Whoever drives on the Presidential Dutra Highway, which connects Sao Paulo with Rio de Janeiro, still passes through the same bare landscape, consisting mainly of mountains covered with pastures.
But just take the secondary roads leading to Vale do Café, on the stretch of road to Rio de Janeiro, to realize that this reality is starting to change – on some historic farms, coffee trees are slowly making a comeback to keep the company of 19th-century mansions.
These are small, almost experimental coffee plantations that have been planted since 2015 and are already bearing fruit. Some farmers have already managed to officially introduce their products to the market. This is the case of Fazenda Alliança, producer of Durini organic coffee, and Fazenda Florence, which has won six awards for its Vale do Café coffee since 2019.
It all started with the Vocações Regionais da Cafeicultura Fluminense project created by Sebrae-RJ in 2014. Hired by the organization, Flavio Borem, Professor of Agricultural Engineering at the Federal University of Lavra, visited the region on a mission to help landowners revive the coffee tradition.
The stage was empty. “They believed that these lands did not give anything, but I showed that there are methods for restoring the soil,” Borem says.
The farmers’ disappointment was right. During the heyday of Vale do Café, in the middle of the 19th century, 75% of the world’s coffee production was from the factories scattered throughout the municipalities of Barra do Pirai, Rio das Flores, Vassouras and Valença.
Some farms have accumulated over 1 million feet. Wealthy and powerful, their owners won titles of nobility and maintained close relations with the royal family.
But the period of prosperity was short – in about half a century, most of them went bankrupt. Without mastering the methods of management, they burned their native Atlantic forest and planted coffee plantations in vertical columns up the slopes.
This strategy allowed them to monitor the work of the slaves from afar, but favored erosion and the loss of nutrients. For several decades, the soil was practically barren.
The abolition of slavery in 1888 was a trifle. With the decline of production and the absence of forced labor, the barons left the region, leaving behind a trail of destruction that lasted for more than a century.
Now the new generation of coffee growers at Vale do Café doesn’t care about volume. With a focus on the production of specialty coffees, they strictly follow best practice guidelines in the field and processing.
Planted in contour lines, in soil covered with organic matter, Arabica coffee trees grow under drip irrigation among native trees, which guarantees shading after a few years. Harvesting is done by hand and only ripe fruits are selected.
The drying method depends on the property. At Fazenda da Taquara, the only one still in the hands of the same family, grains have been drying in the sun for six generations in an old cement yard. In Florence, they are arranged in hanging trays protected under greenhouses. Alliança also uses ovens, but a dryer has already been ordered.
Because this is such a new production, new coffee growers in the valley have not yet been able to determine which variety has the most potential in the region. In the past it was Mundo Novo, but currently the most common are Arara, Yellow and Red Catuaí, Bourbon and Catucaí.
Encouraged by the first results, growers are already investing in planting expansion. Marcelo Streva, heir to Fazenda da Tacuara, plans to increase his workforce from 16,000 to almost 20,000 by the end of the year. But it is from tourism that the return is faster.
The approximately 500,000 tourists that Vale do Café welcomed before the pandemic received an additional incentive to visit the farms. “They visited mansions, they listened to stories, but they didn’t see coffee,” recalls Leda Barreto, a Sebrae-RJ analyst who worked on the project.
Now the properties offer the complete experience, from the field to the cup, and they sell coffee that, due to its reduced production, hasn’t hit retail yet – to buy it, you have to go to the growers.
At the São Luis da Boa Sorte farm in Vassouras, just over a thousand plants have been planted next to an old building that has been turned into a Coffee Museum. If the visit takes place between March and August, visitors will be lucky enough to see the harvest up close.
In Fazenda Florence, literally in the middle of a coffee plantation, a mini-roasting and coffee shop is built, and this is where tourists end their visit by tasting homemade coffee. In Fazenda Alliança, a similar structure occupies an old bunker: after seeing how the beans are roasted, tourists can enjoy hot and cold drinks with coffee.
Once a month, the Vale do Café still hosts the Rota do Grão event and the Cachaça tasting. During the 2022 season, from April to August, coffee and cachaça farms will be open offering a complete experience, from field visits to tastings and tours of mansions. The next one will take place on May 21 and 22, tickets are sold at sympla.com.br.
It is worth stretching the program and staying at one of the old headquarters, furnished with antique furniture and decorations. A complete list of facilities can be found at portalvaledocafe.com.br.