The term agroforest is decidedly vague; to the delight of marketers and spinmen and to the dismay of people trying to standardize sustainability terminology in the pursuit of meaningful certifications and measurable environmental change.
Like so much in coffee, when I think of agroforests I have to go back to Judge Potter Stewart’s ruling. I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.
When I arrived at Marie Tournon’s farm outside of Turrialba , I knew I was seeing an agroforest, and not just any agroforest. By definition (or lack thereof?!), all agroforests are unique, but those at Monte Claro stood out as being something truly special.
Marie had come from France to revitalize her grandfather’s largely neglected farm. Her family had owned coffee land in Costa Rica since 1830, when her family took their earnings from successful wine production and bought land just outside of San Jose to begin cultivating coffee.
There they managed extensive farms and even had a processing mill bearing their name. Over generations her ancestors gambled away tracts of land and drank away the money to manage what they did have. Marie’s grandfather sold the last of their land in San Jose to a real estate developer building apartment complexes. Even though they no longer own the land and the mill has long since disappeared, the neighborhood still bears the family name Tournon.
Her grandfather took the money from the sale of the land in Central Valley and bought 6o hectares outside of Turrialba. There he cultivated coffee and sugar and had pastures for his horses and cows and even built another small processing mill. But over the years the property became neglected, and essentially left to its own devices.
Marie arrived to literally dig out the farm. Since the farm had already been without chemicals for so long, she decided to continue with organic management, which demands that soils be free of chemicals for at least 3 years before there’s even potential for any certification.
She restarted the mill as the area’s only all-organic processing point, and poured labor and love into revitalizing the farm. But corruption in the local organic coop lead to the closing of the mill and all but dissolution of the organization.
For financial reasons, Marie had to turn one of the plots of coffee into conventionally managed coffee, meaning using chemicals in order to ensure she’ll have enough harvest to at least break even.
But she still has lots of organic coffee. On her 60+ hectares there are various sections planted with coffee, each profoundly unique. Marie was delighted when I came to visit the farm; she had just given birth to her third child and was eager to get back out and check up on the property.
We rode around the property on horseback, and saw many of the sections planted with coffee. We passed one section where Marie pointed out the remains of a fence around the edges of the plot. She explained that they used to have sheep who did the work of herbicides, eating the weeds that grew between the coffee trees, but one by one the sheep got eaten by wolves. A hidden challenge of growing organic coffee is that the ways of managing it are not only more labor intensive, they’re often more unstable. This plot hadn’t been harvested or tended in years, and if I hadn’t spent the last month looking at coffee, I wouldn’t have been able to pick it out of what looked decidedly like any other tropical forest.
But they aren’t just any othe forests; they’re agroforests: forests that produce a crop in quantities for human sale and consumption. All of them made me think of The Secret Garden. Here were plots that had been planted as coffee tracts, including the typically interplanted trees that fix nitrogen. But neither the coffee plants nor the interplanted trees had been pruned and so both were overgrown and wild. From below weeds, grasses, and flowers had grown up, climbing up the trunks and branches of the coffee. In some cases even the horses had trouble following the trail.
Coffee is often sold as “shade grown,” which is a little bit of a tricky label because coffee trees need a fair amount of sun to produce fruit. Here the amount of shade was unregulated, and therefore varied. In places with too much shade the trees had few to no ripe cherries, the same in those with full sun. But in the places with just the right balance of shade, the trees dripped with ripe red cherries waiting to be picked.
If Marie wanted to have all her trees producing with the same exuberance, all she’d have to do would be to replicate the conditions. Her farm had shown her what it needed to be successful. There was something powerful about the way the agroforest had worked out for itself what its optimal growing conditions were. Farmers seem to spend a lot of time piecing together suggestions from neighbors and mill owners, but a major part of what’s necessary to operate a successful, sustainable farm is patience and observation.
We passed one section of agroforest that Marie had more or less cleared of choking undergrowth and pruned moderately enough for pickers to enter. A few brave souls were harvesting, but they were the bravest of the brave- or at least the most desperate of the desperate. Such a developed agroforest creates the ideal habitat for snakes and bugs and also yields coffee trees that are tall, leafy, and have irregular patterns of fruit. All this makes picking increasingly difficult, dangerous, and slow. No one wants to pick in these conditions, and they only do if they really need the work. Another hidden challenge of growing organic coffee is finding people willing to get it off the trees.
We passed other plots that had had no intervention in close to 14 years. There we slowed our horses down to take a closer look. Barely identifiable below a tangle of green vines, budding flowers, and waving grass fronds were coffee plants. Their leaves were a bit yellowed and their fruit hadn’t ripened, but the coffee plants were still growing.
Again it was like The Secret Garden; you could see the plants under a layer of overgrowth; you could tell there was life and fertility lying just out of sight. It was fascinating to see coffee acting of its own accord. Wild coffee was doing alright.
Marie reflected on the process of simultaneously managing a small conventional farm and several organic plots in various stages of productivity and accessibility.
“If we had more hands on deck, more money to invest, you’d see a much prettier farm! All the plants would be nice and pruned. In all the coffee plots. If you go into one of the organic ones now and grab a handful of dirt, it smells like earth, like forest. The ecosystem is living. For example, this year- the coffee berry borer- the only place where there’s coffee berry borer is in the conventionally [chemically] managed plots. It’s because there’s a fungus, beauveria, that we’ve spread in the conventional plots, you spread it around, and after a few days it dies because there’s no shade. In the organic plots you spread it, and it stays. In the organic ones we have no problem with [keeping alive the] beauveria. Everyone told me, ‘you’re going to have a big problem with ojo de gallo and fungus and everything. There’s a little, but nothing like in the conventionals.”
The legacy of the Tournon family is one of dormant potential. Organic coffee growing and productive agroforest management are possible; but it takes quite a bit of failure, creativity, and persistence to get there.