King of the Brazilian Crop
Brazilian farmer José Renato Gonçalves Dias talks to BeanScene about family traditions, employee wellbeing, and the need to pay more for specialty coffee.
José Renato Gonçalves Dias was born into a long line of coffee farmers, but he shows no sign of buckling under the weight of family tradition. In fact, when BeanScene asks the seventh-generation farmer why he wants to carry on one of Brazil’s most prized agricultural traditions, his look implies that the answer is obvious.
“Growing coffee is my privilege,” he says. “Becoming a farmer was an expectation, but it’s also a passion of mine. I genuinely love what I do.”
José watched his grandparents and parents tend to coffee farming from a young age, learning the many traditions and practices that he still implements on his farm today.
The Dias family has worked in farming since 1890, when José’s great great grandparents migrated from Portugal and bought a small piece of land in the Mina Gerais state of Brazil. They started growing coffee and subsequently, the farm named Pesagiro became a viable business. The land José speaks of is located just four kilometres from the Fazenda Rainha property, which he manages with his wife Ana Cecília. His parents live on the Pesagiro property today.
Unlike José’s ancestors, who relied on weather patterns to produce a successful crop, José applies an academic approach to his business. He studied economics at university, specialising in coffee, before joining the family dynasty.
Eventually, José and his wife Ana decided to start their own farming legacy, and took over the running of a property that originally belonged to Ana’s family. José is now the Co-Owner, Agronomist Engineer, and General Director of that farm, known as Fazenda Rainha.
“Rainha means queen in Portuguese. The farm is located on one of the highest mountains in the areas, so we felt Rainha was an appropriate name,” José says. “She watches over everything.”
The farm is located in São Sebastião da Grama, in the Mogiana region in São Paulo, Brazil. For more than 20 years the farm has been part of the Sertãozinho group, which joins another three neighbouring specialty coffee farms including Sertãozinho, Santa Inês, and Laranjal.
Fazenda Rainha is spread over 1000 hectares. Both commodity and specialty coffee are grown on the farm. Two hundred and eighty hectares are used to cultivate coffee. Of that, 200 hectares grows Yellow Bourbon, but other thriving varietals include Icatu, Mundo Novo and Yellow Catuaí. Of all the crops, José says the Yellow Bourbon flourishes because of its density. “Some trees are more than 50 years old, which I think gives an extra special flavour to the bean,” he says.
Fazenda Rainha is certified by the Utz environmental management system. Its environmental policy is based on reconciling production with environmental preservation. “More than 30 per cent of the entire land is preserved. We have created a biodiverse environment. We maintain a microbiological soil, and we invite insects near our crops. We believe plants with good nutrition attract less disease and thrive,” José says.
The land is also used for milk and olive oil production – something José has only just started experimenting with. He says part of the reason for the farm’s diverse agricultural production is because of its geographic and climatic conditions.
“The farm has an incredible microclimate, a nice temperature, and high altitude of 1100 to 1540 metres above sea level, and because of the altitude the complexity of our coffee is great. We grow the coffee facing north towards the equator line, towards the sunlight. It’s sweeter as a result,” José says. “The key to a great coffee tree is to treat it right from the start. I pay close attention to the soil and make sure it’s in the best condition to produce specialty coffee beans.”
The coffee is only harvested at peak ripeness. While José takes an educated approach to a lot of his farming, he does leave room for old folk traditions.
“We only harvest in the months that don’t have the letter ‘r’ in its name: May, June, July, and August,” he says.
The specialty beans at Fazenda Rainha are handled, harvested, and dried manually.
“They used to say that coffee is made here with hands and heart, and it still is. There are no machines used on this farm,” José says.
All beans are collected on a cloth to keep them from touching the ground. Once harvested, the cherries are shelled and spread out on one of three patios to sun dry. There is one patio for the pulped naturals, one for the naturals, and one for the washed coffees – pulped and fermented. The pulped naturals – José’s preferred type of processing – are dried for a minimum of 30 days, and natural processed beans for up to three months – or six months if José has his way. “The longer we let the beans dry the sweeter and stronger they become,” he says.
Once the beans reach 11 per cent moisture, they are conditioned in wooden silos. José says cupping plays an important role in checking the quality of the beans. He first cups the coffee before drying, then again before resting in silos, and again before the beans are hulled and shipped out green.
“To make one cup of coffee you need about 50 beans. If one of those beans are not good enough the entire cup is compromised. That’s why it’s important to cup so much to identify defects, particularly throughout the drying process,” he says.
In the 2013-14 harvest, José’s farm produced 18,000 60-kilogram bags, which contributed to 24,000 60-kilogram bags across all five farms.
José says the level of care and precision taken in the production and processing of his beans is one of the core reasons for the farm’s success. Fazenda Rainha was a finalist in the Cup of Excellence (COE) contest in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010, and a winner of the 2011 naturals competition for his Yellow Bourbon, which received an international jury score of 91.41 points.
When José won the COE in 2011, he says the price of the coffee at auction didn’t creep up very high, but it was the demand for his coffee that was his greatest benefit. “Demand for our coffee doubled since winning. At auction we received 5000BRL [approximately $1770] per sack,” he says.
Now, however, with production costs creeping up to an average of about 400BRL (approximately $150) per 60-kilogram bag, and sold on average for about 500BRL ($170) as a general estimate for all coffees, José says people need to start paying more for specialty coffee, and less for commodity coffee.
The full article features in the December 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.
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