Costa Rica is an exciting place to visit for coffee. The natural beauty is amazing. Spectacular flora and birds are everywhere you look once you exit San Juan. For me, the real treasure is the model which Costa Rica has for sustainability. Often there is a lack of clarity around the concept of sustainability in coffee. We roasters all come up with our own definition and individual measures for success around sustainability. This is great most of the time because of the multi-faceted nature of this issue. It encompasses issues around social justice, the environment, quality, and government. But in Costa Rica there is a model of sustainability which demonstrates success in indisputable ways.
The first is in relation to the environment. Most of Costa Rica’s income comes from Eco-related tourism, and they have many laws in place to protect this natural resource. The most significant to coffee production is protections for their water. There are strict regulations on the quality of water that agriculture and industry can re-introduce into the environment as waste. Coffee farmers need to filter all their waste, which is very expensive if you use a lot of water. As a result, many farmers have begun specializing in honey and naturally processed coffee, which requires less water than fully washed coffee. It’s a win-win response to environmental concerns because Costa Rica has become known for some of the highest quality honey and natural coffees anywhere in the world. Prices have risen as demand has gone up, and farmers are protecting the source of their livelihood- the environment- at the same time.
My second observation in Costa Rica this year is the prevalence of micro-mills. Around the world it is common for small farmers (producing 1-2 containers per year or less) to have wet milling capabilities at their farm; that is, taking coffee from the fruit to the dried seed. But is is uncommon to see smaller farms with dry milling capabilities; taking the dried seed and sorting for defects, uniform bean size, and uniform density. In Costa Rica we visited many farmers who have dry milling capability right at the farm instead of taking their dried coffee to larger towns where dry mills are huge operations. Often these farmers are also milling coffee for their neighboring farmers who don’t have dry mills. There are a couple of really sustainable results to this practice. The first is that having control over the entire production can facilitate rapid quality improvements as well as relationship sourcing between farmers and roasters. This increases the amount of value kept at the farm level, which is one of the irreplaceable links in the supply chain of coffee .
The other element of sustainability that comes out of these micro-mills is that it provides a solution for the shift away from agriculture to urban lifestyles within younger generations of coffee families. All countries follow this shift from agrarian to industrial economies as they become more prosperous, and it’s not something that we could or should try to prevent for the sake of maintaining quality coffee production. So instead of ignoring this inevitable problem we need a solution which allows for regional consolidation. These dry mills, being at the farm level, are spread throughout growing regions and are relationally tied into existing growing communities. Farmers who are focused on a long term, multi-generational coffee business put in a dry mill to increase quality, lower costs, add efficiency, and so on. They begin milling coffee for their neighbors, who farm essentially the same soil, in the same climate, and in an overall similar terroir as the micro-mill owner’s farm. As I see it, this creates opportunity for up an easy transition to consolidate nearby quality focused farms if younger generations leave. Their neighbors already are processing and selling their coffee, and understand the environment around them. Many countries only have dry mills in large urban centers, and if families move away from agrarian livelihoods, there is no real sustainability succession in place. Costa Rican micro mills give me hope that there is a solution to this problem not only here but potentially in other areas of the world.
Costa Rica has many sustainability practices in place that I take as a beacon of hope in what often can seem like a bleak outlook at origin. One of the most uplifting things to see is the vision of a successful coffee farmer which is alive in Costa Rica. In order for the specialty coffee industry to continue to grow and maintain quality farmers need to share in the prosperity we are seeing here in consuming countries. The goal can’t be to increase livelihoods from $2,000 to $4,000 per year (which would be “doubling average farmer income in Ethiopia”). We need to shoot higher. We need to see the future as one in which coffee farmers are achieving the same level of success as vintners in Napa Valley. Costa Rica brings this vision to life and paints a picture of what this can look like. Many of the farmers we visited have comfortable villas, very nice cupping labs, and are moving towards the same level of success as their counterparts in wine, spirits, and other farm level producers in craft industries.
These things; ownership of the supply chain, response to environmental concerns, a focus on quality, and a model of succession and success make me hopeful for the future of the coffee producer. It feels like an uphill fight some days, and it’s a breath of fresh air to get a glimpse of a positive future!