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Where Your Costa Rica Coffee Comes From And What It Took For You To Get It

Where Your Costa Rica Coffee Comes From And What It Took For You To Get It

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on October 17th, 2017.

ARE YOU A COFFEE DRINKER? BETTER YET, ARE YOU AN INFORMED ONE?

Costa Rica coffee is incredible. Arguably one of the best coffees in the world, it is no surprise that some of the biggest brewers including Starbucks and Tim Hortons opt for Tico beans. If you are a coffee drinker, you likely savour the flavour, know the exact blend that is right for you, and have your drink preparation guidelines nailed down. If perk peaks your interest, you may also know how coffee is produced, be able to describe the product’s process from bean plant to manufacturing plant, and understand the perfect coffee bean roasting technique. But how much do you really know about where (or should we say, who) your coffee comes from, about what is given in return for the ideal product that so many of us consume on a daily basis, and about what all goes into making the perfect cup of coffee beyond cream and sugar?

LIFE AS A BEAN-PICKER ON A COSTA RICAN COFFEE PLANTATION

A large part of Ricky’s childhood was spent working at coffee plantations in the Turrialba area of Costa Rica. His memories of the job bring both smiles and sadness to my face; while many of his shared anecdotes describe instances of joy experienced throughout his years as a bean-picker, others document the multitude of challenges and difficulties he was confronted with on a daily basis in order to complete his work. All remind me that coffee production in Costa Rica is manually intensive, and that the success of the industry is a direct result of the hard work provided by the individuals who mastered the plantations, despite being overshadowed by the decorative talents of baristas at work in dimly lit cafes and snappy coffee campaigns published by marketing representatives seated comfortably in corporate offices.

A day on a Costa Rica coffee plantation

As Ricky explains, the workday started early, usually between 4:00am and 4:30am in order to have enough time to prepare breakfast and lunch for the day. Since he needed to leave home earlier than the local bus’s first scheduled stop, he would walk to work, unless he was lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of a cow truck. Once at the coffee plantation, sticks in the ground marked each bean-picker’s territory. Divided into long columns that ran from the side of the road to the top of the plantation’s hill, each section’s incline was a steep one.

Beginning his hike, Ricky would make his way up the column looking for the perfect spot to stash his lunch and the coffee bags that were provided to him by the plantation manager. Poro trees were ideal–their leaves provided protective shade from the sun and their branches were strong enough to support the weight of his packed lunch, which was tied up high to prevent animals from enjoying the food before Ricky was able to break for a meal later in the day.

With his lunch in place and his empty coffee bags hidden nearby, Ricky would spend the day climbing up and down the side of the plantation in search of red and yellow coffee beans. Careful not to pick the green ones, as such irresponsible work was cause for termination, Ricky would balance himself and the large woven coffee basket tied to his waist as he made his way through the plantation, slowly collecting his income. Basket by basket, he would pour the gathered beans into the coffee bags and store them by the Poro tree. After hours of the same routine (despite midday relief for lunch), the end of work was signaled by the arrival of the coffee truck. Bean-pickers lined up for their turn to dump their coffee bags into cajuelas, which allowed higher-ups in the industry to measure the total quantity of beans collected. As Ricky recalls, the payment earned was 50 colones per cajulea, the equivalent of approximately 10 cents. On a good day, when between twelve and sixteen cajuelas were filled, bean-pickers would go home with roughly $1.20-$1.60 in their pockets. Nowadays, the going rate for a cajuela is closer to $2.00, however despite the 20x increase over the last 20 years or so, it is still difficult to believe that at Costa Rica coffee plantations, a day of hard labour is currently valued between $24.00-$32.00.

THE UNSETTLING REALITY OF COSTA RICA COFFEE PLANTATIONS

Perhaps the most unsettling part of how Costa Rica coffee plantation labour is valued in today’s society is the lack of work security offered by employment in the field. Jobs at coffee plantations are seasonal, and since the Costa Rica coffee season typically lasts between three and four months of the year (depending on the plantation’s exact location and the weather the area receives), bean-pickers are typically only guaranteed work for a few months at a time. For this reason, not only are bean-pickers limited to work at certain times of the year, but their degree of success and take-home pay (determined by the number of cajuelas they can fill according to the number of beans that are ready to be picked) is entirely weather-dependent and out of their control.

Payment for the work (or lack thereof) aside, Costa Rica coffee plantation workers face countless other challenges. Simply bracing the weather and its extremes–from torrential rain downpours to scorching dry heat and burning rays of sun–is an incredible feat. Work conditions are uncomfortable and strenuous on the body, including the requirement to stand on and climb over a steep incline/decline throughout the day, carrying large and heavy baskets/bags, reaching up high and bending down low to access plants, occasionally getting poked in the face by a lingering branch or hitting a knee on a rock when kneeling down, and going home with sore and cut fingers that are completely raw from picking beans all day. Mosquitoes, wasps, and snakes make regular appearances, and there is nowhere near to go to for medical assistance if and when it is needed. And, perhaps the the most inhumane form of neglect of the bunch, Ricky confirms that on the Costa Rica coffee plantation he used to work at, no bathrooms were available; workers were forced to enter the surrounding forest or a secluded area nearby to relieve themselves.

Of the two photos pictured above, I snapped the photo on the right of Ricky a number of years ago during many of our drives around the Turrialba area. We visited the exact same location that the first photo on the left–which features Ricky as a young boy–was taken at. After years of being a successful white water rafting guide and safety kayaker, and now with nearly a decade under his belt as a business owner, it is humbling to remember the experiences that first taught Ricky to be responsible, appreciate the value of a dollar, and work hard. One thing that will never change is his ability to see the silver lining in everything. Our visit to the Costa Rica coffee plantation brought back many memories–surely, both good memories and troubling ones–yet, he had nothing but positive things to say about his experience. He explained that everyone who worked on the plantation was happy–happy with life in general and happy to be working where they did. He suggested that some people were quiet workers, but their silence didn’t signify sadness, it meant that they were working as hard and as focused as they possibly could to provide for themselves and their loved ones. Other people (Ricky included) would compete with friends working on the same plantation to see who could fill the most baskets, bags, etc. Older adults would share stories about their families and some would even help the time pass by singing karaoke songs like rancheras (yip! yip!). At lunch, the workers would gather together, flip over their baskets to use as seats, and share their yuca, sausage, or plantain with one another. After all, the bean-pickers were more than simply co-workers, they were a family.

Note:

  • American readers, if you are interested in learning more about fair trade companies in the US, please access the Fair Trade Directory.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you tried Costa Rica coffee? Did you enjoy it?

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32 thoughts on “Where Your Costa Rica Coffee Comes From And What It Took For You To Get It”

  • Thanks for stopping by marikaesque.wordpress.com and liking my latest post. I spent a couple of months in Costa Rica 5 years ago (already, wow!) and loved it. Can’t wait to get back and see more of it! In the meantime, I’ll keep looking at your blog for inspiration and nostalgia.

    I also want to thank you for sharing this info on what goes into a cup of coffee. I’ve been working in Fair Trade for years, looking to create a more sustainable way of doing business and know that awareness makes a big difference.

    Cheers!

    • Marika –
      Your comment put a huge smile on our faces! It is great to hear that you have been working in Fair Trade – we proudly wrote the blog post “Where Your Costa Rica Coffee Comes From (And What It Took For You To Get It)” and would be even prouder if it inspired any reader to think twice about work conditions. We’re also so glad to hear that you have been to Costa Rica before and spent a few months in-country. You know we’d love to have you back! 😉
      Pura vida!

    • Radu Stefan RS –
      Thank you so much for the kind compliment! Your blog is unbelievably addictive. We love movies and could spend hours browsing through your posts/archive. Loved the recent piece on Crazy, Stupid. Love. 🙂
      Pura vida!

  • I love trying different coffees, but I can’t remember the last time I had a Costa Rican one. After reading this, I’m thinking that needs to change. The stories of people working on these coffee farms is so heartbreaking yet inspiring. Especially so when you think about how much we’re willing to pay for a good cup of coffee in speciality coffee shops. Great post 🙂

    • Emilia –
      Thank you so much for your comment! Costa Rica coffee is SO good, and you are 100% right – considering how much most people are willing to pay for a cup, it would be wonderful if the workers producing the greatness were valued the same. All the best to you on your coffee-drinking and croissant-tasting adventures! 😉
      Pura vida!

  • Thank you for painting a true picture of what goes in to that beautiful espresso that I enjoy everyday; I always buy Fairtrade, but didn’t really realise just how much hard work goes in to something we take for granted. I have a new found deep appreciation for my morning coffee and I wish more people did too. Have posted out this link on Twitter!

    • stefanicrystal –
      Thank you so much for your great comment! We are so glad that the post inspired self reflection and awareness. Thank you also for the tweet (are you @gradabout?)! If so, we’ll retweet it now. 🙂
      Pura vida!

      • No problem at all! Twitter @stefanicrystal – thanks!

        P.S. – I just have to say that I love the expression Pura Vida. It has always resonated with me; the first gift my boyfriend, who is Spanish, ever bought me was a hand made wooden bracelet with the words ‘pura vida’ written on it – two of the first words I ever learnt in Spanish! I’ve never been to Costa Rica yet though it is up there in my top 5 countries to visit – I can only imagine the pura vida that is experienced in such a beautiful place.

      • stefanicrystal –
        Thanks so much for the tweet – we just retweeted it. 🙂
        Re: “pura vida”. Us too, and we have miles in common. Check out the following post (one of the first we ever wrote) – http://costaricatravelblog.com/2011/08/19/what-is-pura-vida-and-why-is-it-all-over-costa-rica/ – and note the ‘bracelet’ photo. A pura vida bracelet was the first gift my husband (boyfriend at the time) gave me as well. Can’t wait to hear from you the day you make it to CR!
        Pura vida!

  • Costa Rica is one of the places I wish to visit someday, love this bit about coffee, coffee is one of those things for us Puerto Ricans 🙂 PURA VIDA!

  • Great article, I’ve done some fruit picking jobs back in the day. Snakes, storms, spiders can be nasty… but I did it for fun that’s the difference. Great to see the reality of where our coffee comes from!

    • morgansherrah –
      Thanks so much for your comment! It is great to hear from someone who has had a similar experience, and even better to hear that you too appreciate learning where products (in this case, coffee) come from! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  • What an interesting post! I hope to visit Costa Rica at some point.
    I have to agree with Stefanicrystal, I too did not realize the incredibly work ordeal the workers face on a day to day basis.
    Thanks also for becoming a follower of my blog.
    -Audrey

    • audfashion –
      It is incredible how much “behind the scenes” work goes into so many products that most of us consume on a daily basis with little understanding (or appreciation for) the entire process. Thanks goes out to you for taking a moment to read our story re: coffee bean pickers in Costa Rica, and for sharing your humility with us! 🙂
      Pura vida!

    • djmatticus –
      Hmmmm… I would guess that it was Trader Joe’s Peaberry Coffee (when it was available). I believe the only other product they offer that includes Costa Rican beans is their Italian Roast Espresso. In either case, I’m sure it was delicious! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  • Ricky’s story makes me smile. My parents have coffee on their property in Costa Rica. CR coffee is so delicious because it has the Pura Vida love in it! 🙂

  • Wow, it’s amazing all the things the costa rica coffee has to go through to get to the people’s hands.
    I wish this things were much different than they were, but unfortunately, they aren’t.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Britt –
      Hola amigos! Thanks so much for the comment. As you know, coffee is a HUGE industry – so many rely on it (some to make a living and others to simply make it through their morning). We too wish some parts of the industry were different, however in the meantime we are happy to simply facilitate a discussion on the topic to let coffee-drinkers everywhere know why they should appreciate the cup. 🙂
      Pura vida!

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