This Week in Coffee

Putting down the pen, picking up the canasta


Monday I visited the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education (CATIE), where Elias proudly gave me a summary of 12 years of study. He’s dedicated a good part of his professional life to one of the world’s only long term comparative study of coffee growing techniques. On several acres of the research center’s land, he and his team developed a matrix of 20 different practices of managing coffee production, ranging from high instances of chemical (herbicide, pesticide, fungicide) application to intense organic management. He gave me a quick  “drive through” of the plot containing the study, then we headed to the nearby University of Costa Rica’s Turrialba branch were I sat in on a lecture he gave to the Agronomics students about the “role of agroforestry in revitalizing land suffering from the negative affects of climate change.” Coffee was his prime illustrative example in the lecture; through slides and anecdotes he demonstrated how coffee farms can prevent soil erosion, store carbon in coffee plants and interplanted trees, remove more carbon from the air, contribute oxygen, encourage rich soil through the presence of organic material, and even provide communities with clean water. He argued that coffee had saved Costa Rica once by creating an export industry 200 years ago, and it could recuperate it by increasing the instance of well managed agroforest coffee farms rather than ripping up tired farms in favor of cow pastures (a current practice), which contribute to the problem of climate change rather than to a solution. He also spoke to the ways coffee farmers could benefit from the country’s Pago por Servicio Ambiental (Payment for Environmental Service) program.


Tuesday I met with Roberto, a small farm owner and micro roaster. He grows coffee on a small plot of land he and his family worked his whole life, which he later purchased, and roasts a portion himself. He is a man who truly loves to tinker; he built his very own micro roasting machine, roughly the size of a table saw, that he stores in his garage alongside his moto. He grinds the beans on a grinder he, again, built himself. The machine is bolted to a much-graffitied desk discarded from the school where he works a few days a week as the grounds keeper, painting lines on the soccer field and such. Last year was the first harvest he roasted, and he proudly bags and sells the roasted and ground coffee in small brown paper bags (think bag lunch) with a label bearing the name and image of Don Berto, his father. It was clear not only how much Roberto loved coffee, but how deep is his affinity for machinery. He even brought me into the back garden of his family home to show me the old hand crank chancadora, coffee cherry de-pupling machine, he used as a child. He pointed out the raised logo in the rusted cast-iron: Philadelphia. “How funny that Americans made coffee machines when they don’t even grow coffee!” he laughed. The chancadora currently serves as a sort of clothes drying rack.


Wednesday José C. guided me through Beneficio Santa Rosa, one of the main mills of the area. The processing mill has 5 of its own fincas, and processes coffee turned in by 1,200 small local producers. José is the owner and has spent his life working in coffee. He started out at Santa Rosa as a messenger boy, and little by little started learning the ropes of the export industry. To learn the nuances of coffee trading/pricing/finance, he traveled to New York, where international benchmark prices are set by the trading of “coffee futures.” “I loved New York; but that was the city before you were even born! Now, I have no desire to go back.” He has been to Montana to ski, though; his nephew is American and in the Marines. “Costa Rica doesn’t have an army, but for some people that kind of lifestyle works. My nephew loves it. He’s works as a technician with them so he hasn’t been in combat, but he’s traveled to many parts of the world. He’s never lived in Costa Rica though.”

José showed me one finca populated entirely with grafted coffee plants; Caturra seedlings are grafted into Robusta root stock to produce trees with hearty, extensive root systems and the desirable flavors yielded by the Caturra bean. We toured the greenhouse (full of seedlings to be transplanted to the various farms), the mill, and the adjacent water treatment plant, where the water leaves clean and ready for consumption.


Thursday I put theory to practice, strapped a basket to my waist, and picked coffee! The Aguilar family has 13 children, ranging in age from 5 to 28. Ana guided me up from the family home about 5k up the road to the family finca. Her father Gerardo enthusiastically lead me around the finca’s vegetable gardens, banana groves, and of course coffee “streets.” (Rows of coffee plants are known as “filas,” and the space between filas as “calles,” the same word for “street.”)  Gerardo is a grinning jokster- a quality carbon copied in his sons- and conducted the tour in a sort of comical question and answer style. “Raquel- why do you think we have this stick in the ground here? Hum, what do you think? To tie up chickens?” When I correctly guessed that the stick was used to mark the rows, calles that had already been picked he lauded me with a huge toothless, “correct! See, you gringas do know something!”

Sonia, the second oldest daughter was put in charge of teaching me how to harvest. She strapped the plastic basket to my waist (this one had a comfortable little indent at the waist, but any laundry basket will do) and showed me which rows were ours. Ariel, the biggest joker of the sons, yelled from 3 or 4 rows over, “don’t be a chucareadora!” The term applied to someone who sees an especially good tree in someone else’s row and tries to help themselves. After about an hour and a half we emptied our baskets into white plastic sacs and carried them to the measuring point. One by one we dumped our sacs into a metal box with measuring markings. My meager pickings were just short of the ¾ line. Ariel jumped up and shouted “I’ll give you what’s left over from mine!” He emptied his sack into the bucket and smoothed out the beans. It just reached the line, making a full tres cuartillas. He then joked that his dad should pay up; the kids each pick some that goes to “la casa,” and some for which their dad pays them out their own pocket money. I insisted mine go to the house. Josué suggested that since I didn’t have a full time job and I was traveling I should really just take the money and not ask questions.


Friday I had the extreme pleasure of accompanying members of COOPEDOTA, a producers cooperative from the Los Santos region, on a visit to CATIE. In my persistent effort to not have expectations I inevitably end up having them anyway, and I expected to see a group of mostly older men, since that’s the demographic that I thought dominated the coffee sector. I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of 25 that included men and women probably from 18-70. They were even more pleasantly surprised to see me. They were coming to CATIE out of proactive fervor. They were seeing various problems across their farms and they were coming to CATIE not as tourists or students or guests as forced participants, but as farmers with problems for which they were seeking new solutions. They were inquisitive, eager, open and determined. After Elias introduced me, the first words out of the coop director’s mouth were words of invitation to come see their community, one which is organized around the mill members built after they established the coop out of a desire to eliminate the loss of sending their coffee long distances to mills run by corporations. The members present included husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters. Every family present subsequently invited me to their finca (they all also told me that theirs was the best farm, the only one I needed to see).

Some people I’ve talked to have been confused by why I even wanted to talk to them and been like, “this is coffee. Yup. There it is.” They didn’t share my vision of storytelling, but the members of Coopedota were eager to tell their stories and excited by the idea that the histories of their hard work, and the current state of their struggles, could be shared by the people who drink- or in the future could drink- their coffee. Many also have families in New York and New Jersey and were eager to talk about Flushing and Trenton.  They were uniformly adamant that I come in December, when they harvest, so I’ll likely be visiting then.


Before they left CATIE, Coopedota (and I) had the treat of a biology lecture. I never particularly liked any science class or found biology particularly stimulating, but I’d also never been to a lab where they clone coffee hybrids. Like all commercial agricultural commodities, the production of coffee is as much as science as it is an art and a labor of love. Over the past 200 years producers have learned, through relentless trial and error, which varietals (or ‘cultivars’) of the basic Arabica and Robusta families grow best where. But crops and conditions evolve, and everyone is always looking for plants with the best yield and best resistance to pests and plagues for each location. Currently, many coffee farms use hybrids: plants cross pollinated with different varietals. Those hybrids are then cloned to generate enough seedlings to fill the farms. Alicia showed us the process of how thousands of seedlings can come from just a few leaf cuttings. We literally saw the various stages of the reproduction of genetic material. Alicia ran the numbers the whole way, and the percentage of material lost at each stage is in the 90s. Scienc is slow. And fragile. And expensive. It was like show and tell as she pulled each subsequent stage from the shelf under the table. In an hour we were able to see the results of over a year of cellular growth. Every time she presented the next test tube/container (one stage was housed in a plastic to-go box, the kind your chicken salad wrap for lunch comes in), the assembled coffee growers gasped and oohed and ahhed. It really was cool; what started as white fuzz and black goo sprouted tiny roots and grew little leaves. When she unveiled the final stage, minute coffee seedlings in a tray, seedlings that look just like coffee plants germinated from seeds, everyone leapt to their feet, erupted into questions and remarks of incredulity, whipped out their camera phones, and crowed around Alicia and the tray to see. Remember fellow educators, never underestimate the power of a field trip.

Resilience and Stewardship

Saturday, Elias, his wife, a Brazilian NGO worker, a Pervian coffee farmer, and I headed to an organic farm in a nearby town. 12 years ago the elderly owners of the farm were ready to throw in the towel. Now, after an admirable inversion of creativity, sweat, CATIE theory-cum-practice, and one small loan (already paid back in full!), Finca Cañaveral boasts coffee, vegetables, herbs, flowers, bananas, guavas, sugarcane, and sugarcane mill on its modest 4 hectares. The Fuentes Gamboa family is building trails and just finished a small reception pavilion to start entertaining tourists. The farm has no electricity, but that doesn’t stop Flory from making killer homemade guava marmalade for the bread and decadent “cheese and corn tortillas.” (When I commented that they reminded me of Colombian arepas I was told that they are completely different. And better. I still file them both under ridiculously delicious and it’s a good thing I have no idea how to make them because I’d be 15 lbs heavier).

The main breadwinner of the property is the sugarmill, a product of the loan money. It not only processes the sugarcane from Cañaveral, but also that of 5 neighboring families. The construction of the mill means that these families don’t have to lug their sugarcane the 20 miles to the nearest mill in Atirro, saving them significant $$ in country where gas is roughly the equivalent of $6/gallon. The Fuentes Gamboas also pay a better price than the Atirro mill. Since their sugarcane is organic, the F. Gamboas have recently begun selling raw “honey” pressed from the sugarcane to Bioland, a major Costa Rican food distributor. They also have their own lable and sell honey from the doorstep of their middle son’s house. The development of the farm and sugarmill now fully supports the Flory and José, as well as their 3 sons and their sons families. They were also compensated through the PSA program for planting 2000 trees on the property.


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