Soundbytes from When Coffee Speaks

Susy, Daniel, and Miguel at Coopedota in Santa Maria de Dota, Tarrazú, Costa Rica in Nov. 2013
Susy, Daniel, and Miguel at Coopedota in Santa Maria de Dota, Tarrazú, Costa Rica in Nov. 2013

This year, to get to the SCAA 2015 event I took the long way to Seattle (via Dallas/Ft. Worth…) I left Manhattan at 6:30am EDT and by the time I reached my hotel in Seattle at 7:00pm PDT I had finished rereading When Coffee Speaks.

It has been over three years since I recorded most of the conversations with coffeepeople in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia that eventually became When Coffee Speaks, but people’s perspectives, thoughts, and stories are as relevant today as when people first shared them.

I’ve taken some time off from coffee in the past year, but I have kept in touch with many participants in the When Coffee Speaks project, and even though their lives and farms have of course evolved, the essence of what people shared is as true as when they first sat down to speak with me.

My practical goal of rereading was to check for any final edits before I launch an ebook version and move When Coffee Speaks to a more affordable printing platform that will allow local bookstores or cafes to purchase copies for resale (more on this soon!!). But, since I’m so wholly in the mindset of grad school and automatically annotate everything I read, I found myself starring and marking quotes that captured the voices of people I miss and can’t wait to talk to again.

Below are a few of my favorite soundbytes from coffeepeople in When Coffee Speaks.

I remember listening to all the novelas on the radio. That’s one of the things I used to buy with my money from selling coffee—batteries! Because the radio “ate lots of batteries” we used to say. My dad needed the radio to listen to the news. And I’d be listening to the radio all day, in the kitchen, doing what I had to do. I’d take the radio with me all over the house. If I was washing clothes I’d put it there; if I was making lunch I’d put it in the kitchen. I’d be making arepas and sancoho listening to the novelas. I never missed them. I grew up on novelas.” –Silvia, p. 23

“The sugarcane mill next door to the beneficio is a co-op, and my dad is a member of that. You said that people in the US like to hear that their coffee comes from co-ops, so I’m sure there are lots of places that aren’t co-ops that are just saying that they are in order to sell coffee. That’s just life; people make their livings off each other.” –Gerardo Jimenez, p, 35

“One important aspect of this academic training is that it’s integrally linked to practical reality: projects in the field, contact with producers. When students prepare their theses the students are closely connected to reality. We often see cases where people want to learn about a reality without living it, and that’s very difficult. We’ve made a major effort to connect the study with academics and academics with practical applications.” –Elias, p. 38

I started with his company when I was seventeen. I was a messenger. I ran errands and swept the floor. I started as just a messenger, and little by little he gave me opportunities to learn and grow. I liked the coffee business, so I involved myself more and more… And today this company is mine. I bought the whole thing. He went back to Germany; I bought all his shares.” –Jose C., p. 41

We planted lots of shade trees, doing some things differently just because we were curious. We see everyone doing the same things and getting the same results all the time, so we tried to do things differently to see if we could get different results.” –Jose F., p. 51

I love the whole process. I’m happy. I like that it’s all mine. And I really like when someone tells me, “It’s delicious!” My idea is to subsist. And if someone likes the final product, that’s even better. Personally, I’m proud that I know something about coffee.” –Roberto, p. 55

I also went to pick coffee when I was young. Maybe fourteen. I went with my husband, because I was already married. I got married when I was fourteen. And at fifteen I was working, picking coffee and planting it in the almacigos. Wrapping the roots, picking more coffee. And I’d even help my husband prepare land to plant the coffee.

It was pura montaña. There was nothing there, just a little shack surrounded by almacigos. We couldn’t even see another building. Nothing, nothing, nothing. The only thing was that at night you could hear the monkeys. I was still a girl. I was scared, and I’d start to cry.” –Lucy, p. 60

Even if we aren’t making a lot of money, if the person who bought it could at least recognize it as organic, that would be better… One producer alone—no one will listen to you or give you any opportunities. But when you have an organization behind you, that’s when you can receive help and support from other sources. Hopefully there’s something left in the ashes. Or the roots, let’s call them… Right now we’re in the middle of a river; and we don’t know if it’s better to keep crossing or go back where we came from.

We’re not asking for handouts, but the ones who carry most of the load are the ones with the soil, the ones on the bottom.” –Fabio, p. 64-5

Coffee is a difficult crop to cultivate, one with many processes. There are lots of hands involved so that you can drink a cup of coffee in the United States. It passes through so many hands!” –Rodolfo, p. 69

People like to say, “Look, coffee! How nice,” but they don’t know all the work that went into it… Coffee teaches you how to fight, to work for your goals. You’re fighting for your dreams, so are we.” –Ronulfo, p. 75

Because to us it doesn’t matter if the land is worth $10,000, $100,000 or $1,000,000; one hectare of coffee—for as much as the land is worth on paper—doesn’t produce any more coffee… we don’t produce, we induce nature to produce for us.” –Guido, p. 88-9

But all over there are people planting on lands that aren’t apt for agriculture. And poor soil means poor farmers. There’s a direct correlation.” –Jose Mauel, p. 91

And I know that agriculture is difficult, very dirty, and very poorly paid. Coffee is part of that… I wanted to work with coffee; I’d seen the hybrids and I knew that they were the bomb… Society is not developing towards agriculture. Because I grew up with coffee I consider it very important. And the application of biotechnology might be the way to move agriculture, and small producers, forward.” –Jose N., p. 103

Like my buyers say, “Happy people make happy coffee.”… Coffee is generational. And all my children love the farm. They’ve been here since they were three months old. Part of the crisis that [coffee growers] have all over the world—in Africa, Vietnam—is that the youth don’t want to be farmers.” Henry, p. 111.

When we talk about quality of life we often relate it to the quality of the food, whether or not someone knows how to read, things like that. But it’s about emotional quality. The peace of someone who wakes up in the morning—however early—but knows that when she wakes up, opens the kitchen, starts the fire, and makes coffee, she’s not waiting for someone to tell her what to do.” –Santiago, p. 120

…this is a place that produces a lot and where you can live in peace. Maybe there’s not much money, but there’s a lot of peace. That’s the most important. The kids are happy. They may not have all the technology in the world, but they have freedom. To leave here would be very difficult.” –Froilan, p. 127

When I was twelve my family had come here [to Cedral] to pick coffee on a man’s farm. I dreamed—we came up here to pick coffee, and I could hear the cows and the calves and everything, because there used to be more dairies. And I dreamed of one day coming back, to be able to hear the cows, to come back here to live. I wanted to live here. I prayed to God that I could live here!

And I barely knew the place. Really, I just was dreaming of listening to cows and wanted to one day live here. My friends told me not to be stupid, that it would only occur to me to think that it was pretty here! And I told them, “But one day I want to live way up there.” I was only twelve or thirteen. When my father came up here to buy the finca, I was beside myself. I was so happy! … And I got married and stayed. Even better! And I still want to live farther up in the mountains! [Laughs] Because I’d love to have free range animals: pigs, geese. But for now we’ll just stick with the cows and the oxen. —Hania, p. 137

Froilan, Hania, and their son Carlos
Froilan, Hania, and their son Carlos
...and their other son Alejandro. Busy scouring the beneficio for errant under ripe coffee cherries.
…and their other son Alejandro. Busy scouring the beneficio for errant under ripe coffee cherries.

My parents gave [the farm] to me. And since then I’ve been trying to put lots of love—more than anything—into it. Little by little, effort. They showed me how to work, and by seeing them work I learned how to relate to the plants.” –Marisela, p. 143

“…they’re starting the nice [harvest] part right now, but there are many parts behind it, the times when it’s raining and still necessary to be in the cafetales, when everything’s expensive and the prices might not be that good, and this is an homage to all the coffee producers. We always want to show this great respect that all the coffee growers of the Santos region deserve.” –Roberto M., p. 148

It’s a story, how do I say it, it’s not a question of—I’m not going to paint it like that, not all black-as-black, but also not all clean and white. There’s been some of everything; there’s been some of everything. Gracias a Dios, I think that the majority of it is very beautiful, very good… This, agriculture, is a difficult profession. Difficult in the sense that you live on illusions. The illusions are affected by a ton of variables that often are out of your control, in most cases.” –Miguel, p. 151-2

My friend Fernando, who’s from around here too, told me, “People talk about the word ‘sustainability,’ but the word can be defined many ways. For example, the lamp is screwed to the wall. It’s not going anywhere, so it’s sustainable. A human being can be a walking skeleton, but as long as he’s walking, he’s sustainable.” So we’re using the word “sustainable” as a word that’s obstructing reality. Fernando told me, “The word we’re looking for is ‘balance.’ If you have balance, things are good for both sides.” –Minor, p. 163

The buyer needs the product. He doesn’t know that we have to come up here and take care of the coffee—all the risks associated with working in a cafetal—that’s what we want the buyers to know. That it’s not easy. It’s a long, difficult process. Of course, it’s ours and we like doing it, but it also costs us. So we want them to give us a fair price, and for them to know everything that we went through to put up good coffee to sell.” –Susy, p. 167

Coffee quality is not made at the mill. Coffee quality comes from here, in the finca.” Esteban, p. 169

People think that our products—be they coffee or other vegetables—are expensive because we make them expensive. No. The reason they cost what they do is because of the costs of everything needed to produce them. So that’s the most difficult. To stand up to nature, with all the problems she brings, and the ones people have brought on themselves, with all these climate changes. To be able to continue to produce. That is the biggest challenge. To not disappear as a caficultor. Because every day another coffee grower is disappearing.” Alex, p. 197

And this history, and this human contact passes by word of mouth, and they can say, “I know where this coffee comes from,” when the person about to buy the cup asks them. “Because I went, and I know the owners, and I know the employees, and I saw, and they do this that I like and that that I don’t like as much, but overall I know where this coffee comes from.” See? So for us this is the most honest way of doing things.” –Haydee, p. 211

“ “Please forget it.” That’s what they told us. “Forget it.” … We understood the message: it wasn’t that we were crazy; it was just that we were doing a bad job. If we had listened to what they said, we never would have never done it. But we were stubborn enough.” –Ricardo, p. 223

I couldn’t do anything else other than be on the farm. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. Giving conferences, being in an office—I couldn’t do it. This is something one lives, enjoys.” –Don Tito, p. 228

I’ll never sell my land, so I’ll die being a caficultor.” –Graciano, p. 238

Look how all the coffee farms have been sold to build houses here in Boquete. Sold out of necessity. The old land is a heavy burden for us to bear. We’ve been victim to a ferocious market that doesn’t permit coffee producers to grow. A lot of coffee farms have been sold.” –Don Pachi, p. 256

We’re involved in a business that has two faces: the finca as a business and the finca as the family home… the business without the family doesn’t survive. And the family without the business doesn’t survive either. They’re completely connected. So we have to be even savvier than producers of other things.”  Arturo, p. 266

We get to be very proud. People ask us, “How do you do it?” And we’re always thinking, more than anything, about the client. The person who’s going to drink it, whether it’s you or someone else. I have the peace of mind that this coffee is well made. This is fundamental, not thinking about money, rather about whether or not people like it… We’re not lying. It’s true what we’re doing. It’s a coffee that’s created with lots of work and lots of love. We really are working towards something bigger.” –Gladys, p. 278

It’s very important to know how to do as many things as possible in this life. You never know. You could end up by yourself, without a husband, in the end, and have to do things. I wouldn’t falter.” Rocío, p. 285

You know what impresses me the most about coffee? It’s the only tree that has faith in it. [In Spanish, the word for coffee is “café.” The word for “faith” is “fe.”] Right? For me coffee is a mystery. It’s a mystery. It carries faith… [to] not give in as defeated! That’s the case with human beings. A defeated man is a dead man. Fight—in order to live—fight until you overcome. Because, because if not, you’re already defeated.” –Guillermo, p. 296

But if you don’t have a stable price, if a small producer has nothing to eat, he’s never going to care about where his residual wastewater from processing is going. Or where the fermented cherry skins are being dumped. Or anything… Sustainability starts at the economic level and then goes where you take it.” Pedro, p. 302-3

The major’s called Agronomic Engineering. It used to just be called Agronomy, but to give the title a little more clout they changed it to Agronomic Engineer… If someone says, “Can you calculate the costs of this farm for me?” you can, because you’re an engineer and you’re capable; you have to be capable. “Can you evaluate the effect of a certain product on a given disease?” You can; you’ve done it before. “I need you to go commercialize this coffee!” You can, because you’re an engineer and you’ve studied international markets. That’s how it is.” –David, p. 312-3

You catch a breath for a minute and then it starts choking you again. But, gracias a Dios, we keep going. I don’t know how we sustain ourselves, but somehow we always do.” –Aldemar, p. 325

The stories of coffeepeople go deep into the grit and nuance of being an agricultural producer, but the narratives people shared also offer ways to think about family, business, perseverance, faith, environment, technology, resilience, community, and so many spheres that transcend a single industry or crop. Hopeful, reflective, angry, honest, exaggerated, dramatic, raw, painful, nostalgic, content; stories take us right to the core of what it looks like to fight the fight and celebrate the joy of living; the vague identifier “coffeepeople” is just one random way to slice a cross-section of people who have a thread in common. If you drink coffee (or even if you don’t) you have an excuse to grab that thread and recognize yourself in this particular collection of stories from people who live thousands of miles away, speak another language, and engage in types of work that don’t exist here in the US.

Three years later, I remain eternally grateful to everyone who was willing to share their perspectives on coffee and life not just with me, but with anyone who wants to read their words today or in the future.

This week is the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s international Event in Seattle. As much as I love a perfectly pulled shot of microroasted espresso, I stand firm in my conviction that people are what really makes coffee special.

And then scouring the cafetal for nice ripe coffee cherries.
And then scouring the cafetal for nice ripe coffee cherries.


  1. So my phone is spazzing out but here is the comment i tried to post a fee times:

    This was so awesome!!! It really gove light to the depth of experience and the humanity behind the cup of life-giving coffee I drink every day. My higlights: Lucy-14!! Wow. Just wow. Haydee- the idea of putting love into what we do is what life should be about. Rocio-Yassss girl! Guillermo- put that shxt on a tshirt! So inspiring. I’ll be writing that one down.

    Great read as always! Xo


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