Under the leadership of Padre José Alejandro Aguilar Posada and farm manager Alejandra Giraldo, Finca Villa Loyola has become much more than a coffee farm—it's an agricultural innovation center.
Villa Loyola serves a model for what a long-term Direct Trade relationship can achieve, as well as what organic, sustainable agriculture looks like, even when organic certification is not sought.
Watch the video from our visit last winter, then read an update on Villa Loyola's ongoing innovations from Maritza Taylor, Director of Quality Control for PT's and Bird Rock.
Villa Loyola Update
By Maritza Taylor
Since Padre Joe took over Villa Loyola farm at the end 2012, a lot … and I mean it… a LOT of things have been happening. The farm was converted from traditional agriculture to organic agroecological farming, a sustainable environmental model, and created a learning center for farmers interested in applying these strategies to their farms. The learning center has served those in the sustainability programs of Catholic Relief Services and Suyusama, as well as the San Francisco Javier elementary and high schools of Pasto City in their ecological and spiritual curriculum.
We were excited, surprised, and worried when Padre Joe took over, but Jeff and I, as Direct Trade partners, soon saw that he shared our vision for the future of the farm.
All chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides were banished, and organic systems were put in place. From our experience this is a three-year process… Villa Loyola made great progress in one year. A lab was established on site to prepare organic ingredients and experiment with new strategies.
Restoring the soil
The first step was to analyze and restore the biological quality of the soil on an economical scale that could be reproduced by small farmers. The analysis is done using half of a glass filled with samples of the soil taken from a hectare of land using 0.3 inches of peroxide. The soil in optimal conditions bubbles up and overflows the glass due to micro-organism activity, as seen in the first glass in the picture below. The middle glass represents soil in critical condition, and the last a lifeless soil.
Restoring the soil was done by focusing the efforts on the efficient microorganisms that are key to a self-regulating, productive soil. This process was divided into four phases:
1) Applying volcanic rock powder provided by one the most active volcanoes in Colombia, Galeras, and purchased from a quarry, this powder provides minerals used as food for some types of micro-organisms and regenerating the dynamic of the soil. It’s been so efficient that while Jeff visited farms in Ecuador the producers told him about the quick results that they obtained from the rock powder in their land.
2) Incorporating native efficient microorganisms taken from the guadua (bamboo) plantation and the preserved forest area, then reproduced in anaerobic conditions, activated in a mixture of water and molasses, and applied to the soil.
3) Applying liquid biofertilizers (sulfates) produced through fermentation in anaerobic conditions to provide the soil with essential minerals (zinc, copper, magnesium), serving fertilization needs and, in combination with Aloe vera, effectively acting as a disease control of leaf rust.
4) Applying organic compost
- Cattle Manure: Cattle stables were built using the farm’s bamboo and repurposed material from the renovation of a Jesuit building in Pasto City. Designed by the master engineering mind of Padre Joe and the skill and experience of the wood workshop team, this four-star “Cattle Hotel” optimizes the quantity and quality of the compost without compromising quality of life of the animals. The roof was designed to collect rain water into a reservoir.
The fortunate cattle guests are owned by the neighbors who have a cooperation agreement to take the animals to be fed and pampered at Villa Loyola.
- Vermicompost and Mycorrhizae: cozy worm beds were built strategically close to Villa Loyola’s new wet mill with the purpose of efficiently decomposing the cascara (fruit skin surrounding the coffee seed). This skin provides the material to feed the worms, and plantain leaves are chopped and blended to add mycorrhizae found on the plantain leaves to the vermicompost. (A symbiotic association between the fungus and plant’s roots, mycorrhizae play an important role in the absorption of nutrients.) This topic has been picked up as a point of study of a scientist of the Javeriana University in Bogota, Colombia.
Recently Villa Loyola partnered with a chain of restaurants called Mister Pollo to recycle scraps of fruits and vegetables from their kitchen and with an office coffee supply service that returns the used coffee grounds. These byproducts are blended with goat manure, cascara, parchment (endocarp of the coffee seed that is removed before export), and essential microorganisms in a powerful blend to feed the worms.
- Goat Manure: Here is where our “poop talk” gets interesting! Goats produce dry, pelletized droppings that increase airflow in the compost pile, speeding the composting time and reducing the physical labor needed. It also usually doesn’t attract insects or burn plants and is kind of odorless…! Rich in nitrogen… essential for coffee plants.
With their installation still in the works, the goats are under constant watch, but these naughty goats find their way out and eat coffee cherries, and they always find their way to the orchard. It’s really funny to see Padre Joe and all the visitors trying to catch them!
- Chicken manure: Villa Loyola has created a 5-star hotel for these fortunate chickens, showcasing multiple designs and uses of the different types of guadua. This impressive building has an integrated roof that allows the collection of rainwater that is redirected to one of the water reservoirs. Volcanic rock powder has been incorporated into the chickens' diet in small portions to increase the nutritional value of the manure, well known for adding minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, and others. The chickens are so comfortable that they stopped escaping to make a feast in the worm beds.
Investing in Renewable Infrastructure
Guadua (Bamboo) Forest
Villa Loyola’s commitment to sustainability extends to the building materials they use. A seven-hectare bamboo plantation is back in the administration of the farm, bringing an opportunity for other farmers to learn about different types of this species, propagation, sustainable management, harvesting, and use.
Walking paths were created to showcase the rich biodiversity of the native forest ecosystem; new natural water springs are making their appearance and with them birds, butterflies, insects, amphibians, mushrooms, lichens, and more. In the last four years close to 80 species of native migratory birds, 28 species of butterflies, and 12 species of dragonflies have been identified.
Due to climate change Nariño has been having long drought seasons. Villa Loyola’s solution was to create water reservoirs that are filled during the rainy season, collected mainly by the buildings’ ingenious roofs. Three reservoirs are located in different areas of the farm with the purpose of supplying the irrigation needed in each area.
The reservoir that receives water from the coffee processing is treated with Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as Water Hyacinth, which is well known for its complex root system and purification qualities. It grows quickly and is considered an invasive species in rivers and lagoons. Villa Loyola uses it to cover the reservoirs and retain moisture for the dry season. Its vegetation stores rainwater and liberates it during the degradation process, simultaneously adding micronutrients and microorganisms as part of the vermicompost feeding material, with positive results.
The other two reservoirs also house koi fish that are fed with organic lettuce fresh from the garden.
To address the monoculture issue in the region, the goal of sustainable diversity, and to bring additional income to the smallholders’ coffee farms, Villa Loyola is testing different ways to manage a model of organic polyculture, taking in care the symbiotic relationship of different crops and the ability to repel pests and diseases. This model is starting to be applied in the farms of the Suyusama program. They are also creating commercial channels to allow the farms to promote and offer their organic products in their local communities.
The organic crops of Villa Loyola are offered in the Sunday service and in Pasto City to the families of the Jesuit school. In order to reduce the use of plastic bags they are packaging the products in reusable bags marked for each customer. As demand has grown they are able to buy the products of the farmers in nearby regions.
The materials used in the construction of Villa Loyola’s greenhouses are reclaimed clay roof tiles and pieces of concrete, plus the bamboo grown in their plantation.
Continually improving coffee production
One of our main concerns when we started working with Villa Loyola was the wet mill, a crucial piece of infrastructure for processing coffee. Our suggestion to invest in the farm started with improving the wet mill, because cleanliness and efficiency impacts the quality of the coffee. Every year we shared ideas and pictures from other wet mills that we saw in other farms in different countries with Padre Joe. He always was receptive, and his master plan took eight different designs and proposals from four different companies.
Using the slope of the land and the local resources of the region, Padre Joe teamed up with Penagos Hermanos—a Colombian company with 125 years of experience in manufacture of specialized machinery for coffee processing—to design a magnificent community coffee wet mill with a combination of a modern, aesthetic, ecological and ergonomic design.
The technology installed by Penagos includes the adoption of pre-classification, depulping, fermentation, and washing equipment, allowing the production of quality micro-lots by optimizing and standardizing the process.
The roof is designed to collect rainwater that is then stored in an underground tank of 15 cubic meters located in the receiving area at the top of the structure, to be further used to move and process the coffee cherry. During processing the water is recirculated, and at the end of the process the wastewater is redirected to a treatment reservoir.
The cascara (discarded coffee cherry skin) is moved to the vermiculture beds.
The fermentation tanks are stainless steel, conic form and on wheels, allowing easy management of micro lots and facilitating cleanliness and transportation of the coffee to the next step in the process.
Washing channels were built with ergonomics in mind, with an L shape and stainless steel retainers to improve the separation of floaters. A plate was designed to improve agitation of the coffee during the washing process.
This was the first piece of infrastructure that was renewed. The initial setup was to dry the coffee on the cement floor. The new design is a system of interchangeable and removable wooden and mesh trays, improving air circulation, with a dispenser to empty the trays into Grain-Pro and/or jute bags for storage. The roof was elevated and designed to collect rain water and avoid condensation during night hours. The wall panels are designed to open during the day at different angles to control the entry and circulation of air during the day.
A small scale of this drying structure has been built with the purpose of testing it for farmers in the region, and is being implemented in farms of the Suyusama program.
Wood and Guadua Workshops
A space was designated to teach the post-harvest management of bamboo and its many uses, from beds, night stands, decorative elements, doors, and windows, to prepare the guadua to build houses and other structures.
The wood workshop is in charge of building trays for the construction of drying structures for small farmers of Suyusama program and other small farms in the region.
Villa Loyola's Social Impact
- Permanent Employees: 25 / Seasonal Employees: 10
- 850 farms have been advised in sustainable agriculture.
- 500 farmers from different regions of Colombia and Ecuador have taken workshops at Villa Loyola.
- 4000 students from different regions of Colombia have participated in interactive workshops in sustainable agriculture.
- In the Nariño and Cauca regions, 130 organic labs have been implemented using the model of Villa Loyola.
- Villa Loyola has produced and implemented 1000 small-scale drying modules.
- Villa Loyola shares its knowledge with the following social programs: Suyusama, Cosechas de Paz, Red Comparte, and Mata Redonda.
Many times we have asked Padre Joe about why he is not applying for an organic certification. His answer has consistently been that “organic and sustainable management is a life philosophy.”
To Padre Joe, organic certification and the certification process has a lot of ambiguities and contradictions, and the cost of getting certified is not sustainable.
Villa Loyola and the Suyusama program are part of Red Comparte (Community of Learning and Action for Alternative Development), a group of social centers and programs from nine Latin-American countries that have different entrepreneurial projects of social economy.
They interchange experiences, from the agricultural production level to the strategies of commercialization, and create strategies to share the knowledge combining the ancestral traditions with the scientific tools through the organization of the local communities.
During our last visit we had the opportunity to meet a group of leaders from the Suyusama program and witness how they develop strategies to create a participatory guarantee system that in the future is going to be the regulator of the trust certification.
The principles that they are building on are trust, transparency, collective participation, and solidarity throughout the application of agroecology, generational and gender equality, diversity and a local-first mentality.
Their meeting closed with a message: “Hope is a feeling where life and work had a meaning… one person is good enough for hope and each one of us can be that person.” And they thanked PT’s and Bird Rock for giving “Hope” to the Suyusama program.