About a month into my trip I was skyping with one of my best friends and he asked me, “I’ve been reading all your blogs and it seems like growing coffee is really difficult and risky without much money at the end. So why do people do it? Why grow coffee?”
It was a genuinely straightforward question, and I realized that I had as many answers as people I’d interviewed. I also realized that I’d never directly asked anyone that question; the answers I had as to why the farmers Id met grow coffee were generated by what they told me directly, what the whole family said, and from things I saw.
I really like this question, and I told myself is make sure I ask it to all people I would meet with in the future. But 40 some interviews later, I’ve still never had to ask it directly; the answers always bubble from within the stories people tell about their land, their families, and their work.
I have seen patterns emerge for why coffee, but I’m also still hearing new responses to this simple yet crucial question (that I never have to ask).
Why coffee in Costa Rica?
For Gerardo’s family, it’s because the price of sugar was low and the coop caps the amount of cane you can sell to them, so they ripped up some of their sugarcane to plant coffee.
For Roberto it’s because his entire family worked as employees of a large foreign landowner, and he wanted to own a piece of this land to work himself to have control over the final product of his labor.
Ronulfo farms coffee because that’s what his father and grandfather did, and he loves it.
Mike and Bill farm coffee because they wanted to set up a business that would generate some cash flow when they retire from their jobs in the states. And they love Costa Rica and figured they could create attractive jobs. Since they set up their farm many people have returned to their home town to work.
Donald farms coffee because he realized that the land planted with coffee by his grandfather- who bought it after a lifetime of working as a seasonal picker- yields a special crop.
Esteban farms coffee because he realizes there’s a lucrative niche market he can supply with a range of coffees from his unique plots scattered around the mountains.
In Nicaragua, Henry farms coffee because he needed a neutral, honest source of income (and was looking for one with substantial growth potential) when he returned to the country after his family spent 15 years in political exile.
Maria farms coffee because she and her husband spent their youths working as year-round employees on big haciendas, and when they finally got their own land that was what they knew how to do.
In Panama Roberto A. farms coffee because his daughter’s client died and she needed someone to manage the land and maintain the property so that it would increase in value rathe than depreciate while she tries to sell it.
Ratibor farms coffee because “cows and pigs walk away. I needed something that wouldn’t walk away,” while he was traveling as a malaria medical researcher during the digging of the Canal.
Federicio farms coffee because the people he and his fellow Ngöbes harvested for seemed to be making good money off it. So they (literally) pocketed a few seeds, and planted them in their own land.
Sometimes people choose coffee because the price for sugar is bad and seedlings are cheaper than building fences for cattle pastures. Sometimes people choose coffee because they see their neighbors or hear about people making money off it and want a piece of the pie. Sometimes people choose coffee because they want to uphold a family legacy or because they want to prove they can do it better than their old bosses did.
In the past, people farmed coffee because their governments told them to. Exporters will tell you that people farm coffee now because the free market tells them to.
Farming coffee is indeed risky and difficult and almost unanimously under compensated, and farming it well takes time and patience often generations of practice coupled with integration of agronomic advances.
Why go to the trouble? Because it’s the lesser of many evils? Because it’s comparatively easier than other things you could farm on the same land? Because the land lends itself to it and to not would be a crime? Because it holds the allure of maybe making a lot money some day? Because it’s just what you and your family do and have done?
I’m always keeping my ear to the ground, because there is no one answer, or even part of an answer, that applies to everyone. But farming coffee always takes a significant amount of patience and resilience, so people who end up farming coffee- for whatever reason- have to have a solid dose of both qualities. If not, they’ll get frustrated after a few years, rip up their trees, and go back to being cattle ranchers.