the year and this is what my some of the best coffee trees look like.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture of a hill with a couple of coffee trees standing by themselves in a field of brown dirt.

Tim Wendelboe: And as you can see on the soil, there’s not a lot of organic material is quite bare. You can actually see the brown color is actually the dirt. So, there’s nothing holding moisture. There’s not a lot of plants that can feed organisms. So, this is not a very good environment to grow organisms. So, it’s looking kind of miserable at this time. A lot of leaf rust you can see. The orange dots are leaf rust and if the majority of the trees didn’t have leaves at all. This is one year after planting them. But I’m optimistic. So, I think I can fix this.


13:45 Tim then found he needed to stop pests and needed even more high-quality compost, more shade trees, better mulch, better weed management, introducing row crops along with better timing.

So, we started the replanting more we had some fresh seedlings left over. So, we planted another 1,000 trees which means, in theory, we should have 9,000 trees at this moment in 2016.

I started planting beans around on the whole farm. We started planting perennial peanut because this is a leguminous plant that spreads aggressively unless your farm is full of weeds, then they don’t really spread at all, and we planted Yucca to try to create some more activity in the soil. We just planted whatever we could find that is common in the area. The problem is I had eight leafcutter ant nests on the farm and these guys love perennial peanut., they love beans, they love anything that is a good plant and they take those leaves into their nests and they actually farm a fungus so they can eat the fungus. So, these are really difficult to kill. And just to give an example what they can do I planted this citrus tree three weeks ago.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture of a small plant bursting with green leaves.

Tim Wendelboe: the day after it looks like this.

Jessie May Peters: and the next picture shows every single leaf has been taken off the plant.

Tim Wendelboe: So, they can take out the whole farm very quickly. So, I quickly learned I need to deal with the ant problem. But, because I’m a biological farmer. I can’t really use the poison that is normal to kill them. So, I learned how to do it the biological way, which is actually brewing a compost tea putting some Beauveria spores, which is a fungus that is normally used in coffee against broca, the coffee borer but we can also use them for any soft-bodied insects. So, you have to boot with the spores and then you pour a lot of it into the nest of the ants and then a couple of days later they’re gone. It makes the fungus actually attack the ants and kind of consumes it.

Still, we were spraying a lot of compost extract because at the end of 2017 is when I started to get enough compost to be able to put compost out on the trees. So, since I didn’t have enough compost, you can also just extract the organisms from the compost into water and spray them on the land. So, this is a much more efficient way of doing it. The only problem is that I’m not doing it enough. So, I didn’t really see the results that I was expecting. So, I actually went to Elaine Ingham’s research farm in California. Elaine Ingham being the guru of soil biology and also the professor that I’ve have learned everything from. And she has trainings where I could go and do practical work for five days. And this was hugely informative because theory is one thing but to actually see stuff being done practically on a farm on the scales you need is a whole other level. I’m not a farmer. I’ve never grown anything before I started growing coffee. So, for me, it was a very steep learning curve.

And she taught me that you need to just make much more compost and much better compost but it’s not like we need tons and tons and tons of compost. If the compost is really good quality, you don’t need that much, and you can also use this kind of extracts to apply them to the farm. So, this is definitely doable for the farm of my size, which is 7 hectares at the moment. After I went to Elaine Ingham, I also got some tips that planting sunflower is a good thing because they have a very strong taproot. We could try to break up the compaction layer in the soil. So, we planted probably 10,000 seeds of sunflower and none of them came up because I have too much weeds. And at the end of. 2017 my best trees look like this. This is one of my Typica trees.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has pictures of waist-high, coffee trees with full, green leaves.

Tim Wendelboe: and this is the one Geisha tree that looks great. The other ones I’m will not show you at the moment.

So, the lessons learned in 2016 and 17. I need to have much more plants in general in the soil to in order to kind of boost the organism population. I definitely name or shade trees because coffee plants, as you know doesn’t like full sun. So, we’re actually planting over a thousand shade trees this year in a very small area. But I’d rather plant too many and then cut them down then not having enough and then wait another 5 to 10 years before they grow up. Mulching is important on my farm because we had two years with very dry weather. So, almost no rain for 3 months in June, July, August for both years. So, no water and when you have young trees, they don’t want to grow without water. So, mulching actually means to put some organic material around the tree to preserve moisture in the soil. This also lowers the temperature in the soil so that the trees are not to. The problem is that I was mulching in the wrong way before and now I’ve kind of learned how to do it and I’ll show you a little bit later how that’s looks.

Cleaning weeds is also really important. I thought you know having plants in the field is great, but weeds are very aggressively growing plants they have very shallow roots and they take up a lot of water. So, you really need to clean around the trees in order to make them grow fast, and I also learned how to make good compost tea, which I’ll explain in the workshop what it actually is, but I wasn’t making good quality compost tea, which meant when I sprayed it on my trees it didn’t really have an effect. Timing is also crucial so, over the last three years. I’ve learned that going to Colombia in June and applying compost and all these kind of things does not have an effect at all because it doesn’t rain. So, if there’s no rain the organisms goes to sleep and there’s no effect from it. So, you really need the time it according to the weather. So, I have a weather station on my farm that I follow every day. We record and then I can see what time of the year is best to come, and also from experience when it’s time to come and make compost.  So, let me show you what I’ve done so far this year because it’s mainly been me working this year.

This year, I planted another 400 Geisha trees, but we lost a lot of trees. So, it means in total now we have 600 trees. How do I know? Well, I counted every single one of them three weeks ago. So, from 9,000 trees we have 600 trees. It’s mainly new trees that I planted. So, the 400 trees, and there’s some others scattered around the farm, but now the farm looks like this where you can clearly see all the little round circles are where a tree is planted.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture up of a green mountain slope densely populated with holes with lines in-between.

Tim Wendelboe: We started planting row crops. So, something in between the rows of coffee like clover to produce nitrogen, but also to preserve moisture and also try to create some shades. So, I’ll show you the way we mulch now.

Jessie May Peters: Tim has a picture of a coffee tree with wood chips all around it and a circular disk of brown dirt surrounding the stem of the tree.

Tim Wendelboe: The problem with the mulching. So, this is just wood chips that we buy at a carpenter’s workshop and we put them around the trees. The problem, what I was doing in the beginning was that I put it too close to the tree. So, here you can actually see the roots of the tree. If you put the mulch too close to the stem, the roots will actually grow into the mulch instead of downwards where the water is. So, the problem is then when you have dry weather the tree dies.

So, now we have a much better way of mulching and we put much more on.  And you can actually see some fungus growing in the mulch, this being a little mushroom, which is the fruit of the fungus. This is sunflower and clover grown together in the rows. So, sunflower goes, it has a deep route to break up the compaction layer, clover to produce nitrogen because it’s leguminous.

We also planted the theraphosa and pigeon pea which are shrubs that don’t need a lot of water and they grow fast and then creates a temporary shade for the coffee trees in between the rows and it’s also leguminous so it produces nitrogen. The good thing about having only 600 trees is that I don’t need more than two buckets of compost extract and tea to treat the trees properly whereas before I needed, 10 buckets and it just takes me half a day to a day to apply to the whole farm. I also have seen results with the compost teas. I had trees that had leaf rust when I came just a couple of weeks ago and then I immediately went out to spray with some compost tea and after three days. The leaf rust had died. You can still see the leaves are damaged but there’s no more active leaf rust.

So, the lessons learned so far this year. I learned how to deal with the ants properly. I learned the importance of having row crops and also which row crops to grow because every climate every environment is different and so on. I started treating the farm more as an orchard. So, I’m thinking of it more like an apple farm or an almond farm rather than a carrot or potato farm if you understand what I mean. So, one tree is kind of placed there and we have to treat the area around it instead of trying to treat the whole farm. It makes it much easier. I learn how to mulch, I need to make better compost. I finally understood how to do it in a short time because this takes some practice and I’m also managing the farm every week even though I’m in Norway. I can manage through WhatsApp and Facebook, communicate with Elias and his team and say okay this week you need to apply compost extract. Please send me photos so we can see what needs to be done. So, we’re applying compost extracts almost every week at the moment and I’ll show you a little bit more of this later.

But we managed to actually grow the fungal biomass in the soil a little bit, but it’s not nearly enough so, still the plants are struggling a lot. We also managed to increase the bacteria population. But also, we have some more of the animals eating the bacteria which is what you really need, but we’re not nearly enough. This soil is great for growing broccoli, but not for coffee.


24:30 Reasons why Tim’s farm isn’t producing more coffee and why he’s doing this in the first place.

So, why is there no progress on my farm? Well, first of all, you saw the land when I started really poor soil. So, a bad start we cut down all the shade trees. So, it’s not soil that I’m growing in its more dirt. It’s lacking the organisms. The other reason why it’s no progress. I’m a part-time farmer. I actually don’t know how to farm so I’m learning it. This is one of the reasons why I’m doing it to actually learn and we had El Nino two years ago and also the following year, we had even less rain than we had during the El Nino. And, of course, you have daily challenges, for instance, last two weeks ago when I was there, I was supposed to brew compost tea and then we didn’t have electricity for three days. So, that means the air pump that I need to make the tea doesn’t work.

So, we have all these kind of small things that occur that you can’t really control. The plans for the future. I need to hire someone. This is Diego, a barista in Colombia that I have been training for a couple of years or even from the start how to do everything. So, the idea was to hire him this year to do some work for me, but then he got married and moved to Australia. So, that’s good for him not so good for me. But I need to hire someone to help me out, to be on the farm a little bit more regularly to make compost and so on. We’re planting new varieties to see if we can have some other varieties that are better acclimatized, adapted to the climate in my farm.

Most of these have already died, but there are a few that actually are growing quite well that we also know tastes pretty good. So, question, when is my first harvest? It was last year, and this is my total Harvest last year. It was one coffee cherry.

Jessie May Peters: Tim’s got a picture of a single, low quality coffee cherry in his hand.

Tim Wendelboe: And it’s a natural. It’s still in my office. This year I have for coffee cherries. Here’s a picture of three of them. The last one, I can’t find anymore. So, I don’t remember where it is. But next year we will maybe have 20 coffee cherries. So, the increase is tremendous. My expectations in the next couple of years is people always ask me when Can I taste your coffee. Well, I don’t really know but I’m hoping maybe in two or three years we will have a small harvest that we can be able to taste. People also say how are you able to scale this up? Because obviously, I want to grow more coffee than 600 trees. Well, this is perfectly scalable. Like there are farms much bigger than me doing these systems already. So, it just needs more machinery to make the compost and so on.

So, a question I got like yesterday. Why am I doing all this? Well, first of all to learn how to farm coffee, that’s was the main reason why I started this project and I’m learning a lot, but I still don’t know how to do it. I also think the way we farm coffee today with mineral fertilizer pesticides is not a sustainable way. We talk about sustainability, but it’s actually not sustainable at all. It’s not good for the economy of the farmers and it’s not good for our environment. So, the idea is to learn how to do this as a part-time farmer and then apply it on the farm, and all the farms that I’m working with and then hopefully succeed with it and then start teaching all the farmers how to do it. My goal is to be able to grow better coffee. So, we don’t have to spend so much time on processing and stuff afterwards in order to kind of fix the not so good coffee and make it taste a little bit better. I want it to taste great from the moment we pick the cherry and then we don’t have to think so much about the processes and so on. And of course, the ultimate goal is to change the world.

So, is there hope? Yes, for sure. Look at any forests in the world. They produce a lot more biomass than my coffee farm ever will, and nobody has ever fertilized them, and they are perfectly healthy. Thank you.

Q&A with Stuart Ritson –

29:00 How different is Tim’s farming practices compared to his neighbors?

Stuart Ritson: Thank you very much Tim. And it’s really, it’s great as well to really see how difficult these things are. Dashing all our hopes of becoming coffee farmers tomorrow.

Tim Wendelboe: I mean for me it’s easy because I have a job in Norway that pays my salary. I don’t have to make money on the farm. But for a farmer anywhere in the world, this is much more difficult because if the crop fails there’s no income.

Stuart Ritson: Yeah, that makes perfect sense one of the questions. I think it would be good. for you to maybe talk about. Obviously, your neighbors Elias and so you have a direct connection to a very established, very successful farmer. So, I was wondering in that context how are his practices from yours. Obviously, you could probably list off hundreds of things maybe but just as a generalization, is it very different or a lot of overlap or?

Tim Wendelboe: Well, the obvious difference is that he’s actually producing coffee and he has the same problems as me with some of the new plants like his [29:31 inaudible] is not progressing that well, and he gets agronomists from different companies coming to look at the soil and they all recommend different products and he applies them, it doesn’t work and then he has leaf rust. So, you know with each system there are challenges and I would just say that, for him it’s easier to kind of buy his way out of the problem with the fungicides and fertilizer whereas for me it’s more of a holistic understanding of what’s actually the problem and trying to fix it before you have the problems. But I would say his system is as labor-intensive if not more than mine because they have to apply, with this Caturra for instance, he has to apply pesticides seven times a year now. And it still doesn’t have leaves on the plants. So, it clearly doesn’t work. But with these resistant varieties, of course, it doesn’t have to apply as much. So, there’s pros and cons from both systems. But I think in the next 30 Years, his farm will be producing less and if I get my farm to be healthy, I will definitely be producing more.

Stuart Ritson: Do you have a bet going on that? You should maybe

Tim Wendelboe: No. I have a bet with a Kenyan agronomists saying that I will produce more coffee than Elias per hectare or per tree in within five years from the start. So, I guess that’s two years from now. I’m clearly losing that bet and I have to buy him a set of golf clubs and he has a very expensive taste so.


31:30 Why didn’t Tim consider starting a farm in a forest?

Stuart Ritson: The other question I really wanted to ask before we take it to the audience is obviously you’ve mentioned the success of nature and forests and wild grown coffee is a concept and it is a product available in different places. Did you ever consider starting your farm in a forest effectively or is that not an option for you?

Tim Wendelboe: Well, to be honest when I started my farm, I didn’t really know how I was going to farm. So, I didn’t even know anything about soil biology. So, the reason why I bought the land that I have was because it was available to me. It was close to a partner that I trust and have been working with. He also needed to invest in his farm so that’s why I offered to buy some land, so he frees up some credit to purchase equipment. So, it’s kind of a coincidence or many reasons why I bought the land and also, I mean Columbia has great coffee and in the area we’re in there’s great coffee. But obviously when I’m looking back at it now, I would love to start with the forests because then I would succeed much faster, but that’s also not so much fun. It’s more fun to not succeed and learn from the mistakes and having trouble. And if I can succeed with this kind of land, you know, any farmer can do that, especially if you live on the farm, then you can work every day, makes sense.


33:00 How much coffee do you expect to harvest when farming coffee organically?

Stuart Ritson: I’m sure we have some questions from the audience. Any hands?

Attendee 1: What are the expectation to produce per hectare on a biological farm?

Tim Wendelboe: Well, I don’t really know because I don’t know any other farmers who are doing it at the moment. Also, I have planted it in a different system that is normal in Colombia. So, normally Colombian farm would be the distance between each tree is between 1 meter and 1 and a half and my trees are two and a half meters apart. Some of them are two meters apart, but you can compare with kilos per tree maybe and the average on Elias’ farm is around four kilos per tree and I think I should at least be able to produce the same. But probably more because I have more distance between the trees so they get more light they can grow more. So, it’s really hard to say but I expect at least to be able to produce as much as conventional farms when they are kind of healthy once my farm is up and running but it might take 10 years before that happens. It shouldn’t take long like. If I was there working every day this could take two years to establish, but I’m not there every day. So, that’s the problem.


34:30 Tips for making better compost

Stuart Ritson: Sorry another question over here.

Attendee 2: Thanks for the presentation. So, I think I learned it’s really challenging what you’re doing. What I think I learned in the farm not to plant coffee past where it is grass like this and dry because the grass is very strong. But I think it works if you do it properly, things like you’re doing. My question is how do you do the compost? Any tips you can give us probably?

Tim Wendelboe: I mean there’s probably a million ways of making great compost.  I’m using a thermal method which means the compost gets hot and we need to get it to high temperatures to kill weed seeds, so we don’t spread more weeds seeds because I use a lot of weeds in the compost and also, I use cow manure. So, if it was a food crop, you would have to get it up to temperature to kill like E. coli if there’s E. coli in the manure. But the key is to use different types of ingredients. So, for instance, a coffee farm, conifer is a forest plant and the organisms that are in soils in forests are mainly fungus, its fungal dominated soils and the grassland is bacterial dominated soil. So, I need to grow a fungus in the compost to get them out into my soil. So, that means I need to use a lot more woody materials such as dry leaves, woody stuff, wood shavings, newspaper, cardboard, anything woody because that’s food to grow for the fungus to grow. So, it kind of depends on what you’re going to grow, how you need to make the compost. And I’m making hot piles which you have to be a little bit more active with, but there’s other ways of doing it as well, bokashi being one, worm compost and so on.

So, it’s a complex question to answer and there are many classes you can take but I would say the problem is a lot of people don’t analyze the compost afterwards. So, if you had a light microscope, you could actually look at what organisms are in your compost. And if you did that, you will probably not use a lot of the compost that is available because a lot of it’s just rotten material with wrong sets of organisms that doesn’t benefit your plants at all. And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of organic farmers make massive amounts of. compost to put them out and they don’t see a good effect of it because it’s not a good compost for the crop that they’re trying to grow.  I’ll talk about a lot more about that in the workshop. So, to explain to you what’s different organisms and so on.


37:15 What institutions offer classes for farmers to learn more about soil biology? And in farming communities, is there long term awareness for how to compost better?

Stuart Ritson: Do we have any more questions? Let’s go.

Attendee 3: You mentioned that you went to see Elaine, soil biologist and you took some classes. Are there more sort of institutions or organizations that are perhaps more accessible to a larger variety of coffee farmers that are offering sort of courses or lessons or instruction in this or is it quite new and do you find that amongst local communities and certain regions there’s quite a long-term awareness of these functioning of the soil in the region or that sort of thing as well?

Tim Wendelboe: Well, the class that I took was online so that’s available for everyone. It’s not too expensive either considering what you can actually gain from it. I would say the biggest challenge is that it’s in English and a lot of the farmers at least in Latin America don’t speak English. Also, her teachings are kind of progressive and kind of new although it’s a lot of other methods like biodynamic are using similar stuff, but not necessarily utilizing scientific approaches like using a microscope just to analyze what you have and what you need.

So, in that sense her teachings are quite unique, but there’s a lot of other courses that you could take for instance in permaculture that are building its science on similar things. Any compost class would be great to take I think for any farmer because a lot of times they would use the pulp that are sitting around on the mill stinking and rotting and after the harvest they will take the rotten pulp and put it on the trees thinking its high nitrogen. But all the nitrogen was lost while it was fermenting so, it’s very low nitrogen actually. So, what you actually should do is to dry it as a cascara, and then put it on the trees. Then you have the high nitrogen. So, it’s a lot of these things but I actually have tried to find communities in my area and there’s almost no organic producers at all.

And the ones who are actually more kind of what I call conventional organic, so they buy fertilizers that are doing the same as a conventional one, but it’s organically made. So, it’s not a holistic approach. But you know bio-dynamic farming, all this I think it’s good to learn from other or many different places so you kind of gain a better understanding of what it actually is. But Elaine’s classes are really fantastic. Now, I was taking them when she was recording them. So, it took a long time because we had to wait every week for a new video. But now all the videos are available and then she has workshops online where it’s kind of like Skype meetings and then you learn, you can have questions so it’s really good.

Stuart Ritson: Thank you very much. Tim.

Tim Wendelboe: Thank you.

Stuart Ritson: Can we get a round of applause?


40:30 Outro

Jessie May Peters: That was Tim Wendelboe at CoLab: Bucharest in 2018.  Remember to check our show notes for a full transcript of this lecture and visit baristaguild.coffee for tickets to this year’s CoLab: Milan, taking place May 7th – 9th.

This has been an episode of the SCA Podcast. Thank you for joining us!

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