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A COSTA RICAN SMALLHOLDING ETCHES OUT THE STEPS TO SUSTAINABLE COFFEE GROWING

Here in Costa Rica, this ribbed hillside is comprised of row upon row of perfectly manicured coffee trees. Built up and cared for by cultivator Luis Emilio, this farm is rapidly becoming a blueprint for sustainable coffee growing practices.

WORDS BY JACK NEIGHBOUR

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

A FRIEND AND MENTOR

Luis (left) discusses all things coffee with his agronomist, and friend, Fernando Segura (right). Luis is a second-generation coffee farmer who, after spending a portion of his working life as a taxi driver, decided to return to growing, only in a completely sustainable way. Since then Luis has joined the Nespresso AAA Sustainability Programme, which introduced him to Fernando. Now they work closely together to trial new methods that constantly improve the productivity and sustainability of Luis's farm.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

THE TREES THAT STAND GUARD OVER COFFEE

The key to managing a sustainable coffee farm is nurturing the natural ecosystem that it sits in—and trees are the catalyst. Here, Luis trims a defensive line of non-coffee trees because he knows that his whole crop depends on them. Being a particularly windy region, the trees shield Luis’ delicate coffee plants from gusts while protecting the soil from being blown or washed away, and provide shade so that the fruit each bean develops inside can properly ripen. The leaves that fall from these trees also nourish the soil around them, and the birds that home themselves within the branches keep insect populations under control.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

AQUA VITA

Finding a source of water may seem like an obvious necessity for growing crops, but getting the balance right when utilising it, is often less considered. When setting up his farm, Luis had to find a reliable supply of freshwater to irrigate his coffee. Training from Fernando taught him the importance of placing barrier trees between his coffee plants and the river to keep soil, fertiliser, or other organic matter from washing in and polluting the water. Naturally fencing his coffee off with trees also maintains the plant’s health, as their roots keep the soil from becoming too wet, which can allow moisture-caused fungi and diseases to set in.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

THE FRUITS OF SUSTAINABLE LABOUR

Luis picks the ripe, red coffee cherries produced through meticulous cultivation methods taught to him by Fernando. Already an expert in coffee cultivation, Luis wanted to push his knowledge further, learning modernised techniques that would allow him to increase his yields and give his farm longevity. Joining the AAA programme gave him access to this know-how, but beyond that, he and Fernando are now discovering together how to trial and tweak practices in order to improve other farms in the programme.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

FINDING THE BALANCE

Fernando joins Luis in pruning a coffee plant growing in dappled shade. Keeping branches clipped extends the productive lifespan of the tree and helps keep its yield of coffee cherries as high as possible. If coffee trees are allowed to grow too large, the opposite happens; productivity drops, and the tree will need to be replaced far sooner. Finding the perfect balance is an ongoing process that Luis and Fernando still like to experiment with.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

PAYING WORKERS FAIRLY PAYS OFF

In running a sustainable farm, Luis also needs to make sure that he is running his workforce in a viable way. He does this by employing seasonal workers and making sure they have excellent working conditions. The training he’s able to provide his employees with ensures that they’ll pick the right cherries carefully, and at the right time. It’s a circular approach, as the increased price he receives from the high-quality beans allows him to pay a good wage that encourages people to come back each season, making the time he invests in their training worthwhile.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

A PROUD ACHIEVEMENT

Luis proudly shows off a ‘cajuela’ full of coffee cherries— a metal box used as a unit of measurement for calculating the volume of his crop. One cajuela equates approximately to 27 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of fresh cherries. All of his efforts, working with the AAA programme to create the perfect balance of ecology in and around his smallholding, are paying off in the form of beautifully ripened coffee that gives him an increased income. Luis is now one of the most successful coffee farmers in the area—a fact that gives him an overwhelming sense of achievement. And, Luis is still improving his methods.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

STRAIGHT FROM FARM TO FERMENTING

Luis uses his trusty 53-year-old tractor to take his haul to the selling point a couple of miles away in San Ramon. As his cherries are picked by his trained workers, they’re deposited into Luis’s trailer each afternoon before he transports them to be processed overnight. This fast turnaround time is vital to preserve the bean’s quality and integrity. Doing it this way also lets Luis focus on growing the best coffee without having to worry about losing quality before he can get it to market, and Nespresso knows that the coffee it purchases from him stays perfect—from the moment it’s picked to the moment it’s sipped. More coffee stories here.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENA EFFENDI

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