Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Finca la Puebla
Coffee co-op depends on compost, self-processing and premium organic quality to beat slumping market

Biodiverse plantings provide secondary crops for these small, mountain-side farmers, reducing dependence on income from fluctuating coffee prices.

By Susanna Meyer
*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003

 

Farm at a Glance

Finca la Puebla
Rivas, San Isidro de el Generale

Location: Rivas is located in the foothills of Mt. Chirripo, near San Isidro.

Size: 12 acres

Operation: Organic

What is grown: Coffee, bananas, and a small vegetable garden.

Cooperative creates farmers’ market,
farmer-in-the-school organic education

Though the coffee cooperative is its largest project, Montaña Verde has changed the face of farming in Rivas in other ways as well. Every third week the organization sponsors an organic farmers’ market in the town. Omar Hernandez stands at one of half a dozen booths to sell his greens, plantains, and oranges. He’s eager to tell me his farming story.

Omar produces coffee for the co-op as well, so Frank and I visit his mountain-side cafetal. On the trail, pines tower above our heads, their fallen needles soft and fresh-smelling beneath our feet. We pause to pull naranjas (oranges) from trees interspersed between coffee trees, and Omar tells the story of his conversion to organic farming.

About 10 years ago, the Swiss couple Andre and Pascal Kohle arrived in Rivas to help stop development plans for nearby Mt. Chirripo. They founded Montaña Verde, and after the protest succeeded they moved on to other environmental projects, including organic agriculture. Omar got involved with Montaña Verde and converted to organic farming.

He now runs his farm in a sustainable manner, recycling goat droppings through a worm composting system, and adding the compost to his garden.

Omar also works for Montaña Verde once a week, teaching environmental awareness to children in schools. He travels to several one-room schoolhouses which encompass grades kindergarten to sixth, and teaches outdoors. Sometimes it’s hard to make appropriate lesson plans for all the children.

“I teach about the harm of agro-chemicals, and the older children understand, but the little tiny ones don’t.” He looks away and pauses, then his dark eyes crinkle around the edges as he looks back. “But it’s beautiful work.” -- SM

 

Welcome a new global traveler to the pages of our web site
Pennsylvania resident Susanna Meyer is on the road, WWOOF-ing her way through Costa Rica.

World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – an organization that facilitates visits and volunteer labor on organic farms around the world – proved to be a good guide for Jason Witmer in his visits to Thailand, Laos, India, Nepal and Spain earlier this year. And Jason proved that overseas farms and farmers have rich stories to tell.

To revisit those farms, go to Jason’s first column, published back in February, 2003.We pried Susanna away from a cold, wet autumn in Pittsburgh to spend nearly three months on organic farms in the rainforests, coffee plantations and lush mountain pastures of Costa Rica. Actually, she decided to go on her own and offered to invite us – and you – along for the quest. She’s looking for agricultural principles that will work in her organic farming learning curve on an urban farm back home at the Three Rivers.

Her travel plans are somewhat tentative, as she juggles hitting the coffee harvest, finding the right bus, and contacting farmers who tend to be in the field more than by the phone.

But she’s already filed two reports that show the ingenuity of U.S. immigrants to Costa Rica who are learning all they can about their new micro-climates. They are combining their knowledge of organics with indigenous farming culture. In an economic climate of falling prices and diminished agricultural opportunity, they are helping to craft cooperative techniques of production and marketing to find profit in high-value products from sustainably produced crops.

As Susanna’s visits solidify and her reports come in, this list will grow

Next:

Siete Estrellas de Jicotéa
Turrialba, Jicotéa

An Ohio couple found them with 60 acres of land and a conventional coffee plantation – just when the world coffee prices began to plummet. They joined a farmers’ co-op – started by a priest committed to earth-friendly practices -- that now has up to 80 people attending its meetings. Going organic – and raising most of their own food – keeps farmers in this area hoping for a future.

Finca la Bella
San Luis

Gilberth Lobo credits his wonderfully complex plantings of trees and crops to his father and grandfather. His access to land in Costa Rica's northeastern cloud forest, however, is thanks to a durable collaboration of local residents and a US non-profit. He's one of 24 formerly landless farmers who now have an opportunity to learn ecologically sound methods on their tracts, based on 25-year leases. Together, they develop their skills as producers, and seek markets that will reward their stewardship and common vision.

 

March 1 , 2004: I arrive on Frank Thompson and Sue Spencer’s farm just as the firm, oval coffee fruits begin to turn from greenish-pink to deep rose. A week later the harvest begins.

While pickers on conventional coffee farms would strip all the coffee berries from the branches when the first ones turn ripe, we drop only the ripest, deep-red fruits into the baskets strapped to our bellies. This selection process takes more time but yields the best beans and a better flavor for the premium coffee market.

Frank is not your typical Costa Rican coffee farmer. He hails from Ottawa, Canada, and came to this country to escape Canadian winters and the rigors of his geology career. Frank’s curly, graying hair escapes his head in every direction. He has a jolly, ready laugh and mannerisms like an absentminded professor.

Tying one on: A WWOOF volunteer with belly basket for picking

“I imagined myself swinging in a hammock,” Frank laughs, and admits that operating a coffee farm was more than he had in mind when he started. “But this work keeps me physically and mentally active. It fits with my values.”

The 12-acre section of land that Frank and Sue chose nestles into the foothills of Mt. Chirripo. The farm has the rich black soil of the river it sits beside, and came with a 3.5-acre cafetal, or coffee plantation, which had been conventionally managed.

At first, locals maintained Frank’s cafetal for a percentage of the harvest, under the condition that they not use pesticides. However, the price of coffee dropped so dramatically that the cafetal’s harvest didn’t pay for the work. After 3 years, Frank decided to make a go of managing the land himself. “I hoped to make a little money off of the land,” Frank says, “and I was not going to do that chemically.”

Frank and Sue are no strangers to sustainable farming. In Canada, they were a part of a 100-family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, volunteering on organic farms as well as supporting local farmers by purchasing their produce. When they came to Costa Rica eight years ago they envisioned sustaining themselves on their land – growing enough food for themselves and friends.

However, between constructing houses and gardens, caring for the cafetal, and adapting to the tropical conditions, there has not been time to adequately maintain the gardens. Frank and Sue operate just three plastic-roofed garden structures, planted in tomatoes and herbs, greens and peppers. These are mainly Sue’s responsibility. Because she’s been out of the country for several weeks, the other volunteers and I help keep successions going.

Our garden work starts with picking some of the fat little ripe tomatoes. We split them for their seeds. We cook soil from old compost heaps to kill nematodes and fungus, add rice hulls for aeration, then bury the seeds in the soil. In just a few days the little tomato plants curl up toward the sun. We also shovel rich, pungent composted manure from the horse’s pen onto a new section of garden. We work it into the beds and plant cabbage, radish, carrot, and cucumber seeds.

This farm has just begun accepting volunteers through the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization (WWOOF), and Frank is eager to start more vegetables. “As we get volunteers,” he notes, “we need more food on the land. But finally we have enough help to keep up with the gardens.”

Managing coffee lands for diversity

The cafetal will supply food, too. In traditional cafetals, tall leafy bananas and the fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing poro tree provide only marginal shade for the coffee plants. High levels of sunlight force high coffee production, but also more weed growth. Herbicides kill the thick weeks that spring up on the cafetal’s floor.

Part of a nutrious breakfast: Banana trees provide shade for the coffee and potassium for the workers.

But in an organic system, shade trees protect the coffee, keep weeds down, recycle nutrients, and allow for more biodiversity. Frank leads me to the diverse species of fruit and nut trees he’s planted between the glossy coffee bushes. Managing this cafetal, “was a bloody accident,” Frank grins, “but now it’s an important focus – a potential cash crop. If the coffee starts to pay, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll still have the fruit trees.”

Frank also uses livestock wastes to increase usable nutrients in the soil. He ferments a mixture of locally produced milk, cow manure, ashes, and molasses. “Making my own fertilizer from locally sourced materials is an important way to reduce costs and minimize dependency on corporations.” The bacteria that resides in the gut of the cow multiplies in the fermentation process, and Frank sprays this innoculant on the ground under coffee bushes. The bacteria allow the plants to more readily access soil nutrients.

Coffee prices have been dropping for several years as cheaper coffee from new Asian producers floods the market. In Costa Rica, farmers often make less than the cost of production. Small conventional coffee farms, especially, are being forced out of business at present.

Growing coffee organically, however, can be financially viable thanks to substantially higher prices enjoyed during 2003. But farmers need to have market connections for their organic product, become educated about organic growing methods, and front a yearly inspection fee to a private certifying agency. Even if farmers are interested in transitioning, they face years of reduced coffee yield.

Frank’s reality has been a 75 percent drop in production since cutting out chemical fertilizers. “It’s sort-of irrelevant to focus only on high yields, when conventional coffee is paying such that you don’t make any profit.” Frank raises his hands, “four times zero is still zero.”

Luckily, for Frank and about 10 native Costa Rican farmers in the Rivas area, an organic coffee cooperative is digging in its heels. Under the umbrella organization Montaña Verde, the Grupo de Productores de Café is helping organic farmers to successfully grow, process, and market their coffee. It was jump-started by a variety of European and Costa Rican organizations, along with a grant from the United Nations Development Fund. Funding will decrease yearly, as the co-op becomes more self-sustaining.

Co-op helps farmers scale up to hang on

The co-op has enabled the purchase of an environmentally sensitive, low water-use coffee processor, provided a market connection, and subsidized inspection fees. The co-op is also a forum where farmers connect with one another and trade information. This combination of outside support and farmer cooperation is critical for these farmers’ survival. Most coffee farms in this area of Costa Rica are a few acres or less – it’s simply not possible for a farm of this size to pay for certification, as well as to process and market its own coffee.

More power: The new chancadora will replace hand-pulpers for co-op members. Note: The process produces miel, a liquid waste. The excavation, below, accommodates a holding tank, transition pipes then perforated drain pipes in a leach field, all up-slope from a "living machine" wetlands carefully designed to consume all the discharge through beneficial biological processes.

I sit in on a co-op meeting. We share black coffee and sweet bread, then sit around wooden tables. Carlos, an employee of Montaña Verde, leads the group. My ears perk up and my mind scrambles to follow the campesinos’ (farmers’) quick Spanish. They talk of loans and group organization. I fade in and out of the conversation, watching their quick black eyes and sun-weathered faces, feeling the anticipation growing in the air.

Before the meeting I toured the new coffee machine and drying buildings. The unit arrived too late last year for the harvest, so this will be its inagural season. The farmers are anxious. With good organization and cooperation, the group will successfully process and market their high-quality, rainy season coffee to Europe and the US, where it will be roasted and sold.

The group will roast their own seconds and dry-season coffee with a tostadora, yet to be purchased. They’ll market this coffee in Costa Rica. “This group,” Frank says, “serves as an alternative for people here who aren’t making any money farming. That’s the beauty of it – conventional farmers can see the niche.”

Frank is proud to be a founding member of the co-op. “Maybe my presence will be one little piece of making it viable. I couldn’t and wouldn’t be doing coffee without them.”

With the start of the coffee season and the new processing machine, coffee is the buzz around town, at least among farmers. I witness some of the first coffee to pass through the processor, or chancadora – including some that we picked that morning in Frank’s cafetal. The machine grinds off the coffee beans’ outer hull, and separates the miel into a giant basin. Farmers will return both of these by-products to the soil. The coffee beans will soak in water overnight, then be spread to dry for at least a week.

We truck several bags of the gooey sweet hulls back to the farm, with grins on our faces and the receipt for five and a quarter cajuelas (one cajuela equals 17 liters) tucked in Frank’s wallet. This is just more than 1 percent of Frank’s harvest for the year.

Frank grips the steering wheel with both hands as we jostle our way home on the river-rock studded road. His eyes shine. “This is really exciting,” he admits.

Indeed. The promising beginning of this Costa Rican coffee cooperative offers a glimmer of hope for small farmers everywhere who can join forces and link up with collaborators interested in their sustainable future.

Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming advocate and recent college graduate.

Frank can be contacted at frankjthompson@yahoo.ca. Montaña Verde can be reached at monver@rasca.co.ca.