When we look at a beautiful harvest, or when we taste a brilliant cup, we tend to want to romanticize it: We imagine rolling hills and bright blue skies, the smell of fresh coffee blossoms, the sway of the shade trees. What we don’t think of are the countless steps that the producer went through to create that dreamy flavor experience, and the dozens of decisions that have to be made before, during, and at the end of the season in order to sustain or even improve the final product.
In this year’s dispatch from the harvest in Costa Rica, we’ll take a look at a few of the most significant choices a producer must make, some of the things about which they have no control, and what see how a few of our producer partners manage the complicated strategizing that specialty coffee requires. We’ll also give you insight into how this year’s crop has been panning out so far.
One of the first—but certainly not the most basic—steps of establishing, expanding, renovating, or improving a coffee farm is selecting which varieties to plant. To a non-farming coffee professional, this might seem like a simple step: Plant the ones that cup the best. However, there are myriad factors that contribute to the success or failure of a coffee crop even before the cupping stage, and the farmer needs to consider carefully what combination of genetic characteristics are valuable to him or her.
Steven Vargas and his father, Gilbert, owners of Don Sabino Micromill, have some of the highest-elevation farms in the Central Valley, including Finca Orvo, a 7.7-hectare plot they purchased a few years ago, that extends all the way to 1,670 meters above sea level. At that height, the plants will naturally be stressed: They metabolize and mature more slowly, which also means it’s important to select for productivity. One of Steven’s deciding factors in selecting a variety to plant is whether the tree develops secondary branches, which allows it to bear more cherry. This quality of what’s called plagiotropic branch growth, isn’t found in every type of coffee: Gesha’s a no, for instance, while the more localized Costa Rican cultivar Villa Sarchi is a yes.
Finca “El Orvo”
In West Valley, Carlos Barrantes and his wife, Diana, have been meticulous and methodical about experimental varieties, making sure to test them thoroughly before renovating sections of their farms with something risky. For the past several years, the couple behind La Perla Del Cafe has collaborated with local agronomists for several plant trials: Carlos manages his farm so closely, and his quality is so reliable, that the agronomists use his farms as a kind of seed bank. They provide seeds for a new type of coffee, such as Typica Mejorado, or “Improved Typica,” and Carlos returns an equivalent amount of seeds when the plants mature and produce, if they are good enough quality to share with others. (The Barrantes currently have around 200 plants of the Typica Mejorado, which was developed for cup quality and sweetness; time will tell whether the seeds will be returned for further propagation.)
One of the things Carlos specifically looks for in his variety selection is how evenly the coffee ripens at the particular elevation and in the microclimates of his various farm plots.
La Perla del Cafe
“If they ripen late, it delays the harvest, the processing, the pruning,” he explained recently (in translation thanks to Francine Ramirez, the green-buyer’s associate for Oxcart Coffee–Cafe Imports Latin America). Ripening also has direct effects on the picking staff: If the trees ripen uniformly, it’s easier for the pickers to focus their time and energy in a more strategic way. Uneven ripening means that they need to scatter, return back through rows they’ve already picked through, and can change the duration of the harvest season, which greatly impacts their families’ lives.
Once the coffee plants are planted, once the cherry is harvested ripe (and hopefully all at roughly the same time), the producer has another important decision to make—this time about post-harvest processing.
Before the 2000s in Costa Rica, all smallholder producers delivered their cherry to a centralized mill or cooperative for Washed processing: The farmers’ job was to plant, maintain, harvest, and transport intact coffee fruit, which would be sold at a set rate to the next agent along the chain of custody. On the one hand, it meant that farmers could focus on the agricultural aspect of coffee cultivation, rather than get involved with the commercialization of the seeds. On the other hand, it meant they also had little to no control over the price or the finished quality of their yield, and prevented many producers from developing their own mark, brand, or specific clientele.
Over the past two decades, a “micromill revolution” has taken place throughout the country, with more and more producers investing in wet-mill and drying equipment in order to more vertically integrate their production, take control over the quality of their product, and establish names, brands, and clientele bases for their own coffee.
“In 2005, we bought a small depulper, but we didn’t know yet what we were doing,” says Oscar Chacón of Las Lajas Micromill in Central Valley, which he owns and runs with his wife, Francisca. “We were just experimenting.” The Chacóns had previously delivered all of their coffee to a mill for cash, but they wanted to capture more of the value. “The first depulper we had wasn’t doing the correct job for Washed lots,” he says through Francine’s translation. “It was still leaving 50 percent of the mucilage on the beans. Visitors would say, ‘This is wrong!’ But we were doing what we were told.” After several years of tweaking their process, however, the Chacóns became the standard-bearers for Honey coffees in the country, and their lots were winning prizes—and hearts—year after year.
Just over a decade ago, the couple had to make another difficult choice: After a large earthquake wiped out electricity and water to the area, Oscar and Francisca couldn’t turn on the machines in order to produce Washed or even Honey coffees. Instead, Francisca took inspiration from common drying practices in Africa, where coffee cherries are often spread on raised beds to dry completely in their fruit. The Chacóns built drying beds at Las Lajas and were among the very first producers to attempt Natural specialty coffee in the country. It wasn’t an easy choice, though: “In our system, Natural coffee is considered a defect, dried in pods,” Oscar says. They needed to find just the right buyers who would look at their problem-solving experiment and be willing to take a risk. Cafe Imports’ Andrew Miller was one of those buyers, and the relationship between Cafe Imports and Las Lajas Micromill began.
Plant husbandry, tissue management, and farm renovation are some of the less-sexy parts of coffee, but they represent a huge portion of a producer’s energy, time, and consideration. What happens during the off-season is just as important—maybe even more important—when it comes to setting a farm up for success.
Pruning is an especially delicate and significant part of a farmer’s early plan, as coffee plants can only produce once on each node. That means that a plant will grow outward and upward in order to create new growth, both causing stress to its system and creating diminishing returns on productivity. By renovating tissue, producers can recapture their plants’ productivity as well as avoid an unmanageable tangle of branches on the farm. Some farmers will stump a selection of their trees, cutting back the branches and stems to a literal stump and allowing them to regenerate; others, like Steven from Don Sabino, will cut back every third row after the plants have been produced for 3–5 years. The following year, he’ll cut back the second row in the triad, and the last year he’ll finish the cycle.
“After three years, the trees will be as productive as when they were new,” he explains, pointing to a row that was trimmed last year.
“Every producer has a different management system, and it’s a hard decision to make because you will sacrifice some of your productivity no matter what you choose,” explains Francine, describing methods that include row-by-row, plot-by-plot, or even whole-farm renovation techniques.
“If you cut a whole plot, it’s like you’re cutting a hole in your pocket,” Steven chimes in.
Carlos has a similar strategy at his farms in West Valley: First, he plants two seeds in a single hole, which is typical of coffee producers in Costa Rica. Whichever grows stronger and more productive helps him decide which to prune and maintain. He also uses a technique in the fields to protect and encourage new plants’ growth: Around the base of a row of newer plants, he and his workers will make a mound of soil, under which is packed chicken manure used for fertilizer. The raised mounds make it easier for farm staff to turn the soil when weeding, and it also locks in moisture more to help the roots endure the dry season. The piles of soil can also anchor the vulnerable trees, which is very necessary in a windy climate like Costa Rica’s.
“This technique is very labor-intensive,” Francine explains, “but it’s also very practical.”
This Year: The Weather Is Calling the Shots
With all the myriad decisions producers make and techniques they employ on the farm, there are still several things that are ultimately out of their control—namely, the weather. This year, rain has been intermittent and unpredictable, which has meant that many producers have lower volumes and the harvest has been somewhat late. Rainy weather at odd times also makes drying exceptionally difficult, especially for producers with limited space or those who have Naturals or Honeys that rely on full sun and dryer air.
In fact, just these past few weeks, heavy unexpected rains during what’s traditionally a dry period (and the typical drying period for many coffees) caused several producers to lose some of their Natural lots: If partially dry cherries get soaked through, they run a huge risk of developing mold, rotten flavors, or over-fermentation notes. What does this mean for producers? “It means they have to invent a new process!” says Oxcart Coffee senior coffee buyer Luis Arocha, half-joking. Several producers have had to take their Naturals off the drying beds and depulp them, which is highly unusual and a necessary innovation this year. What it will do for the cups is yet to be seen, as it will still be a few weeks before the results are on the table for analysis.
(These heavy off-season rains have also caused some premature flowering on the coffee trees, Luis reports. He has spoken to producers in both Central Valley and Tarrazú who have expressed some concern about the uneven flowering and its potential effect on next year’s crop—but time will tell, and unfortunately these are exactly the things that are out of a producer’s hands.)
According to ICAFE, the Coffee Institution of Costa Rica, the average productivity per hectare nationwide was 20.4 fanegas per hectare this year, compared with last season’s 18.3—though 2020’s volumes are still predicted to be lower than ideal. (A fanega is a volume-based Costa Rica–specific measurement roughly equivalent to 250 kilograms, or 400 liters, of cherry.) While yield per hectare is up incrementally this year—and that’s certainly promising—the institution also reports that there are fewer registered coffee farmers this year, which might mean that farms are being sold and consolidated. Currently there are 38,804 registered producers, compared with more than 40,000 last year.
That said, our partners are hopeful for good quality and knockout lots from the earlier part of the harvest, before the odd rains. Individually, they have been making investments and improvements to ensure future growth: Steven has installed so many new drying beds at his mill that he ended up co-opting a family member’s backyard to add more, while Oscar and Francisca have recently installed new wet-milling equipment (of their own design!) that makes their sorting and transporting of coffee easier, quicker, and more efficient. Carlos and Diana will see how their new varieties work out, and in the meantime they are welcoming their daughters into the management of the farm and mill—their younger daughter, Sharon, even drives the family truck to transport cherries and depulped coffee beans to the drying structure.
“This is our heritage and it’s the future for our daughters,” says Diana Barrantes, and looking out over the new growth among the coffee rows and the impeccable sections of freshly drying coffee in their greenhouse, it seems clear that these choices mean much more than just the great cup of coffee we know is worth waiting for.