It has been written that to be born into a family of coffee pickers is to have everything going against you from the start. The purpose of this blog is to shed some light on the daily life of a coffee picker. I gathered this information from Elba, our coffee roaster, who herself lived as a coffee picker in her youth. I’ve also travelled to Central America myself and have spent the whole day picking coffee in the fields as well as visiting, speaking with and staying with coffee pickers. Finally, I’ve read numerous articles and books which broached the topic. The best article I’ve read on the subject is called El Hambre De Los Cortadores (The Hunger of the Coffee Pickers). If you can read Spanish, I highly recommend reading the article (see the Sources section below).
The day begins at the break of dawn, usually around 5:00 am, but sometimes earlier. If the family is lucky enough to have a shower pit, they take a cold shower with buckets of water. Water is scarce in many regions (especially in El Salvador) and hot water even more so.
Yuca soup with tortillas, a typical meal for coffee pickers in El Salvador.
Next, a quick breakfast is made. The primary diet for most coffee pickers throughout Central America are frijoles (kidney beans), tortillas (made with corn flour) and rice. Soups and a tomato dish called ‘tomatada’ are also common. Food is scarce amongst the coffee pickers. Most subsist on a diet of corn and beans. The reality is, if not enough coffee is picked, a family can go for days without eating.
This 30 gallon barrel is used to heat up the soup.
Fortunately, the UN World Food Programme provides vital assistance to thousands of families. In El Salvador, the program allocated three servings of food per family every two months, which includes 20 pounds of beans, 66 pounds of corn, 66 pounds of rice and a gallon of oil to about 10,000 families in 2014.
While these programs are essential, Dorte Ellehammer, a representative of the World Food Program in El Salvador conceded that “the poverty of the coffee pickers will not find a solution only via food donation programs”. She went on to say that projects such as trainings held for farming practices would help. Unfortunately, most of these coffee pickers do not own land to farm in the first place. There are no easy solutions to this problem (see my blog The Coffee Pickers! Pt. 3: Front and Center! for more).
Dinner table of a coffee picker in El Salvador
For coffee pickers everywhere, life is reduced to an act of survival. For the majority of them, there is no land, no cornfield, no bean field, no cattle, no electricity and no running water. Possessions mean little when trying to put food on the table for a family of four or five. Meager wages elevate simple toys into luxury items.
After breakfast, the coffee pickers head out to the coffee fields. Some live on the plantation grounds in makeshift camps, so the walk is very short, while others must travel by foot for as much as an hour in rough terrain to reach the fields.
Picking ripe coffee cherries off the branches of the coffee tree is arduous work. Coffee pickers typically spend 8 to 9 hours amongst thick brush in the fields, with a short break for lunch. The coffee trees are located on steep mountainsides at high altitudes. While this location is best suited to grow the finest arabica coffee, these steep hillsides exert pressure on the ankles after many hours. Some hills are so steep, that I wondered how it was possible for coffee pickers to get at those trees. A coffee picker told me that they must tie themselves to the tree in order not to fall.
Because the coffee harvest is seasonal work, they must work hard to pick as many ripe coffee cherries as possible in order to get more money. Some coffee pickers hum tunes, but mostly, they are focused on working. The more breaks you take, the less money you make since you don’t pick as much coffee as the next person. I see some pictures on other coffee company's websites, and every time you see a coffee picker, they seem to be smiling. Elba told me that this can give people the wrong idea, and mask the hard reality that they have to live everyday.
Just touching the hairs of this caterpillar causes a very painful burning sensation. When Elba was young, she accidentally touched one while picking coffee. She had to continue picking all day because the family needed the money. Later that night she had a fever and felt a lump in her armpit. In Costa Rica, they call this caterpillar a ‘gusano raton’.
As I took a picture of this, another coffee picker told me that if I touched the hair of this caterpillar, to squash it and rub the guts onto the burning skin. Apparently that is a home-remedy to lessen the pain. This caterpillar is just one of the many health risks present on the farms. And it doesn’t help that it is camouflaged with the coffee plant!
Careful attention is paid to ensure only the ripe red coffee cherries are picked. This produces the best flavor for the coffee bean, akin to the ripest tomato tasting better. A bright red coffee cherry does not come off the tree easily. It must be forcibly plucked off. After hours of this, your fingertips start to hurt. Dark red (almost crimson red) cherries are much easier to pick.
Even if it rains, the work doesn’t stop. The ground gets muddy and slippery. It rained during my last trip to Costa Rica, while we were picking coffee. I spilled some cherries on the ground and had to get on my knees and pick them up one by one, since your pay depends on the amount of coffee you pick.
As you fill up your canasta, you have to dump it all in a green bag, like the one pictured above. As you move throughout the plantation, you have to drag the increasingly heavy bag along with you. This bag can hold many latas, and can weigh up to 100 pounds. Once you fill up one bag, you must carry it back to the common area and get a new sack. Back in El Salvador, at the end of the day, Elba would ask a man to help her haul the sack of cherries back after he’s done bringing his own bag back. A coffee picker in Costa Rica told me that the women often have to struggle to bring back the heavy bag by themselves.
While the adults are on the coffee plantations, the children stay back in the villages, with the oldest child acting as the supervisor. Many times the children come along to help their parents with the coffee picking (some as young as four years old). The extra helping hands mean more coffee can be harvested and therefore more money. If they are lucky, there is a local school nearby that they can attend during the day.
Elba came across this young boy sitting on the ground of the coffee plantation. He didn’t complain...it seems that he is used to this routine. This is everyday life for him and his mother. This is the picture that most other coffee companies don’t seem to show...maybe they don’t know these stories since they were not coffee pickers...or maybe it doesn’t fit into their “direct trade”/”relationship coffee”/”ethically sourced” feel-good narrative.
We saw many children of school age on the plantation picking coffee. Even though there are laws against child labor, they are not strictly enforced. Some single mothers have no other option than to bring their children on the farm. And the young children want to help the family generate more income, so they help pick coffee with little buckets. This is what Elba did for most of her childhood in El Salvador.
Before the coffee pickers can bring in the coffee to be weighed, they must first sift through the coffee cherries to remove any sticks and stems from their buckets. Once that’s done, the coffee is ready to be weighed. The plantation foreman will weigh the coffee. If the coffee cherries are suspected of being wet, the foreman may force the picker to dry it out, since wet cherries weigh more.
If the buckets contain too many light-red or, worse, green cherries, they won’t fetch a high price when the farm owner tries to sell the coffee to the beneficio (coffee mill) for processing. I saw one man had his lata rejected, so he had to go through it and pick out the green cherries.
On a good day, the typical coffee picker can pick anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries. The very best and most active pickers can pick up to 400 pounds, although this is not realistic for most people. Anything under 70 pounds is considered a bad daily harvest. To put that in perspective, Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, tried his hand at coffee picking on a coffee estate in Costa Rica. After one hour of hard work, he was able to pick about 15 pounds of coffee and was paid 30 cents for his labor. At that rate, he would have been paid less than $4 USD after 8 or 9 hours.
Elba took this picture of a young boy in Nicaragua keeping guard of his family’s home, while his parents are picking coffee in the plantations.
Payment terms vary depending on the country and even the individual plantation. These numbers were recorded by Elba as she visited the countries of Central America in the past few years. These numbers have likely changed by small amounts due to changes in the coffee markets as well as inflation rates, but they serve to give you a general understanding of how much coffee pickers get paid. For example, in the 1920s, coffee pickers would get paid 15 cents per day. In the 1960s, Elba was paid 50 cents for each lata (about 40 pounds) picked. In the mid 1990s, coffee pickers would get paid roughly $3 USD per day.
In Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador, they pay about $3.50 for each 100 pounds of coffee cherries picked (in 2015). In Guatemala, Elba found that coffee pickers get paid between 40 and 50 Quetzales per 100 pounds (in early 2017). This amounts to about $4.50 - $5.50 USD for each 100 pounds of coffee picked. If we assume the typical coffee picker can harvest 150 pounds a day, we see that they would get paid $7-$8 per day. This is a barely livable wage for a single person, let alone a family in Central America. To put this number in perspective, a cheap smartphone in Guatemala can cost as low as $40 USD, which is still about a full weeks pay on the coffee fields.
Coffee pickers waiting to get paid.
On this plantation, coffee pickers receive a token (like a poker chip) for each lata of coffee cherries picked. The coffee pickers must then line-up to hand in their tokens and get paid for the day. Some plantations pay half in cash, and half in vouchers, for food at local shops.
Elba’s primary goal is to help single mothers who work on the fields all day for very little pay.
It's interesting to note that coffee pickers haven’t figured much in cinema, so it was refreshing to see it done in the excellent film Ixcanul (see blog: Ixcanul - A Film About Coffee Pickers!). In it, you will see that coffee picking isn’t all bad. The situation is certainly better than just 100 years ago. Oftentimes the coffee pickers sing folk songs as a communal group while they work, with the whole family together. And it should be remembered that not all plantations are the same. Some are better equipped with rudimentary medical facilities, while others provide meals to their workers, although this is rare and we never actually encountered a plantation that does this. This is more the exception rather than the norm.
Two tortillas, a small piece of bread and tomatada (a mix of tomato, onions and garlic)
And the end of the day, the coffee pickers then must travel back home, exhausted and with little money to show for their hard labor. They make a small dinner and then go to sleep around 7 - 8pm. The next day, they do it all over again. This is simply everyday life for a coffee picker.
A typical bed for a Central American coffee picker.
In conclusion, one simply cannot afford to support a family of three or four on a budget of about $10 USD per day. The situation is bad and there are no easy solutions to the embedded poverty of the coffee pickers. In my next blog, I’ll look more at what we can, and cannot do, as a coffee company and as a coffee consumer (see blog: The Coffee Pickers! Part 3: Front and Center!)
I like to include the following disclaimer below each of my blogs. I try to make references wherever applicable, but I’ve read many books, dozens of articles, watched documentaries and taken courses on these subjects over the years. I mention this because sometimes I may forget the exact source of my information, so I ask the authors to forgive me if I have not cited some information where I should have.
Hearst, Louise. “Coffee Industry of Central America.” Economic Geography 1932. Page 60.
Kummer, Corby. The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Tilley, Virginia. Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Unknown Author. El hambre de los cortadores. January 19 2014. Retrieved on April 10, 2018. <https://www.laprensagrafica.com/revistas/El-hambre-de-los-cortadores-20140119-0093.html>
Vasquez, Elba. My mother, who knows about the daily life of a coffee picker from personal experience.