My Coffee Farm Quest, Part One

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about my recent adventure on a coffee farm in Costa Rica. It was, for me, a life changing experience--or at least it forever changed my relationship with that powerful bean -- and I don't even drink coffee. But now I can't even smell it brewing without thinking about how disconnected most people are to where it comes from and what the real costs are to turn those little coffee "cherries" into the most consumed beverage on earth. Here's what I wrote in my journal about it:

A coffee farm is nothing like I had imagined.  Coffee is able to grow at a 90 degree angle from the earth, surviving where I thought no life could grow.  I know this because I furiously move my feet in hopes of gaining traction or chancing on some small foothold on this mountain of mud.  I claw the ground wishing these puny herbs could offer something more substantial than an aromatic allusion to being at a spa.  When I stand on the hillside I can reach my hand straight out and touch the land.  It is that steep.  Gravity, a force I normally disregard and under-appreciate, is now my nemesis in climbing this mountain hiding behind the pretense of being a coffee farm.  I finally emerge on the ridge, at the top of the farm, to a beautiful view of at least a third of all of Costa Rica.

Day 1: I am researching the differences between organic and conventional coffee farms in Costa Rica as the final portion of my study abroad program.  My natural resource management professor, who I refer to as Always Accurate Achim, a German (complete with goatee and pony tail), fearlessly leads me and my fellow student researchers.  He laughs the loudest when anyone's feet slip out from under them.  Perhaps we were wooed by access to some of the best coffee in the world; I don't know what else could have made us not just agree to participate, but fight to sign up for this specific project.  I don't actually drink coffee, so I have no idea what I could possibly have been thinking.

In my assignment, I compare organic and conventional coffee using an ecological index, a system that quantitatively measures farm soil, stored carbon, and biodiversity.  As this study uses an amalgamation of my fellow researchers data, I am available to help others collect data.  For example, I measure coffee plants, collect soil samples, or identify and count trees.  I was available for any job that needed to be done.  Most of my time was spent walking the perimeter of the farm, creating the necessary one hectare research plot, and then usually re-marking the plot, as it was never perfect, and Achim always likes to be accurate.  To say the least, my glutes got a good workout.  I emerged from our first day in the field, and felt like I had been "birthed from the coffee," as fellow researcher Eunice eloquently described it .

Fun Fact of the Day: It takes 55 beans to make one cup of coffee.  This equates to 27.5 two-bean cherries, about a full branch on an organic coffee farm, or half a branch on the conventional farm.  Imagine these stout plants with cups of coffee rather than fruits hanging from them, like little apple pies hanging off branches in an apple orchard.

Day 2: Again, my feet are sliding, no surprise as I have taken the path much, much less traveled to ensure proper GPS tracking.  In fact, the farmer of this plot isn't exactly sure how much land he has, as even he has never explored this little corner of paradise.  There was a thin layer of leaf litter that acted like skates on this slanted rink of mud.  To lower myself with at least a wee bit of control, I grabbed hold of bare trunked Cana India, the common vegetative border between organic and conventional farms.  I threw my lower body around my pole, as a firefighter or exotic dancer might do.  Whew, one body length lower and, again, I was sliding.  I lunged forward to grab hold of the next sturdy Cana India to stop my momentum.  Tricked!  This tree I just threw my body weight towards was a very similar looking tree, but with one

critical difference -- thorns protrude from its bark.  My hands instantly begin to swell.

 

To add insult to injury, it rained.  And with rain comes more slippery mud (I didn't know that was possible either).  This afternoon, as I laid out the hectare plot, it began to sprinkle.  Not ten seconds after I said how grateful I was that the canopy cover protected us from the drizzle a thunderstorm rolled in at full force.  Being at the highest point of the surrounding area I feared for my life, especially since the only way down was via a path that had long ago become a brown slide.  Thanks to the storm, we ended work a little bit early and got to return home before dark.

Day 3: After our special treat of a shortened day yesterday, we did a rain dance this morning in hopes that the rain gods would answer our prayers once again.  Always Accurate Achim quickly put an end to this as he told us, "I have my desert dance; you stand no chance."  Obviously, he was correct, but I was glad that we continued with research today as I feel like I finally know how to navigate the coffee jungle.  Mostly, the climb was possible, although exhausting, by grabbing the base of the two coffee plants in the row above, and pulling my weight up.  Then, at the exact moment in which I removed my hands, I wedged my feet in this same spot on the high side of the coffee plant, always leaning forward to keep my balance.  I have mastered coffeeanosta -- only the most advanced of yoga moves.  Moving horizontally is no easier; paths of leaf litter and loose dirt often give way to the abyss below.  My fingers get sliced by mystery devils in the ground cover of herbs and other organic matter.  I guess I should be grateful I wasn't bitten by a tarantula (we saw seven).  Despite marked progress, I still got slapped around by the coffee plants as I dove head first into the matrix.

Coffee pickers, almost entirely Nicaraguan migrant workers, were at the farm today.  I don't know how they not only navigate these fields but do so while picking beans and carrying 100 pounds of their bounty.  We began the research just one week after Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica over a border dispute.  This is especially interesting, as it was the height of picking season and farmers are completely dependent on cheap Nicaraguan labor.  Opinions vary. Some feel that this situation is evidence that Costa Rica should reinstitute their army, after more than 60 years without any military forces.  Others are terrified, frightened by the instability and irrationality of Nicaragua.  Most are intrigued but are, more or less, ignoring the situation and writing it off as another of President Ortega's shenanigans to distract everyone from the real problems in his country.  Unfortunately, it is a particularly dangerous state of affairs, as there are deep racial tensions that lie just below the surface....

Note from Peter: Next week Jenn continues her coming of age coffee adventure in Costa Rica, and shares some of the insights she gained there about our understanding -- and lack of understanding -- surrounding that cup of Joe we so easily take for granted.

 

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