True indeed, but it seems a healthy earth does not always make the most efficient or most profitable coffee.
I met a Costa Rican guy, Luis, visiting a coffee farm in Nicaragua back in January. He was quite shocked at the conditions there, saying “I don’t remember coffee farms ever being like this, even when I was young.” From what I’ve seen so far, he was right. Costa Rican coffee farms are so different, making meaningful comparisons very difficult indeed. However, this week I visited Cafe Cristina, my first small-scale farm in this country, and 100% organic. This was about as similar to Nicaraguan farms as I think I am likely to find, but still very different.
The farm is owned by Ernie and Linda Carmen, and by a twist of fate, it is the same Ernesto Carmen who I met briefly at the conference in Ohio back in November, although I didn’t know this when I first contacted them. I remember cornering the poor guy at the conference and asking if I could come and visit, and he said he’d have to check with his wife! That made me smile. His wife was lovely and extremely welcoming, and showed me round their farm.
They have about 12 hectares, of which 7-8 are coffee, and one is their house and their coffee mill. The rest they are trying to turn back into natural forest. They have had the farm for thirty years, but Linda says there has been coffee on that land for at least 80 years already. They can grow between 10 000 and 20 000 pounds of coffee a year, depending on… Well, pretty much everything. The harvest varies dramatically, which I think is a result of the production methods employed. All the rest of the
processing is done on site, using machines some of which Ernie built himself! The most impressive was a machine that removed the muscelage from the beans, but without washing them and wasting all the water. It’s a vertical drum, with smooth, hard spikes in it that spin very fast. Amazingly this gets the goo off the beans without actually damaging them. Clever! I told him he should patent it but he said it wasn’t worth it. Linda also roasts coffee herself, for their own crop and other peoples. She says that roasting is the only way you can make money from coffee, it is not possible to survive just by selling it green and unprocessed. (Similarities with Nicaragua come in here…)
What makes this farm stand out though is the sheer level of ‘organicness’ that Linda and Ernie employ. Such is their dedication to the environment, that they are determined to remain organic, even when this decreases the size of their crop, increases the cost of production, and according to some buyers, adversely affects the quality. Their crop is shaded by banana trees and other tall, typical trees covered in natural lichen, supporting bromeliads and epiphytes which in turn become homes for all manner of insects, birds, small furry things and endangered frogs. The coffee is not monoculture either – there are other plants growing in amongst the coffee bushes, like citrus trees and yukka, and legumes that fix the nitrogen in the soil. And Linda’s favourite, Reina de la Noche, and beautiful white flower which is actually slightly hallucinogenic which leeches something useful into the soil, and acts as an early warning system if there are African bees around – they apparently love the scent in produces at night.
Growing all this means that taking care of the coffee crop is a year round job, and they employ six people permenantly to look after it all. This task involves weeding the coffee and pulling up all the vines which grow around it that can strangle the plants, checking the bushes for fungus and leaf rust, pruning both the coffee and the shade plants, and checking the traps set for the broca weevils. Neither vines, fungus nor broca can be dealt with any other way, because Linda refuses to use any artificial fungicides, herbicides or insecticides. All this is heavily affected by the weather – too much rain (like this year) means that fungi and weeds grow faster, and this year, the coffee has started flowering already, but at the same time, there are still fruit on the bushes that needs to ripen.
So Linda has the tough choice of continuing to harvest and risk damaging the flowers and next years crop, or wasting the fruit that hasn´t yet ripened.
All the coffee fruit is composted using happy worms, like on most other farms. But, as Linda points out, just using this for fertilizer adds nothing new to the soil, and you have to replace what is lost when you pick the coffee, or when it rains etc etc. They buy in complicated trace elements – all natural, not artificial – at great expense. These are then mixed into their fruit compost. Typically the companies that produce these want to sell to artificial fertiliser companies in big batches, so getting hold of these in small lots is pricey and difficult. Not only that, but Linda and Ernie have to know exactly what the soil needs, on a microscopic level, so a vast knowledge of soil chemistry is required as well.
Is it all worth it? Does all this work produce coffee of higher quality? Are they making any more money? The answer, sadly, seems to be No. Linda said they had survived some pretty tough times, and that you can’t get by just farming coffee, even if they took the easier, non-organic options. In Nicaragua, the farmers in the cooperative were paid an extra premium for growing coffee organically, but then the coop had an organic certification. Linda does not. Why should she shell out thousands of dollars to get a certificate telling her something she already knows?
Worse still, all this organic production doesn’t actually do much for the quality. In Britain, if coffee on the shelf in a supermarket has a Certified Organic stamp on it, you can expect to pay about 50p more for it. And people do, because nowadays, customers seem to want organic products. If it’s organic, it must taste better!! This does not trickle down to the farmer. I noticed that Linda’s bags of coffee (they pack on site as well) had no mention of the organic credentials, which surprised me. They’ve put all this work in, why not market it? It turns out that organic coffee is often shunned by the buyers. A Japanese buyer once visited Cafe Cristina, and refused to buy the coffee as soon as he found out it was organic – using chemicals apparently brings out the optimal qualities! This is yet another example of the buyers creating their own market: consumers seem to want organic, and producers want to grow it – but the buyers, the middle men are apparently getting in the way of normal supply and demand! All done in the name of “quality”. And who decides what quality is? The buyers! Craziness.
Linda has got buyers in and done blind taste tests, without telling them the coffee is organic, or that is is de-muscelaged in Ernie’s machine rather than being washed in the traditional way. In these tastings, their coffee came out top quality, on par with more conventionally produced stuff. Which proves that being organic does not actually detract from the quality, but also, that cupping and quality perception is completely biased and subjective! I for one will continuing buying organic, despite what the “experts” say. And I really hope Linda and Ernie continue with their permaculture attempts – I wish them a lot of luck!