On The Farm And "Off The Grid" In Costa Rica

I have been fortunate to travel to many coffee origins in my many years. Each time, I do my best to come back with photographs that will tell the story. But I know that “the pictures just don’t do it justice.” So our New England Sales Director set out for Costa Rica in January to see organic coffee growing first hand! He visited Roberto Montero and his La Amistad farm, where I have been buying from for 20 years now. In fact, I was the first roaster to use his wonderful certified organic coffee. His first container was split between an importer, a small roaster in Seattle, and little ‘ole me. We continue to be loyal to Don Roberto as he is to us. With that said, here is our travelogue (not including a 2 AM drive to Newark because of cancelled flights in Boston!)" - Jim Cannell  

I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica on a Sunday afternoon, January 5th. Early on Monday morning I was picked up by Don Roberto Montero along with his niece, Laura and nephew, Paulo. We embarked on a seven and a half hour drive through the countryside. Don Roberto was intent on showing me some very interesting and beautiful parts of his country.  He and the Costa Rican people are very proud of their heritage and their standing in the Central/Latin American community.  Crocodile rivers, surfing towns, and high-end beach resorts dotted the landscape as we worked our way south to Don Roberto’s farm, “La Amistad”. La Amistad is nestled in the mountains of a rainforest in the town of Golfito. Started by Don Roberto’s grandfather sixty to seventy years ago, it originally had 12,000 hectares. He has since granted about 4,000 acres to the local villagers so that they can have their own land.  La Amistad begins at 1300 meters elevation (4000 feet). The coffee farm takes up 700 hectares, set at the elevation range needed to grow coffee - 1300 m to 1600 m (4000 ft to 5000 ft). Being in the rainforest and on the continental divide, the farm has an abundance of natural shade from the indigenous vegetation, which provides wonderful shade for the coffee.  When they need shade in areas that are great for growing coffee but lack natural shade, they will plant banana trees and other leafy vegetation. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s species, plants, bugs, birds, ocean creatures, etc., and only .05% of the world’s land. Biodiversity is the fabric of the rainforest and the Farm uses all the resources available to make everything work together and sustainably. Tuesday morning started early. I met Don Roberto at 7am for a very healthy breakfast complete with fresh fruit and vegetable juice. All ingredients and meals are made and produced on the farm.  The four of us drove up into the mountains in his incredible range rover, golf-cart-type vehicle. Don Roberto showed me a section of land that had 250,000 seedlings of coffee plants. We also had a chance to see ripe cherries ready to be picked as well as new seedlings recently planted, and new acreage that has been cleared and set with shade trees in order to help the coffee grow properly. Don Roberto has a very special high-end coffee in mind for this area (something different from what he normal grows!) This new site is set at 1600 meters - the highest elevation that coffee can grow.  We then visited the compost pile.  Ripe is an understatement.  As I mentioned before they use approximately 700 hectares for coffee, on which Don Roberto produces approximately 750,000 pounds of coffee a year. Harvesting is done in roughly three and a half months. Within that time, he will produce all the coffee that he exports for the entire year. I had a very nice lunch where I was introduced to Habanero chilies that had been aged for 7 years. Very hot but very good! Don Roberto showed me their Hydro-electric power plant that runs the entire facility. His grandfather devised an ingenious method to capture the water from the rainforest and use it to power the entire farm.  They have three water sources right there on the farm that they can manipulate to run the power plant. Because they are situated at the base of the rainforest, they have natural running crystal-clear water and have devised a brilliant way to take this natural resource and create an energy system that keeps them entirely “off the grid.” They are completely sustainable and self-sufficient. Ninety-two percent of the coffee harvested gets graded as ‘A’ coffee and 8% of the yield represents seconds and thirds.  (We only use the ‘A’ grade). Don Roberto's grandfather was an extremely inventive and savvy man, devising systems that have been copied throughout the coffee-producing world. It takes time and consideration to produce coffee that has such a high quality and yield. The processes in place that Don Roberto's grandfather and Don Roberto himself practice directly result in the exquisite product that is produced:  Organically and sustainably! Climate change is of major concern to Don Roberto and the farm. Last year they faced the worst drought in 100 years, changing the entire cycle for coffee as well as fruits and vegetables. This year however, they are about 80% back to normal. Changing environment is an ongoing worry for Don Roberto. As the climate changes so do the coffee seasons, and they are always looking for natural ways to maintain and protect themselves and the farm. As a farmer, Don Roberto must stay years ahead of his crops. Unfortunately, there has been an invasive plant similar to a sea grass that grows around and suffocates the coffee trees, causing them to die. To battle this without chemicals, he has purchased a dark “Earth Mat” from Australia that covers his land and naturally kills the grass over time. They will then remove the mat and hack away the dead grass, still using the Earth Mat in other areas to keep the invasive weed in check. Furthermore, blight had been destroying coffee trees throughout Central and South America. Don Roberto lost 5% of his coffee plants to this. He received consultation from people in Guatemala that gave him a proper method to fight it organically. Many other villages and farms were hit hard by the blight. Don Roberto was lucky - he said it could have wiped out his entire crop. After dinner we walked to the processing area. Don Roberto wanted me to witness the coffee production, starting with the area where the cherries are soaked. He soaks them for 36 to 48 hours, which is about twice the average of what other coffee producers do. Once this process is done the cherries are ready to be milled. The first stage in their milling system is the sorting process. Only the best and most dense beans will make it through. The water is taken from the rainforest and acts like a river, flowing down over the coffee beans. The heavier beans drop to the bottom and the lighter beans float to the top and are removed. This sorting system happens throughout the entire process, with checks and balances all the way to the end. The Grade A beans then move on to the drying area. The drying process is very different from other places. Once again, Don Roberto's grandfather showed incredible ingenuity in designing large perforated drums filled with air that allow the coffee to dry more evenly and with more consistency, producing a higher yield.  This system has been duplicated time and time again throughout the coffee production world. Quality control is second-to-none. From the moment the process begins, all the way to the end where it is bagged and ready to go out on pallets, Don Robert and his men are inspecting and perfecting every bean.La Amistad Farm employs approximately one hundred people from the local village. Don Roberto introduced me to several workers who have been there for almost 50 years, back to when his grandfather first started it! Multiple generations have worked the farm and continue to be employees of Don Roberto Montero. He treats his employees fairly and pays them well. Don Roberto recently added dehydration ovens to his farm that are designed to process vegetables and fruits.  His business is growing and diversifying, thus creating employment year round for the villagers. Don Roberto is very passionate about organic and a proud agriculturalist. The entire country seems to be based around farming, however, the largest export is Intel and microchips. Second is pineapple and finally, third is coffee.  The natural setting of this farm is something that must be seen. It is so beautiful, the elevations are breathtaking, and the flowers, the birds, etc. make the land a unique bio diverse environment and a very special place to visit on earth.