by Marie French
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica – San Luis small coffee farmer and producer Oldemar Salazar still has a mortar and pestle used by his great-grandfather to make coffee.
The pestle, made from a fruit tree, requires two hands to lift and then slam down onto dried coffee beans in the mortar, carved from a sweet cedar. This is the traditional way to remove the final shell from dried coffee beans.
The strong wind blew the lighter shells away as Salazar dropped a handful of material from the mortar. Nowadays, he does not use this method of shelling for the coffee he produces to sell.
“It’s for family use,” he said of the traditional man-powered method.
Instead, he uses an electric machine to perform the same function.
Salazar sells the final product from his certified organic farm under the brand La Bella Tica.
His coffee farm, production and tour exemplify the complex overlay of agriculture, environmentalism and tourism in the Monteverde area. The booming tourism industry driven largely by the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has created a potential source of income, but also presents challenges for the community.
For Salazar, tours of his small farm and coffee processing facility are essential to his living. About 90 percent of the coffee he makes is sold after tours, he said. Salazar and his family have a single hectare, or 2.5 acres, to farm, producing between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds annually.
Tours are also the main source of income for a much larger coffee production operation in Monteverde, Don Juan.
Salazar’s informal tour, with a focus on his personal connection with his farm and process, contrasts with the tour of the Don Juan coffee farm, given by a tour guide in a gray and red uniform shirt. While the coffee at the end of Salazar’s tour is served in his house, the tours of Don Juan take place at a model farm specifically for that purpose, and the coffee is served in the same building as the gift shop.
The tours of Don Juan are offered in both English and Spanish, unlike Salazar’s tour of La Bella Tica. Salazar does not speak English.
With about 10 hectares total on four different farms, Don Juan is 10 times the size of Salazar’s farm. The annual production of coffee beans is about 18,000 pounds.
“That’s nothing,” Don Juan tour guide Hairo Cespedes said. “We are still considered a small farm.”
Don Juan has five regularly scheduled tours each day – including one night tour. Cespedes estimated that 3,000 tourists come through in a year.
“Without the tour, you can’t sell the coffee,” he said.
The Don Juan operation has 12 employees, Cespedes said. The company also purchases cocoa beans to manufacture chocolates, which are sold alongside coffee, coffee liqueur, and chocolate-covered espresso beans at a gift shop in a large building with big wooden tables and large windows looking out onto the farm.
Guillermo Vargas, the program coordinator for Life Monteverde, a sustainable farming project, worries about the dependency on tourism and the prevalence of agro-tourism. He said it makes the area economy vulnerable to problems in other countries and may weaken the sense of community.
“The challenge and the risk is to not be too attracted to the tourism business that you do not farm,” Vargas said. “We should not have agriculture as only something to present to tourists.”
Life Monteverde grows coffee, but tours are mainly for students. The coffee is sent to San Luis to be processed, and 75 to 80 percent is sold under the label Coffee Traders Inc., a fair trade brand.
The primary focus of Life Monteverde, instead of tourism, is education and sustainability. The farm also has goats, pigs, chickens, quail and a large variety of vegetables.
About 10 hectares of coffee plants produce 50,000 pounds of beans per year at Life Monteverde. Vargas said this is the best pound per hectare production of any coffee farm in Monteverde. He attributes that success to the organic fertilizer from the goats, chickens and pigs used to fertilize the coffee plants.
Vargas spends only about half his time on organizing, preparing and giving tours.
“We do not want to be 100 percent waiting for and preparing for the visitors,” he said.
-edited by Sally French