Roberto y su finca. The farm of the week and much more.
September 6, 2009
The bust that followed the boom of Costa Rican coffee resulted from unpredictable weather, the flooding of the market by Vietnamese coffee producers, and roasters driving the price of the bean down. The bust turned quickly into a crisis when the price plummeted to well under 50 cents a pound. Small producers were hurt the most by this crisis. In Costa Rica, 92% of growers farm under 12 acres. Almost everyone was left with a warehouse filled with beans, and no way to make a living.
Don Roberto Jimenez, a conventional coffee farmer from Agua Bueno, was hit hard. When the crisis unfolded, he had to rethink his way of life. He decided mechanized agriculture was no longer for him. Mechanized agriculture is common in the region because roasters are quick to suggest monoculture plantations for their economies of scale. These plantations require excessive fertilizers and pest controls, and leave the farmers to absorb all of the risks associated with the one-crop approach. Don Roberto decided that he no longer wanted to use agricultural techniques that damage the land and make him and his family sick and that foster a dependence on big corporations and roasters.
Don Roberto said, “Before you change your farming practices, you must change the way you think”. He started to think about his farm as more of an ecosystem. He started to realize that his farm could replenish the land, instead of robbing it. Of the 6.5 hectares of land that Don Roberto owns, 1.5 are nature reserves. Live fences help prevent erosion from his coffee-planted hills. Organic material covers the ground as his crops take up the naturally produced fertilizer. His coffee is shade grown and organic.
These days he is thinking seriously about sustainability. With his tight budget, he can not afford to buy many things for the farm. He must use the farm to produce them. Animal feed is expensive so Don Roberto grinds up sugar cane that he grows on the farm and combines it with some corn and soybean meal. Instead of buying gas, he has built a pipe system that collects methane from pig manure and delivers it right to the kitchen stove.
The farm is a magnificent place and the Jimenez family is tight-knit and generous. They invite students to stay at the house to learn about and contribute to the farm. There are dogs and roosters and wild ducks that just like to hang around. There are geese and other birds, 3 cows for milking, and pigs. Everyday Roberto’s wife makes fresh, delicious cheese from the cow’s milk. Sometimes they have enough to sell. They produce a variety of vegetables: plantains, avocado, chayote(!), bananas, yucca, squashes, ayotes (pumpkin family), cardamom, naranjilla (that sour fruit in the tomato family), lemons and other citrus, and more. Of course, the most abundant crop on the farm is coffee.
This is high quality coffee in every sense. All steps of production are done at the farm from harvest to roast. The coffee is organically farmed. This can be an extremely difficult feat due to fungus and other pests. For that Don Roberto uses the natural fungicide found in the flowers and leaves of a plant in the Solanaceae family (tomato). He extracts the essential oils and sprays his coffee about three times a year. He said this makes them very happy.
Other help with pest management comes from shade trees. Shade trees are very important in improving the sustainability of coffee farming. First, they diversify the system, which is always good for pest management. Also, because the coffee isn’t under constant stress from the sun, the plants last for many more years. Shade trees can be other cultivated crops such as fruit trees or trees for timber. Many shade trees are also nitrogen-fixing which helps improve soil fertility.
From an ecological perspective, shade trees offer habitat for birds. Many migratory or large range birds have trouble in the fragmented forest landscape of Costa Rica. The trees provide a haven for the birds where they can munch on insects as they make their way to larger forests.
You can buy coffee directly from Don Roberto and other farmers like him. Eighty farm families in the Agua Buena, Costa Rica area form the Coopepueblos cooperative. The Community Agroecology Network (CAN) has been working to connect Coopepueblos and other Central and South American farmers directly to US consumer using the web. This ensures profits go to the growers. You can order direct trade coffee right from their website. A new initiative has just been launched called AgroEco Coffee which gives large roasting companies like Santa Cruz the chance to buy into this great system of connection, sustainability, and support.
To learn more about the coffee crisis, how difficult growing and producing coffee really is, and the benefits of shade grown coffee, see the documentary Bird Song and Coffee: A wake up call.
Stephen Gliessman (CAN) is a huge figure in agroecology and has recently published a coauthored book: Confronting the Coffee Crisis.
Please watch the promotional trailer for AgroEco and get your next pound from CAN.
Go beyond organic and beyond fair trade. Invest in the hands that grown your food.