By Natasha Dragun

While the coffee industry faces serious challenges, production continues to play a key role in Costa Rica’s economy – and may just thrive again, thanks to a renewed focus on sustainable agricultural practices and a new approach to farming from both growers and suppliers.

It’s the middle of the day and impossibly hot and humid when we arrive at Edgar Fernandez’s small farm, 1300m above sea level in the San Ramon region of Costa Rica. But within minutes of piling out of the car, billows of dust following us down the road, we find ourselves in a very different world. Enormous butterflies with iridescent blue wings float between banana and coconut palms; lemons the size of small soccer balls droop from leafy trees; a friendly, and well-fed, beagle dozes in long grass beside us. There are insects, toucans and – mercifully – moments of shade and cool.
We wander across a mossy bridge over a stream and climb up through a grove of coffee trees laden with ripe red and yellow cherries ready to be harvested. Strolling around the six-hectare property feels more like a walk through national parkland than it does a tour of a working coffee plantation. And that’s exactly the point, says Fernandez.

“I wanted to bring back trees that used to be here, to provide shade from the wind and the sun. The native plants also produce a lot of fruit and seeds, so we have a lot of birds,” says Fernandez, who purchased his first hectare here just over 25 years ago. Back then, there were a couple of cows and a few unhealthy plants on the land.

Today, the Fernandez family is at the forefront of sustainable coffee farming. “We wanted to care about the land and nature and make it beautiful,” he says, peeling open a sweet lemon we find on the path. And he didn’t stop at coffee cherries, either – the property has an organic vegetable and herb garden; happy free-range cows and sheep are used to produce cheese; and a pet pig makes methane for biogas, which Fernandez uses in his home for cooking. One of an estimated 46,000 arabica coffee farmers in Costa Rica, Fernandez’s approach to nurturing the land is becoming essential in a country where the industry is under threat.

High demand coffee

While more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day around the world – a figure that is growing at about 2.5 per cent annually, according to the International Coffee Organization – the industry itself is in poor shape. More than 90 per cent of coffee production takes place in developing countries, and farmers are faced with rising costs and increasing pressure to sell their land to make way for development and urban sprawl.

Coffee production in Costa Rica dates back about 200 years and is considered the first wealth creation for the country – direct taxes on coffee funded the vast majority of Costa Rica’s early infrastructure. In 1960, coffee accounted for half the country’s GDP and more than half of all exports. Today, Costa Rica’s major agricultural exports are pineapples and bananas, although there are still about 84,000 hectares of arabica farmland left.

Most farms are small, under four hectares. But regardless of size, all are faced with declining real prices paid for coffee while outgoings are on the rise – nitrogen fertiliser costs three times more today than it did in 1995. Dominated by smallholder producers subject to conditions of poverty within biodiverse environments, it’s fertile ground for the adoption of sustainability standards.

Hands-on approach

The multi-billion dollar coffee capsule sector is the fastest growing segment of the global coffee market. Hundreds of hours and dozens of hands go into the production of every single coffee pod – a fact we often forget when we pop one into the coffee machine first thing in the morning.
Swiss single-portion coffee producer Nespresso is very aware of the intense production process, not to mention the industry threats, and is working closely with the 12 countries it has a presence in to make sure that it is protected.

Nespresso head of coffee, Karsten Ranitzsch, says they did not want to “reinvent sustainability” so looked closely at the existing certification programmes – but found they were missing a focus on quality and productivity. In 2003, Nespresso launched the AAA Sustainable Quality Program, designed in partnership with non-government organisation Rainforest Alliance with a focus on conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods through quality standards. The programme was established in Costa Rica the next year.

“Economically viable, environmentally sound and socially equitable – that’s what we are trying to promote,” says Rainforest Alliance director of agriculture, Michelle Deugd. “It really is unique in collaboration – the marriage between sustainability and quality. It is a very dynamic, integrated process.”

“We’re doing this to safeguard our supply of coffee for the future,” says Ranitzsch. “If we don’t make the coffee attractive and don’t get involved in our value chain, we won’t have the coffee we need for our future … We’re trying to change the way people think about coffee – to pay more attention to the product and appreciate it more.”

Taking care of Natural resources

Edgar Fernandez was one of the first Costa Rican farmers to come on board with AAA seven years ago. “We decided to start it in the farm because we know it is a good idea and it was according to our objectives,” Fernandez says. “The programme has the same idea as us – taking care of water sources and nature.”

To become an AAA farmer is not an easy task – you must deliver cherries to high standards, participate in regular inspections and attend annual workshops. An initial investment of around US$5000 is required for most properties to reach AAA certification standards, although one farmer we meet, Don Thomas, tells us he paid this off within about three years. “I’m now growing up to 60 fanega [one fanega is about 250kg of raw coffee cherries, or about 46kg of processed coffee beans] of coffee cherries per hectare on the farm,” he says. The average in Costa Rica is below 30. The growth in productivity can be attributed to many factors, from farmers learning the importance of healthy soils and diversity in planting to developing strategies for pest control and – importantly – budget management. A recent study by CIMS Sustainable Markets Intelligence Center found that up to half of the country’s farmers were not aware of how much it costs them to produce coffee – 64 per cent said that they manage their accounting from memory.

There are close to 300 criteria in the Rainforest Alliance certification process, but the organisation works closely with farms to make small, achievable steps to improve. “This is supposed to make a big difference for farmers. That’s the goal,” says Deugd.

And it is. “I’ve received training to learn about planting vegetables and taking care of coffee using less chemicals. I’ve learnt how to diversify crops to increase income; how to keep records. I’ve been given first aid training. There’s motivation to improve year by year,” says Fernandez.

Helping hand where needed

Thanks to the programme, there’s year-round agricultural assistance, there are recycling campaigns, natural water sources are protected, and native flora is being reintroduced – last year alone, Nespresso donated 30,000 native trees across Costa Rica, and also worked on implementing a recycling campaign for agro-chemical waste.

Although it is a large commitment on behalf of the farmers, more than 74,000 have signed up to the AAA programme worldwide, accounting for some 290,000 hectares of sustainably grown coffee across Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and – most recently – South Sudan.

Farmers are being rewarded for their improved efficiency and quality, with Nespresso paying a premium for top beans. In Costa Rica at the moment, that amounts to about US$15 (just under AU$20) per fanega on top of the market price of about US$150 per fanega.

Despite the incentives, the barriers to sustainable farming are numerous. While one farmer we meet, Tomas Gutierrez, is AAA certified, his neighbour is not. Wandering across the property, we spot chemical waste beside the only water supply – a trickle that will dry up if there is no rain today. The lower branches of cherry trees are bare, the soil is cracked and dry, there is no shade.

“Like many farmers in the past, my neighbour wants a neat farm, with more coffee plants,” says Gutierrez. That means no shade trees that drop leaves, no natural mulch, no diversity.

There’s a clear breakdown in knowledge. “From our visiting agronomist we learned that shade trees reduce erosion, protect coffee roots, cool the soil and air, conserve water, reduce weeds and are a wind barrier,” says Gutierrez.

Looking after the future

Shade is important not just for growth of the cherries, but also the welfare of the pickers – all beans are hand harvested across the country, and there is a shortage of labour. If pickers are not happy and well looked after, then they simply move on. “On my farm, they [the pickers] are in the shade, and the trees have great productivity, which means they can pick more, faster,” says Fernandez.
In 2008, only 800 Costa Rican farms took part in 
Nespresso’s AAA programme, but in 2015, there were 
more than 2500 – globally, there are now 63,000 AAA Sustainable Quality Coffee Program farms across 11 countries. “We want to keep coffee farming attractive to new generations,” Ranitzsch says, with a goal to see Nespresso source 100 per cent of its coffee from AAA farmers by 2020. “We have a long-term commitment in Costa Rica. It makes me proud to be part of this company and what we’re doing here.”



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