Farm-Level: Interview with Founder of Campesino Specialty Coffee

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Campesino Colombia Coffee

Daniel Velasquez, Founder of Campesino Specialty Coffee. The Strava Interview.

At the end of March, Strava hopped on a phone call with Daniel Velazquez, founder of Campesino Specialty Coffee. Strava has worked closely with Campesino for the past two years to source coffee for our Peace & Wellness line of CBD infused coffees. Daniel joined our production manager, Leo, on the call from Medellín, Colombia. We chatted for an hour about how Daniel found his way into specialty coffee exporting, how Campesino has grown, and the positive work it does for the community and farmers of Jericó, Colombia. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Colombia Coffee and CBD

Hey amigo! Como esta?

Hey duuudeee!!! I’m well - how’re you???

I’m good! How’s the COVID-19 & public health situation in Colombia?

Colombia closed land ports of entry 6 days after the first reported case of COVID-19. We closed all our borders and our three biggest states went under quarantine after 5 days. The federal government issued quarantine 13 days after the first case. Colombia doesn’t have a great health-care system and the infrastructure is not up-to-date. We had to take action really quick and the government did.

Is there any government relief?

Yeah there is - everyone is thankful and wasn’t expecting it. A lot of the big banks are freezing mortgages, loans and interest payments. Another entity is offering assistance for payroll expenses.

So I know you were working in real estate prior to getting into coffee…tell me a bit about your journey in starting Campesino.

Yeah that’s right. I was working in real estate near Washington, D.C. for a while - probably for about 8-to-9 years. I was on a trip down in Colombia to visit my cousins farm and didn’t know too much about coffee at the time. I was amazed at the quality! This was in 2012.

That trip to my cousin’s farm sparked a lot of creativity for me…so I started asking myself, “how can I get this coffee over to the United States?” Fast-forward a bit to 2013 - I purchased my first coffee as an exporter from Gustavo at Fina El Ocaso in Quindio, Colombia.

I didn’t know anything about exporting, logistics, quality, milling norms…anything…I just started investigating. I spent months researching. Communicating. Sending emails. Once I understood the process I made a contact with an exporter in Colombia - they helped me facilitate my first export for a fee. To import the coffee into the United States all you need is to be a registered business with the FDA. That part was simple.

I didn’t make any money but it got the ball rolling and it was a massive learning experience.

Where does the name Campesino come from?

I have a close-knit family. We were just thinking of names and came up with a list of 50…We were bouncing names around and narrowing names down. Campesino from the get-go stood out. It’s the Spanish word for farmer. My buddy Chacho is a designer. He said Campesino really stuck with him as well. I had him make sketches of the logo and from that moment forward everything made a bit more sense!

Campesino Coffee Colombia

That’s awesome! Does your family have a legacy with working in the coffee industry?

Most certainly! My grandfather (my dad’s dad) was a true coffee farmer. He owned several farms in a region south of Medellín called Caldas. His story is really cool…

What’s his story?

My grandfather was born in Jericó. His mom passed when he was really young and then his dad remarried. He didn’t get along with his new stepmom and his brothers left the house to find work in Caldas, a department about 150km away from Jericó. At 8 years old my grandfather left Jericó and walked to Caldas - we’re assuming he had help along the way, but this is around 1915-1918. He found his brothers on a farm where they were working.

My grandfather climbed the ranks on the farm and became the farmers right-hand man. He asked the farmer if he could speak to his daughter - the farmer obliged.  Then my grandfather asked to speak to the farmer’s daughter again…the farmer said if he spoke to her again that my grandfather would have to marry her! So he had to wait until she turned 16 to speak to her again. He had to speak to the farmer’s daughter from the coffee farm to her window on the second floor. My grandfather ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter, my grandmother, and had 16 kids! My dad was one of those children. None of the 16 kids pursued coffee but my grandfather’s earnings did pay for all of their education.

Around 1983 my grandfather started getting threats from a local mafia asking for a monthly fee. He stopped paying them and they ended up assassinating him. He was killed on his farm in 1983. My middle name is my grandfather’s name and I’m the only one in my family that works in coffee.

He sounds like a true legend. 

Campesino Coffee Colombia

What has carried Campesino from a value & ethics perspective?

I know this sounds cliche and everyone is saying it, but transparency and sustainability from the get-go have been my foundation. I studied international business with a focus on international development so a main focus of my studies was helping underprivileged communities that were struggling and needed resources. I wanted to apply what I learned to business - to give back, create something that was sustainable, and help the community.

I was always sure that if I did things correctly with the intention of helping others that I’d get those blessings back. That business will grow. If Campesino does well for others, others will want to work with Campesino.

How is Campesino an alternative for farmers that traditionally sell to cooperatives?

For the most part there is a cooperative in each pueblo in Colombia. The co-op is a customer/client of the Federation and the Federation guarantees all purchases that the co-op makes from the farmers. So it works well as a fail-safe. The farmers can always sell their coffee, no matter what, to the cooperatives. But the co-ops are tied directly to the market price. Whatever happens in Brazil, Vietnam, etc. impacts our market here in Colombia.

Jerico Colombia

Creating another option for farmers that’s tied to the specialty market has opened new doors. It has opened the option for farmers to have control over the price of their coffee. We’ve developed a portfolio of farmers that we work with. We started with 1-to-2…then 10…and now we work with 120 farmers on a repeat basis.

Some farmers don’t want to work with us and say our quality requirements are too strict...We have other farmers that say “hell yeah! I’m going to monitor how long I’m fermenting and drying to receive that extra premium.” It’s been incredible from a community perspective.

In addition to premiums for quality, what else is Campesino contributing to in Jericó?

We’re also developing a coffee school for the farmers. It’ll benefit all parties involved - the farmers, roasters, and finally the end consumer. The intention is to get everyone involved in the school to be super professional and understand the coffee they’re working with. We want to create an entire community that’s producing stellar coffee!

What have been some of the challenges in growing Campesino?

Whenever there’s an elevation in the price of the parchment and in the c-market price we experience a challenge. In November the prices (of parchment) skyrocketed…this is after years of it being in a $0.95-1.00 range. We buy coffee on a weekly basis and every Saturday adjust our prices to the market, and then add our typical premium on-top of that. In November we were paying premiums on-top of high parchment prices. Furthermore, we already locked in prices with our roaster clients…our margins kept reducing and reducing. Fortunately in discussing this situation with our clients they were willing to compromise a bit and accommodate.

Big exporters that move a lot of volume are able to float future contracts. We just aren’t at the level yet to be able to do that. Our business is different. Again we’re moving specialty coffee, but the situation in November was a bit painful…having to maneuver with our pricing. As a small business it’s difficult competing with the larger exporters because we are largely boutique.

Apart with that we’ve been blessed to work with incredible farmers and have incredible operation staff from Jericó in Jericó facilitating everything.

Tell me about your team…

I’m lucky to have such a rock star team...

Danyila manages our operations in Jericó. She has been with us since day 1. She’s Edgar Correa’s daughter - a life-long farmer in Jericó. Danyila has worked with coffee all her life. She worked with the local co-op, Nespresso, and now Campesino.

Colombia Coffee and CBD

Adriana assists Danyila in managing our operations in Jericó. She’s Danyila’s sister and is like her side-kick/assistant. She’s learning the trade and is also a life-long farmer. She’s hard working and learning quickly in facilitating our pueblo operations. Between her and Danyila they take care of our operations.

Luisa is our QC Director (not to mention the Colombian roasting champ). Her and I lead the milling of all of our coffees. She’s really focused on the quality control aspect of Campesino.

Luz is the backbone of everything administrative. She handles all the accounting and banking.

Then there’s me…What do I do haha. I run sales and marketing. Essentially all aspects of commercial and business development. I do a bit of everything but my focus is sales driven.

Awesome, Daniel! It’s been great catching up. Thanks for taking the time!

Con Gusto!