By Jack Suntrup
SAN LUIS, Costa Rica — Oldemar Salazar tossed a loose twig and leaf from one of his coffee plants to the ground instead of in his basket of plump coffee beans. Some growers mix twigs and leaves into their ground coffee as filler, but not at Salazar’s small operation, he said.
Salazar follows a 50-step process, one without chemicals and shortcuts — the way his grandparents used to do it.
“They grew it organic, but back in those days you didn’t call it organic. You called it production. You called it coffee,” Salazar said through a translator. “Transferring to organic was kind of like going back to my roots.”
Before Salazar was able to label his coffee as organic, differentiating it from coffee produced by larger competitors was a challenge.
To sustain his operation, his prices had to be higher; bigger companies were able to sell for less. Salazar said customers could not justify paying a higher price for what they saw as the same product.
So, he decided to do away with chemicals to earn a U.S. organic certification.
Salazar was able to afford the expensive certification by sharing the cost and certification with 20 farmers from around Costa Rica. Each is expected to abide by the same rules.
Besides the expenses, not using chemicals has left his crop vulnerable to the roya fungus, a killer that he could have easily done away with by spraying the plants with certain concoctions, he said.
Salazar’s solutions take patience. He is experimenting with a new kind of hybrid plant, one resistant to the disease. So far, the yellow spots that have plagued the other plants have not appeared on the new one.
One coffee plant looked like someone had dumped a bag of flour on it. Salazar explained that he treated that plant with a calcium chloride mix to see if it would have any effect on the fungus.
Perhaps the most drastic measure he is taking to fight the roya fungus is treating his new plants with a fungus that fights off the disease. More land for cultivation is also in the works.
Salazar’s organic coffee-making process takes longer. Twice the work goes into an organic cup of coffee than a regular one, he said.
But word of mouth from satisfied tourists willing to spend a few extra dollars has had a positive impact. Salazar has been able to build his house, pay for a good education for his kids and buy a new coffee toaster.
His house doubles as a storefront for thirsty tourists. Near its wide-open doors, a counter holds fresh-brewed coffee and sweet scones, ready for sampling. The wall opposite the counter is dedicated to the finished product: medium or dark roast, beans or ground, all packaged with recycled paper.
Salazar takes pride in being able to control his operation from his home and still having success. Although the business has been successful after nine years, its expansion depends on how much his family can take care of without sacrificing quality.
“Of course we want to grow,” Salazar said. “All people want to grow, but my brother-in-law and me were talking, and we don’t want to grow any larger than 10 hectares. The bigger you get, the less control you have over the quality and the quantity of your workers.”