Again and again people in Costa Rica told me some version of the line, “We wouldn’t have coffee here without Nicaraguans. No one in Costa Rica wants to pick coffee. The next generation doesn’t want to be farmers; all the young people today get an education and get jobs in offices. No one wants to be like their grandparents and live simply, working the land.”
If there were a Costa Rican “public opinion on coffee” refrain, that would be it. I heard it from people who were still active farmers working the land and from people young people who had educations and were working in offices. Over and over people would lament the increasingly high average age of the Costa Rican caficultor and lack of young new blood in the industry.
For every person who sung me this coffee chorus, I would reply, “Yes. Growing coffee is less common than it used to be among Costa Ricans. But I also know plenty of young people, some highly educated and others less so, who are excited about coffee and who are ready to carry it onward into the next generations.”
Every time I hear the refrain, I think of 10 year old Ariel, who loves nothing more than to be by his fathers’ side, hacking away dead branches with a machete or filling his little basket with ripe cherries. Ariel might not get much of an education beyond elementary school, but he loves his family’s land, and he will be more than ready and willing to take it over and continue to grow coffee, bananas, blackberries and maracuyá and perpetuate the family tradition of fearless self-sufficiency when the time comes.
I think of 13 year old Greivin, who dutifully hauls it down the mountain to attend middle school every day, but still knows how to control a team of oxen as they roll a wooden cart piled with coffee through the mountains.
I think of twentysomething Walter, one of the shining leaders of Potenciana. His two young children are fed and clothed (and educated!) with the money he earns being an organized and capable full time employee on the fincas of Potenciana Café, where none of the farm’s beautiful cherries would make it down the mountain to be sold if it weren’t for Walter’s prowess in guiding heavily loaded trucks up and down vertical mud-slick slopes.
I think of Marie’s fearless young assistant, who’s basically worked for free for a year—when she could have gotten any number of paying jobs elsewhere—because she believes in the importance of having an organic beneficio in Turrialba, because she knows that the flexibility of a small business coupled with the vision of a producers’ organization can be the deciding difference between survival and hunger for producing families.
I think of thirtysomething Rodolfo, who took his degree and field experience in agronomy together with his MBA and went back to his family farm to revamp the land and turn the resulting coffee into a brand of gourmet roasted beans.
There is young blood in coffee. It might not be in anyone and everyone like it was onceuponatime, but it’s there and it’s good stuff.
We have to be careful with the choruses we sing; our tunes can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies.
I try to think of what Ariel or Greivin would think if they overheard someone reciting that refrain to me. They might think, “Well if everyone else is using what they learn in school to go get a job in an office and a nice pair of sneakers to match their new cell phones, maybe that’s what I should do too. I like being up in the mountains, but maybe I should join everyone else in the cities and try to make some money.”
Or maybe they’d think, “Everyone working in an office is crazy. They’re the ones who are missing out on the fresh air, the freedom to make your own schedule and dictate your own space. So what if they make a better salary or have some nice stuff. This land belongs to my family; I have the power to make something amazing come from it, and when I’m here, I am master of my own domain.”
We can never know the temperaments or potential capacities for dogged resilience buried in the personalities that belong to the ears that hear belted refrains, but I hope they’re like the later.
People started planting coffee in the first place in Costa Rica because the government gave them land to do so and told them that coffee growing would bring happiness and good fortune. Export levies on coffee did build the infrastructure, education system, and art institutions of the nation almost two hundred years ago, but the prophecy of fortune-from-coffee has long since run dry.
I don’t think that governments should dictate what people do with their land, but public opinion can issue loud cries of collective surrender, of coffee being a thing of the past for Costa Ricans with any sense, smarts or ambition- or it can chant encouragement to the valiant few who decide to fly in the face of trend and carry Costa Rican coffee into whatever future they choose to shape for it.