Market Reports

One Costa Rican coffee farmer provides a case for organic coffee

Glenn Jampol, Owner of the Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn in Santa Barbara de Heredia, writes his story of the personal and environmental rewards of organic coffee farming. ‘,’none’,’ An organic coffee field can be distinguished quite easily from a conventional coffee field both visually and topographically. To begin with, an organic coffee field is almost certainly covered by lush undergrowth in the lanes between the coffee plants, which is a direct result of two practices. First, because an organic coffee farm does not use any kind of toxic herbicides or pesticides, the ground is fertile everywhere throughout the coffee field, not just under the plants’ roots. In addition, due to the fact that a shade grown, organic coffee field depends on the symbiosis between the plants and their neighbouring trees, the falling leaves and other natural organic debris act as an efficient by-product of fertilizer and nitrogen for the ever-demanding coffee plants. One of the most rewarding treasures in these mountainous areas of Costa Rica can be found in shade grown coffee fields and is the result of lush reserves of endemic plant life inspiring and encouraging the arrival and residence of migratory and perennial birds. In the last few years, we’ve been spotting woodpeckers, oropendolas, tanagers, parrots, mott-motts and the like. More exciting still, is that coffee has been emerging as not only as a delicious beverage, but also as a medicinal ‘wonderfood’, with studies recently showing that coffee may reduce the probability of succumbing to maladies such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, type two diabetes, some kinds of liver damage, endometriosis as well as having apparently some beneficial attributes for human skin. It would seem logical then, that by understanding the potential beneficial effects on the human body, we would consider that coffee lovers like myself, who regularly enjoy four or more cups daily, are taking in over 100 cups of coffee a month, and the obvious expectation would be that this coffee is free of carcinogenic and other dangerous chemicals. Whether or not this has been scientifically proven, it seems to me, is rather irrelevant. One can infer that if a chemical can denude the ground of all its undergrowth and the defenseless plants and microbes that exist close by, that the coffee cherries would consequently have a pretty good chance of drawing those same chemicals into its beans. And we, the unwitting coffee lovers would thus be, day-to-day, drinking down these same substances. An organic shade-grown coffee plantation is a natural agar dish for a robust ecology where the factors for sustainability are taken into consideration as much as the quality of the product that would result from this kind of farming. Counter-erosion, water protection, reforestation and green technology are all factors that are used and also considered in some degree in almost all of the organic and sustainable coffee farms around the world. There is a symbiosis created between the nitrogen rich trees and the coffee, with its long-standing and friendly allies, poró, banana, plantains, and other native and nitrogen rich trees found in Costa Rica, this allows for a chain of life that surely supplements not only the ecological footprint of the farm but also enriches the aesthetic beauty for the visitor, the labourer and for that matter the owner. My own interest in organic coffee farming dates back to the 1960s, when I was studying at the University of California, at Berkeley.  At the time, in one way or another, we all felt some need to create a renewed and more authentic relationship with the earth. Our confidence in consumer protection had been numbed and we became cynical about whether we were buying safe and healthy foods to eat, or if we were being protected from harmful chemicals when we consumed processed foods at the store. Jumping ahead to Costa Rica in the mid-1980s, my wife and I discovered a country full of biodiversity, a consciousness for protection of the environment, an overall satisfaction as a culture, and an inherent happiness as a people, and its attraction as a place to live (Costa Rica is ranked number one in the World Index for Happiness in a study by the 2010 Environmental Performance Index from Columbia and Yale Universities). My wife Teresa and I found ourselves in an energetic blur, overwhelmed by the contagious goodwill of the Costa Rican people, the unrelenting lush and endless landscape of tropical flora, and the omnipresent pride in the fact that the country had deemed one quarter of its territory to National Parks. We found ourselves in the Central Valley of Costa Rica astounded with the enormous views of the elegant mountains and landscapes of the verdant coffee fields all around. In 1985 we bought 8 acres of property on which we dreamed of building a family home on what had earlier been a Motocross field, adorned with a mess of grass moguls and mud holes, which had replaced the earlier coffee plantation, that now lay decimated. All that was left were 10 or 12 giant fig trees, called Higuerónes, interspersed throughout the farm, which were the only witnesses or reminders of the bygone era of the giant, tree-shaded abundant coffee fields. In a kind of ironic nostalgia, I’d arrived from New York City, where I had lived in an area that had previously been the wholesale food centre for all of Manhattan. An eight story brick and mortar building from the late 1800s towered at the end of my block. The only hint of creativity in its bleak architectural design was a huge Victorian styled sign painted on the bricks that said ‘Martinson’s Coffee’. As I treaded the buckled sidewalks of the centuries old and abused neighbourhood that is now called TriBeCa, I remember being struck by how unusual it was for a city boy like myself in NYC to feel and hear the popping and crunching sound of the dark roasted beans under my soles and to smell the aromatic perfume of the coffee. Little could I have known, and the irony does not escape me now, that some very few years later, I would find myself standing in the centre of a 20 acre rolling mountainous coffee farm, staring over the tired and stunted plants down to the bustling central valley below. We had purchased the farm in 2003 after building a small hotel 18 years earlier on the adjacent property.  It was then called Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn, (opened in 1989) because the coffee economy had succumbed to a glut of coffee and prices had nose-dived. Farmers could no longer afford to even to pick their coffee, let alone fertilize it, in order to maintain its health and potential. As a result, many salivating developers were eagerly buying these coffee farms at cheap prices and converting them into low cost housing. I recollect standing in the middle of our soon to be newly acquired and striking coffee field, and remarking to my wife that this sojourn might be one of the most beautiful nature based experiences in my lifetime. When this cathartic experience had succumbed to reality I experienced a brief moment of maturity, and realised that we actually knew nothing at all about coffee. I was suddenly overcome with the inevitability of the most basic quandary: how were we going to financially sustain a coffee farm with no prior experience. We went back to our roots, (so to speak), and realised that our strengths lay in the development and innovation of methods for responsible practices – whether it be in tourism or now, in agriculture. We began the very cumbersome home work of training, learning, analysing, and speaking to our hotel workers who were all from the local area and whose families had for the most part spent their whole lives working in and around coffee. We were inspired by their confidence and devotion to coffee, which for them was indeed a noble crop and more than worthy of our attention. It was also implicit that if we were going to involve ourselves in an agricultural business, much like our work in responsible tourism, it had to be done responsibly, sustainably and consequently, organically. We were told that we would have to yank out most of the plants due to age, condition, or the way they were planted. Organic coffee fields in mountainous areas require a pattern of planting that follows a topographical course along the natural curves of the landscape that keeps erosion at a minimum and prevents its washing away during the torrential downpours of our tropical rainy season. This also allows for the greatest amount of natural fertilizers to enrich the soil, such as the nitrogen rich Poró leaves and the fermenting and microbe rich undergrowth remain on the ground. These products are never eliminated in organic farms as they infuse much needed organic nutrients into the soil. Today, as an organic farmer, I walk through my coffee fields and feel confident that all the coffee I’m producing has a rhyme and reason. There’s a certain joy in knowing that I have been contributing to the balance of the ecology in an area that had previously been developed based on high production, yield oriented agricultural products. 

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