Trampa– (n. f.) trap, snare. Hacer trampas. To cheat.

Farmers can’t cheat. If stuff doesn’t grow, stuff doesn’t grow. At pretty much any point later in the supply chain of any commercial commodity someone can be paid less, corners can but cut, costs can be reduced to increase profits. But when you’re dealing with coaxing consumables from the loins of the earth (or animals), you can’t cheat anyone or anything to get more. Yes, fertilizers and chemicals can be used to increase yields, or they can be eliminated to cut costs, but at the end of the day you don’t have control. It’s that little bit of hope and prayer European grain farmers know well. Even for all the intense monitoring and tweaking on Asian rice paddies, the weather, insects, diseases, earthquakes, and other such unforeseeables have the final say. Sure, farmers could add sand to grain bags or leaves and twigs to coffee bushels to juke their production stats, but at the end of the day farmers can’t fake what the earth and animals produce. It’s risky business knowing you’re simply not in control and never will be. Yes, significant sway can be exercised, but the final say still is still out of human hands. Which is a little bit daunting and scary.

Thursday I picked coffee. Some trees just didn’t have many leaves or cherries, while those around them were full of foliage and fruit. Why? That little patch of soil just didn’t have as much nutrients. Rain washed away the good stuff. Wind blew away the good stuff. Animals and insects ate the good stuff. If you get stuck on “why?” you’ll go crazy. There are too many reasons. But down the “street” the plants were looking feeble, so Geraldo put a bunch of manure, leaves, and twigs all around the roots and between the rows. Now the plants boast big, juicy, ripe cherries. People aren’t in control, but they do make a difference. The response to not being in total command is not to say, “oh well. That just means I won’t do anything. Why bother?” The response is to keep trying things. Sometimes they’ll work, sometimes they won’t. But you keep trying. Because sometimes they do.

Thursday, in an hour and a half of cogiendo, I picked just under ¾ of a cajuela, which would earn me 750 colones if I were a day laborer. What can I buy for 750? A 16oz can of Imperial beer. 3 packs of Qtips. A large bag of tortilla chips.

A full cajuela earns 1000. For 1000 colones in Turrialba you can buy 3 avocados (or 4, depending on the vendor at the greenmarket), a round trip in and out of town from the Aguilar’s farm (with 200 left over), with the leftover 200, a liter of milk.

Is this a fair wage?

Richard Reiss, of New York’s thought provoking, relevant, informative (and pretty!) sustainability website City Atlas, sent me links to these New York Times articles (coffee, general fair trade) that begin to examine the unequal links in the behind-the-scenes coffee supply chain. Perhaps more interesting that the articles are people’s subsequent comments. Some people believe in the power of programs and initiatives to “improve” the lives of farmers, some people are Marxist. I like that first comment, even thought I don’t agree with it, because it reminds us that with our smartphones and laptops and animated film-informed outlook, we just don’t know what it’s like to grow most of the stuff we consume. Is it idyllic? Does it involve prolonged suffering? How can we make it better? Should we even try to?

I’m glad that other people are asking and considering these questions. From the people I’ve spoken to in the month and a half I’ve been exploring coffee cultivation, I’ve found no two answers that were remotely similar to the question of what it’s like to grow coffee. Every grower’s experience is different. The one chorus has been, however, “we just want to be paid fairly for our product, for our work.” I have not yet spoken to any farmers who sell through Fair Trade or the burgeoning Direct Trade channels, but the emerging trend is that if there are too many links in the chain to see where it ends, the anchor at the bottom is getting a bum deal. This project is about nuanced individual narratives rather than generalizations, but I have met many people (more than 50, at this point) who participate in the industrial process of selling to a large mill, exporting through international trade companies, and/or seeking organic certification through internationally recognized agencies, and every single person has eerily echoed each other with phrases like, “well, I don’t know if I have any stories interesting enough to tell you. I mean I’m not an expert or anything and I don’t know all the scientific names. But if there’s one thing you should put in your book, put that coffee farmers should be paid more. Not the people in the middle, but us, the ones who actually grow the coffee.”

While it seems that that’s the goal of so many ‘agencies,’ ‘initiatives,’ and ‘associations,’ the more links you add, the more convoluted the process gets. The more players in the game, the more opportunities to cheat. As first world consumers staring down the coffee aisle at a rainbow of seals, stamps, logos, and claims, it becomes about what we choose to believe. Your Fair Trade coffee probably created quite a lot of injustice. Your organic coffee probably contains quite a lot of chemicals. All these feel-good/do-good labels are just another form of branding. That’s just the way business goes, right now. But, it’s not all bad. There are cooperatives who work sleeplessly through the night to export their coffee at prices that allows them to pay their farmers living wage, and there are organic growers who would never dream of using herbicide for all the returns in the world, because they believe in caring for what God gave them in the purest way possible.

There are countless coffee farmers who produce coffee that contributes to sustaining the well being of the environment and the growers’ communities. But it doesn’t correlate directly with any packaging.


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