Elba’s Costa Rica Trip

I arrived in Costa Rica and saw coffee trees growing everywhere, in backyards or even in the middle of a busy city like Heredia!

Look at the bananas growing from under the banana flowers!

Here I am touring one of the biggest beneficios (coffee mill) in the country, called CoopeLibertad. This is the first part of the de-pulping process, where the coffee seeds are removed from the cherries.

I inspected the roast sample from this small Probat sample roaster. It was an even medium-light roast.

Martin was a great help throughout my visit. He is telling me how he evaluates different  green coffee samples by analyzing the roast.  

The first step in cupping is to grind several beans of the same origin, and then smell each cup. The idea is to get a good overall impression of the aroma and scents of roasted coffee seeds from one particular farm.

The next step is to pour hot water and then smell each cup of coffee.

The simplest infusion method…just pour hot water over coffee grounds directly in the cup. This is how the professionals cup coffee. A crust is forming at the top of each cup, which must be broken with a spoon.

The final step is to slurp the coffee from a spoon after the coffee cools down for a few minutes. This was a very bright, slightly acidic coffee with a mellow aftertaste. A very good Costa Rican coffee.

A beautiful view from the coffee plantation in Costa Rica.

I spent the whole day picking coffee to meet coffee pickers. It is very hard work. I was very tired by the end of the day. I don’t have the same energy as when I was a young girl picking coffee.

If coffee pickers don’t pick the ripest cherries, the foreman won’t let them pick coffee again in the farm. It was very hot today. I’m wearing my jacket because I know that the rains can come any minute.

I almost touched this caterpillar…and believe me, it would sting! Just touching the hairs of this caterpillar causes a very painful burning sensation. When I was young I accidentally touched one while picking coffee. You have to continue picking all day because you desperately need the money. Later that night I had a fever and felt a lump in my 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!

Slowly, as the hours pass, I start to fill up my canasta with red coffee cherries. When I was a young girl, a full canasta of coffee cherries, representing many hours of hard work, paid 50 cents for coffee pickers!

Douglas and his wife Doris. Douglas told me that he couldn’t pick coffee much anymore these days, because he has back pain. It is true that picking coffee puts strain on your back, as you continue to fill up the canasta, while bending over to reach branches on the coffee tree.

Each coffee picker has a row to follow. You can’t just pick on any coffee tree. It has to be more organized, so that pickers can systematically sweep across the fields.

I found this bird’s nest in this coffee tree. Another coffee picker I met called Irene told me that many years back, her sister was picking coffee and a whole beehive fell into her canasta. She was stung multiple times.

As you can see, my hands are dirty. The cherries on this branch are mostly not ripe enough for picking. This is why plantations have coffee pickers sweep through sections of a farm multiple times. The plantation owner wants to make sure he gets paid for every possible ripe cherry on his farm.

I am in the thick of it. The ground is uneven and there are logs and branches all over, so I had to be careful not to roll my ankle.

This branch is perfect for picking. Notice the different shades of red. The dark red (almost crimson) cherries come out very easily.

This young woman told me that she wakes up around 4am each morning to prepare her young son’s food for the day while they are both at the plantation.

Her son was just sitting on the ground. I only brought one toy with me this day, but it was a doll. I gave it to him anyways so he could have something to play with.

For those that woke up early enough to prepare a lunch, you must eat in the fields (you can find a log to sit on). I’ve read that some plantations provide lunch for their workers. Even though I was on a Fair Trade certified farm, none of the coffee pickers I spoke to even heard of that before.

The bright red cherries do not come off easily. You have to really pull it out, taking care not to squish the cherry. After hours of picking these types of cherries, your fingertips are hurting.

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. This can give North Americans the wrong idea, and mask the hard reality that they have to live everyday.

As you fill up your canasta, you have to dump it all in a green bag, like this one. 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, I would ask a man to help me haul the sack of cherries back after he brings his back. A coffee picker told me that the women often have to struggle to bring back the heavy bag by themselves.

At one moment, the heat can be intense…

And then minutes later, you could be drenched in rain.

But at least the views are nice!

Precious coffee cherries! This image represents a lot of work!

This lady came prepared for the weather. After it rains a lot, the ground gets muddy. And if you spill your coffee cherries by accident (as I had), you have to get on your knees and pick up each cherry on the muddy ground, since you’re pay depends on those cherries.

Garbage bags are a useful item on the plantation. It’s easy to store in your pocket and can help keep your clothes dry.

The next step is to see how many latas (standard 5 gallon buckets) I picked for the day.

I worked almost non-stop for 8 hours, and only managed to pick one and a half lata! A coffee picker told me that on some farms, when most of the cherries on the tree are very ripe, pickers can pick up to 20 latas of cherries!

The coffee pickers must then bring their latas for inspection by the foreman of the plantation. 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.

Notice the grey bucket in the foreground. This is where everyone puts the cherries which are not ripe enough.

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 I did for most of my childhood in El Salvador.

This young boy, the son of Jessenia, a coffee picker in Costa Rica, must know how important these cherries are for his family’s livelihood. Does he know those cherries are used to produce coffee, or does he think they are valued for the fruit itself? Unfortunately, he has a hard life ahead of him. The life of a coffee picker is not easy. It is a life of poverty. Elba met him and his mother on her recent trip to Costa Rica.

For each lata of coffee cherries picked, you receive a token (like a poker chip). The coffee pickers must then line-up to hand in their tokens and get paid for the day. Payment terms vary by plantation. Some plantations pay half in cash, and half in vouchers, for food at local shops.

I was paid 1,750 colones, or $2.55 CAD for the full day. This is obviously a very low wage, and to think, Costa Rica has some of the highest wages for coffee pickers in all of Central America! Also keep in mind that I worked on a “Fair Trade” certified farm. Does that sound like Fair Trade to you?

Coffee Mike: I think it is important to remember that Fair Trade certifications aims to help the plantation owner receive more money for his coffee. It does not seem to do anything about the coffee pickers doing the hard work. I asked one coffee picker about Fair Trade. He never heard of the certification, but laughed at the idea of this system being ‘fair’. Workers on any coffee, sugar cane or cacao plantations know that working on farms picking commodities which are exported, can never be fair, because people expect cheap coffee, sugar and chocolate up north. There is no real ‘fairly traded’ coffee. A truly fair traded cup of coffee might cost up to 8 or 10 dollars for a single 10 ounce cup! Are we all willing to make that sacrifice?

At least the coffee pickers get to pick free oranges from the trees on the plantation.

Later in my trip I visited don Leo Robles, the owner of this micro-mill. He is also a small producer in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica.

This is the depulping area, where the coffee seeds (still in their parchment) gets extracted from the coffee cherry.

Don Leo was nice enough to explain his operation and the different coffees he produces.

All the different ways to process coffee (double washed, washed, natural, honey processed) produced green coffee seeds which have their own distinct scent and, eventually, flavor.

I like this picture because it shows the full evolution of ripening coffee cherries. It starts off green, and eventually goes yellow, orange, red, maroon, and then finally, as it over ripens, it begins to turn brown and then black and shriveled (if not picked in time).

It is amazing how this tree and it’s cherries have taken hold over the whole world. It produces one of the very most naturally flavorful drinks known.

I went to meet four mothers who pick coffee for a living. One of them just had a son two weeks prior to my visit, so she stayed home instead of working in the fields.

I brought them many toys, some food and school supplies for their children. They all lived in a small apartment with no drinkable water.

They told me all about the difficulties that coffee pickers and mothers face. Like most coffee pickers in Costa Rica, they are Nicaraguan migrants looking for work. They work long hours in the fields for very little pay to support their families. One young mother, Johelia, called the idea of fair trade a lie, because they don’t get any healthcare or livable wages.

I also made sure to give them all a week’s pay in cash, because I know they desperately need it. I had a nice talk with them explaining my business and how I hope to give back to coffee pickers directly, without the need for any certifications or third parties. They wished me success and saw how far I came, from a coffee picker in El Salvador to a business owner in Canada.

Johelia almost cried when I gave her the money. She told me in Spanish ‘you have no idea how much we needed this’.

With your help, I can build this business more and in turn, give more back each time I travel to Central America. For my Costa Rica trip, my son and I helped more coffee picker’s families than any of my past trips. Every year I do more. Giving back really is the best part of my trips! If you want to know about the situation of the coffee pickers in Central America, read the articles my son has written. 

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