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24 July1999

High in the Andes: Colombian Coffee Farmers are Getting a Taste for Waste-Free Mushrooms

By Paul Brown

As world coffee prices fluctuate wildly - except in supermarkets, where they always seem to go up - the families on the tiny farms in the Andes who live by picking the coffee berries are finding times harder and harder.

Many of them only stave off bankruptcy because this is the home of probably the largest cooperative in the developing world, which looks after its members in hard times by supporting the price. When the price recovers, the 50p per sack of beans levied in export tax goes on building roads, schools, health centres, warehousing, research and on marketing the crop.

The area is known as the golden triangle of Colombia - not for the drugs for which other parts of the country are notorious, but for the deep volcanic soil which makes for an amazing variety of plants and animals, as well as a very fertile soil. In this mountainous area, the Colombian Coffee Cooperative, with its 500,000 coffee families each with farms of around three acres, has operated as a welfare state within a country beset by civil war and violence. In addition to its social role, the cooperative runs some highly impressive, high quality laboratories. More than 100 scientists and 100 advanced students work for Cenicafe, the cooperative's research arm, which has built up expertise over more than 60 years.

Started originally as a project to conserve the fertility of the soil, the labs have branched out into biological control of pests such as the coffee berry borer, known as the Broca. Instead of insecticides, the coffee growers keep things organic by releasing tiny wasps that eat the Broca and fungi that attack it, cutting crop damage to less than 5%.

Another impressive project is a machine which strips the thin cherry flesh of the coffee fruit from the beans inside. This used to be done by copious washing and fermenting the beans in water - a process that used 40 litres of water for each kilo of beans. The new machine uses only one litre. The rich cherry waste, along with the cut coffee bushes, is normally put back on the soil as compost. This process has been refined by adding worms, which in turn are fed to chickens. But a new development promises to revolutionise both the treatment of this waste and the finances of the coffee growing area.

With the help of the Zeri Foundation (Zero Emissions Research Institute), based in Geneva, the researchers have made the coffee waste into highly fertile artificial logs suitable for growing oriental mushrooms. Different mixtures suit different mushrooms. One project is using waste from an instant coffee factory, growing protein-rich mushrooms for the poor of the city of Manizales, where 25,000 children suffer malnutrition.

But for the farmers of the region, the main financial hope lies in the Shitake mushroom that thrives in the mountainous tropical climate. In Japan, this mushroom, when dried, fetches $30 a kilo and about half that in the US. The potential US market is $700 million. So far, experiments in Colombia have shown that, for each kilo of waste turned into logs, more than half a kilo of mushrooms can be grown. Even at a price of $2 a kilo, the farmers will be making a profit, and calculations show that families could more than double their farm income by erecting a small shed on their land as a mini-mushroom farm. As with the coffee bean harvest, the co-op would market and ship the mushrooms.

The Zeri scheme is in sharp contrast to another Colombian mushroom industry. The button mushroom, familiar in Europe, is grown on horse manure and peat imported from Canada.

Carmenza Jaramillo, in charge of the research project, says: "For the oriental mushrooms, there is no import, no waste. Even the artificial logs can be burnt afterwards to help dry the mushrooms for export. We have hopes of doubling the incomes of these small farmers."

Copyright 1999 The Guardian