Hustino Mitchell, whose family owns Mi Cumbia Nail Spa (closed, but reopening soon) in Rittenhouse Square, was in Colombia on business when everything shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He and his family (his wife Karina and their two children who were with him on the trip to their ancestral home) couldn’t get home to Philadelphia due to the village going on lockdown, literally stranding them in a remote part of Colombia, high in the mountains with the indigenous Arhuaco tribe.
So, not being able to return home, he decided they would start growing their own food (subsisting on whatever seeds they have; mangos, guava, cacao, etc.) Then, he began helping the Arhuaco tribe organically farm cane sugar. But, not just any sugar. Like a fine wine or third-wave coffee, the terroir, heirloom varietals, and traditional farming methods give the Arhuaco tribe’s cane sugar complex flavor notes, ranging from apricot to dried cherry, to prune, to caramel, to chocolate.
Deciding to completely pivot while in Colombia, working with the Arhuaco tribe, he started a project called Heirloma which produces panela cane sugar and sugar products in order to help the tribe survive. They are also farming honey with local bees, raw cacao, and green coffee as well.
The tribe is in a race against time to preserve their crops by boosting production and exporting their mineral-rich sugar to the US hoping consumers will fall in love with its deep, complex flavor and unique traits. It’s a move compelled by encroaching corporate business interests, and critical to preserving their ancient crop diversity and their very way of life.
Colombia is among the world’s largest sugarcane producers, where it is primarily grown by rural, small-plot farmers and indigenous tribes. However, international, agro-industrial companies are sweeping the Colombian countryside with mono-crops, placing sugarcane varietals at risk of disappearing forever.
Heirloma is grown, handmade, and packaged by the Arhuaco Tribe. 100% organically grown sugarcane is pressed and handmade without chemicals or refining by tribesmen. Heirloma supports the tribe as its exclusive international trading partner. In doing so, they hope to garner enough interest and earn enough money to secure their ancestral lands so they can continue to grow and cultivate ancient sugarcane varietals in peace.
The first batch of certified organic cane sugar will be available in the US very soon (Philly is a priority). It is already available in some areas abroad.
It’s been interesting to follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook. I wish this Philly family and their new project much success. Talk about making sugar out of sugar cane. 😉
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Independent Journalist. Food marketing/PR expert.