Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

The Story Behind Costa Rica’s Disappearing Coffee Farms

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People tell me that, once, my hometown was full of coffee fields. But today, there’s just one tree left standing near my house. In the harvest time, its branches are full of fruit, reminding us of what there used to be.

My neighborhood lies in the Tres Ríos coffee region of Costa Rica, on the east side of the Central Valley. Yet Tres Ríos coffee is slowly disappearing. The data backs this up; so too do our stories and memories.

But why? And what does the future hold for our coffee farms?

SEE ALSO: What Are The Main Challenges Faced by Coffee Producers?

coffee farmHacienda Alsacia, a Costa Rican coffee farm. Credit: Matias Sauter for Sintercafe

Tres Ríos Coffee: High Altitudes, High Quality

The Tres Ríos coffee region is made of several districts, most of which are in La Unión in the Cartago province. Costa Rica has eight different coffee-producing regions and Tres Ríos is one of the smaller ones. However, it’s also well-recognized for its cup quality.

According to the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica (ICAFE), Tres Ríos was one of the first regions to start cultivating coffee. With its volcanic soil, high altitudes, and good climate, the coffee here is high quality with good acidity. It’s known for being dense and Strictly Hard Bean – something that is associated with more complex flavors and aromas.

coffee cherriesRipe Costa Rican coffee, ready for picking. Credit: La Cafeografa

More Concrete, Less Farms

Yet the same climate that is good for coffee farms is also attracting urban developers. Today, if you tour the region, you’ll quickly notice the real estate growth. New residential areas and shopping centers are displacing farms and coffee fields.

According to ICAFE, Tres Ríos coffee production has been declining over the last ten years. The 2005–2006 harvest accounted for 20,460.5 fanegas (one fanega of coffee cherries is equivalent to 46.2 kg of coffee beans). In the 2015–2016 harvest, this had fallen to just 11,901.33 fanegas.

Of course, production levels could be affected by many factors: climate change or pests, for example. So I decided to look into how much farmland we have, turning to the National Institute of Statistics and Census of Costa Rica (INEC) for data.

In 1984, La Unión (where we find most of the Tres Ríos region, remember) had 234 coffee farms totalling about 1,254 hectares. In the most recently published census, however, in 2014, just 52 coffee farms are listed at a total of 533 hectares. While coffee farms are getting bigger, they are also dramatically dropping in number.

coffee cherriesCoffee cherries being depulped at the El Espino micro mill in Atenas, Costa Rica. Credit: Matias Sauter for Sintercafe

Why Is Coffee Declining in Costa Rica?

I reached out Randall Obando, the manager of CoopeUnión Coffee Mill in Tres Ríos, to find out his perspective on the change. In the past, CoopeUnión used to process just coffee from Tres Ríos; now, Randall tells me, the majority of their coffee comes from other places.

I ask him why; he tells me there are many reasons. “It’s partly the price of the coffee,” he begins, “which isn’t enough for coffee producers to live on, even though here in Costa Rica and the region of Tres Ríos we have differential prices. It also has to do with the difficulties we have with coffee leaf rust [a devastating coffee disease which can destroy crops] and real estate pressure.”

And it can all be summed up, Randall believes, with a generational change. “The children of coffee producers inherit lands that require maintenance in order to produce adequate yields, but then they receive offers from real estate companies and prefer to sell up.”

As I said, the land in Tres Ríos is highly valued, wanted for apartments and malls. When prices are good, and coffee farming is hard, it’s easy to see the temptation in selling.

This situation isn’t unique to Tres Ríos; other coffee regions are experiencing it too. However, it is sad to watch coffee farms disappearing in one of the country’s oldest producing regions.

coffeeCosta Rican coffee beans.

Is Quality Key to The Future of Tres Ríos Coffee?

Yet Randall wasn’t without hope for the future. “In general, we have fewer and fewer hectares devoted to coffee across the whole country. However, the yield and quality are improving,” he says.

Here is where we find the future of Tres Ríos’ coffee – and that of Costa Rica’s, too. It’s in high-quality specialty-grade beans, often processed in micro mills for third wave consumers. These micro mills make the seed-to-cup journey visible (“Now, traceability is key in our gourmet coffees,” Randall emphasises) and help to ensure distinctive flavor profiles for demanding customers.

I have seen this trend take shape; I have tried this coffee for myself.

The coffee I have in my hand is a Peaberry from a nearby farm. A small specialty roaster gave it to me. Its flavor is balanced with a good body and a citrus acidity.  It is the flavor profile that we hope to taste in an industry we traditionally called el grano de oro or “the golden bean.”

Written by Xótchil Méndez D. of La Cafeografa, Costa Rica. All interviews translated from Spanish.

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