March 17, 2017 / 11:55 PM / 9 months ago

Couple quits finance, wins Brazil's top coffee prize

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - It could be a Hollywood screenplay. Juliana Armelin and her husband Paulo Siqueira decided to radically change their lives in 2010, quitting jobs in Sao Paulo’s financial sector and moving to a farm 7 hours away to start growing coffee.

Paulo Siqueira and Juliana Armelin, finance professionals who became coffee farmers, pose for a picture at Terra Alta farm in Ibia, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, in this October 18, 2016 handout picture. Courtesy of Terra Alta farm/Handout via REUTERS

Seven years later, they clinched for a second consecutive year Brazil’s most prestigious coffee award, beating hundreds of established producers in a country that has exported coffee for more than 200 years.

“I would never imagine we could reach this status in such a short period,” Siqueira told Reuters on Friday after the couple received the annual award from Italian roaster Illy.

“I used to say that we don’t have a story on coffee, but only some chapters so far,” said Armelin.

The couple met during college, graduating in engineering from Brazil’s top ranked university, USP. They spent some years together in the United States getting Master of Business Administration degrees at the University of Chicago before starting careers in Sao Paulo.

Armelin is a former Mckinsey & Company consultant, while Siqueira held positions as a fund manager at Credit Suisse and boutique investment firm Vector Investimentos.

They ended up in the coffee business due to Armelin’s father, who decided to start producing the beans.

“I helped him in the research and started to like the idea. We already had thoughts at running something together,” Armelin said.

After studying the possibility, they bought a 210-hectare (518 acres) farm in the municipality of Ibiá in a coffee producing region known as the Cerrado Mineiro, in Minas Gerais state.

“It was an old cattle ranch, only pasture,” Siqueira recalled. They planted the first trees in 2011, collected the first beans two years later and had their first full harvest in 2015. Within a year, they received the first award.

The couple’s farm is a state-of-the-art facility. The fields are 100 percent irrigated, with a fully mechanized harvest. The washed arabicas are put to dry in raised beds to avoid contact with the soil, which could affect the flavor.

“We studied a lot, talked to a lot of people who knew how to produce high quality coffee and we did everything they said we should,” said Armelin. “Some people used to say that we were nerds that went to coffee production. And we used to say, ‘yes, we are’”.

The Terra Alta farm was chosen for aspects like the plentiful availability of water and its flat terrain to allow for mechanization.

The couple used as much government-backed credit as they could to buy all the equipment. “We have debt for the rest of our lives,” said Armelin, smiling.

The farm today exports 80 percent of its production, which varies from 10,000 to 13,000 60-kg bags per year. Many deals are done directly with gourmet coffee sellers in the United States.

Siquiera said the coffee community in the Cerrado region has always been very receptive, despite their unusual background.

But the couple stops short of recommending their experience to others.

“Even if you have the money, it really is not easy. Growing coffee requires extreme dedication,” Armelin said, adding that she takes care of the financial details while her husband likes to be out in the fields.

But they have no regrets. “We like this a lot. We will probably be coffee growers for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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