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Sustainability and Resilience in Costa Rican Coffee

Farmers the world over are often bearing the brunt of climate impacts and are some of the first who have to adapt. Coffee farmers are no exception. In recent years, I’ve seen a few bleak outlooks on the future of coffee production and consumption. However, in the face of climate threats to livelihoods and GDP, farmers and agronomists are rising to the challenge with ingenuity and resilience. Industry leaders in Costa Rica, and everywhere coffee is grown, are dealing with climate-related issues that have been affecting them for the last ten or twenty years and are creatively adapting to the changes yet to come. We saw firsthand some of the impacts on coffee drying and processing. In other parts of Costa Rica which we did not visit, especially at lower elevations, warmer temperatures and an influx of disease have already done their damage.

Before heading to Costa Rica, I had prepared a long list of questions for farmers and for our exporter. Many were related to climate change and sustainability. Have coffee farmers noticed changes in climate? How do you expect changes in weather patterns and climate to affect coffee production in the future? What are you doing to build resilience? The list goes on. I started getting answers before the wheels even hit the runway. The pilot came over the loudspeaker and informed us passengers we should prepare for some intense braking. As we landed and taxied toward the terminal, the rain came down in torrents. We left the airport in a taxi and began the journey down the mountainside into San José, where traffic was backed up by the rain. Water was rushing alongside the roadways, and more than one accident was being attended to by emergency personnel. Thus began our lesson on climate changes in Costa Rica.

It was a common thread that connected each of our coffee farm visits, from Tarrazú to the West Valley. This daily pouring rain was unexpected and utterly out of season. March is summertime in Costa Rica, and is historically one of the driest and sunniest months for the country, even considering the varied microclimates. Coffee producers rely on this weather during the harvest season, which runs December through March. Drier, sunnier weather aids in harvesting, making everything from picking to transport easier. 

During this time, coffee is also being dried on patios and raised beds, subject to the elements. Humidity makes this process take longer, which introduces more opportunities for damage and defects resulting in lower quality and off flavors. There’s a fine balance to the length of time a producer dries the coffee. Naturals and some honey processed coffees can take as long as two weeks to dry. Often this is done under a cover, like a greenhouse, to reduce damage from direct solar radiation, but when the humidity is high, this process can take even longer.

One micromill we visited was in the process of moving their remaining coffee through their mechanical driers because it was taking too long to dry on the patio. Normally they would have preferred these natural processed beans to be completely dried on the beds, but because of the humidity, rainfall, and lack of sun, it was not getting hot enough to complete the process. Not all micro-mills are equipped with such mechanical driers. Cerro La Cruz, a micromill we have been buying from for six years, was able to invest in one of these driers in 2022 and were thankful to have it. It means more control over the drying process, ensuring that their coffee remains stable during storage and lasts longer when we get it into our warehouse in the U.S. Mechanical dryers have their drawbacks, however, requiring energy to run and if producers aren’t careful, drying can take place too fast and affect the quality as well.

Unpredictable precipitation also has an impact on the coffee tree life cycle, affecting flowering and cherry development. At Cerro La Cruz, these latest rains brought on a beautiful flush of white blossoms. When pointing out that these flowers will eventually become the next season’s harvest, Cesar and Jason, the producers, mentioned that they are hopeful for a second flowering because of this unseasonable rain. However, banking on that is risky, and if the rainy season comes with long periods of drought, like has happened in past years, trees start to abort blossoms, dramatically reducing potential yields. 

There are solutions being researched and implemented by producers and ICafé (Costa Rica’s coffee governing body and governmental research organization). I’ve already mentioned a few of them, like hybrid drying methods involving mechanical driers. Helsar de Zarcero, a micromill we visited which processes coffee for dozens of families, employs multiple guardiolas and box dryers in series to achieve even drying in a way that has a low impact on cup quality. Networks built through cooperative mills and exporters can help connect farmers to expensive resources like dryers when needed.

While coffee is becoming increasingly harder to grow at lower elevations in Costa Rica because of warmer temperatures and rainfall, there is a new trend toward being able to grow more coffee with better yields at higher elevations. A great example is Imperio Rojo Micromill on Mount Chirripó. We were able to cup several of their harvest lots alongside the producer, Jose Elandio Alvarado. At around 2000 meters above sea level, they are successfully producing interesting coffees along with running their own mill in an area that wasn’t really known for coffee only a little over a decade ago. 

When it comes to actually growing coffee trees, farmers are paying extra attention to improving the health of their plantations through cultural practices. It starts with variety selection. Alan Oviedo, owner of Don Joel Micromill in the West Valley, selects seeds from the coffee trees on his plantation that are healthy, well-adapted to his microclimate on the side of Volcan Poás, and produce excellent quality beans. He uses those seeds to start the next succession of coffee trees in his nursery. This is a common practice in Costa Rica for farmers to produce their own plants. 

Creating resilient coffee trees also depends on the health of the soil. The wet milling processes that are common in Costa Rica (washed and honey processed coffees) create waste products in the form of water and pulp. At Cerro la Cruz, the rinse water that results from depulping, washing, and fermenting the beans is cultured with beneficial microorganisms and is used as a soil conditioner. The pulp is often composted and used to add organic matter to the soil - we saw this at La Lia Micromill and at Don Joel. Cerro La Cruz was in the process of stumping and pruning their coffee trees during the time that we were visiting, and on our farm walk, we could see how they used the material, as long as it was free of disease, as a mulch. Cesar and Jason informed us that this helps encourage healthy soil biology, like beneficial nematodes. Healthy soil, proper care of plants, and genetics all help a coffee tree build resistance and keep up production in the face of pests and diseases.

All of the farms we visited in Costa Rica had native trees such as citrus and banana which were used to help create microclimates for coffee trees. Not only useful for shade and windbreaks, fruit and nut trees can be used to diversify crops, lessening financial impacts if coffee yields are down. Helsar de Zarcero has been working with the University of Costa Rica to create value-added products like dried cascara (the part of the coffee cherry that is normally discarded and composted during milling) and are using the dryer to process other produce like bananas. It is an effort that aims at reducing waste and increasing value and diversification of income.

Some other more technical projects for enhancing resilience include developing hybrids that are resistant to problematic pathogens like coffee rust. Even boutique coffee growers, such as Sumava de Lourdes in the West Valley, are experimenting with hybrids such as Milenio which is known to maintain excellent cup quality along with disease resistance. Grafting is another experimental method that Francisco Mena, the owner of Sumava, mentioned in passing. If you’ve ever planted apple trees in the North, they’re probably grafted onto hardy rootstocks of a different variety. You can do that with coffee, too. Arabica tops, for the complex and flavorful cup characteristics, are grafted onto Robusta or Liberica roots, for their resistance to pests and diseases. It’s not common in Costa Rica or elsewhere, as it is expensive and labor intensive, but it’s another tool in the toolbox. 

Finally, there are the Exporters who have a role to play in adapting to a changing climate, increasing resilience in the coffee industry, and supporting the growers that they work with. Francisco Mena, owner of Exclusive Coffees, the exporter we work with in Costa Rica, has made it his mission to increase awareness of many of these issues for everyone in their value chain. They are committed to working closely with their producer relationships. Through shared knowledge, they can help mitigate the risks of producing coffee in an uncertain and changing climate, while continuing to grow high quality specialty coffee. For example, Exclusive works with their long-term relationships to help them get loans from government programs and covers the interest for them during times when they may have higher or unexpected capital expenses.

Growth of coffee trees, potential yields, processing, and cup quality are all affected by changes in climate. Shifts in weather patterns, pests, and diseases due to a changing climate are impacting the decisions producers make on a day to day basis. 50,000 Costa Rican families are involved in small-scale coffee production and the way they grow coffee will continue to shift and change. I'm excited to see what innovation brings and look forward to enjoying these lovely and diverse Costa Rican coffees season after season.

Katy Szapa

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