For decades, coffee has been referred to as Costa Rica’s grano de oro, or golden bean. Although the bean is red on the plant and brown when dried, it’s golden when sold, and Costa Rica sells a lot of coffee. From 2005-2008, coffee exports to 37 different countries brought the country an average of $262 million in annual sales.
But recently, the golden bean has lost some of its luster.
In 2009, international sales of Costa Rican coffee plummeted 41.7 percent. The $198 million earned from coffee exports in 2009 followed a banner year in 2008 when coffee exports brought in $339 million, the highest figure in the country’s history.
While the 2009 worldwide economic crisis punished nearly every economic sector, the plunge in Costa Rica’s coffee exports stemmed mainly from old age.
“In certain areas of the country, the plants are completely worn out,” Ronald Peters, president of the independent Coffee Institute or Icafé, told The Tico Times this week. “Harvests in the areas of Pérez Zeledón and the Central Valley have been the two most affected in the country, primarily because the plants are very old. They don’t produce at the level they did years ago.”
According to a study done by Icafé, the average national production per hectare fell from 27 to 21 50-kilogram sacks between 2001 and 2010. The institute also mentioned that during the same time frame, nearly 36 percent of the coffee plants reached the end of their productive life. Peters said that a coffee plant’s “useful life” ranges between 20 and 25 years.
“Coffee plants can live 40 to 50 years, but obviously they lose productivity over time,” Peters said. “They become weaker and are subjected to more diseases. As they do, maintenance costs go up and productivity drops, which are exactly the two things coffee farmers do not want.”
With the dramatic fall in production and exports in 2009, national coffee farmers are worried. Hundreds of national farmers gathered last week at Icafé to hear government officials announce the National Coffee Growers Revitalization Plan, with which they plan to cure the ailing industry.
The plan, which was originally supposed to be unveiled during the administration of former President Oscar Arias, will commit $153 million to national farmers over the next five years.
Rebirth of a Tradition
“This is a very important day for the national coffee industry,” said Agriculture Minister Gloria Abraham. “It is a sector in the hands of small producers who are highly efficient and productive and who in the last few years have been confronted with the aging of their plantations. The National Coffee Growers Revitalization Program will install policies to ensure that this sector is again as productive as it can be.”
The program, a joint effort of the Agriculture Ministry, the Banco Nacional, the Development Bank System and Icafé, will use the funds to devote an additional 30,000 hectares of land to coffee production over the next four years.
Currently, 98,681 hectares are used to grow coffee in Costa Rica. Of these, 34,754 hectares have coffee plants older than 20 years. For the 2001-2002 harvest, there were 113,100 hectares of coffee in use, indicating a 13 percent loss in coffee-producing land over the past eight years.
“Our first objective will be to target the areas of the country where the old plants can be rejuvenated and strengthened, or where new ones can be planted,” said Guido Vargas, president of Icafé’s board of directors. “The reduction in production has greatly affected farms and families in several regions of the country. We have survived, but hopefully this assistance will return coffee production to its level of previous years.”
The program’s financial assistance will be distributed to an estimated 50,000 coffee producers throughout the country, and is projected to generate an additional 2.5 million sacks of coffee. According to Icafé, the coffee industry employs over 194,000 people, with an additional 125,000 temporary jobs created for the harvest. However, nearly 5,000 producers have left coffee farming over the last two years.
A Dying Breed?
Some coffee farmers are unsure if the government’s plan provides a sustainable solution for the renewal of coffee production. Pablo Jiménez, general manager of Café Altura in Pérez Zeledón, said the renovation plan sounds promising in theory, but he believes that viable land for planting coffee is limited in Costa Rica.
“Most of the land they are considering for use is already in critical condition,” Jiménez said. “The appropriate nutrients have already been extracted from the soil. It’s worn out. That’s the reason people are turning away from coffee production. There’s a very little room left for further development.”
Jiménez said many farmers in the Pérez Zeledón area have converted coffee plantations to cattle ranches or pineapple farms, while some have simply sold their land and left.
“Coffee producers in Costa Rica are getting older. It’s an industry of older men, and young people aren’t interested in dedicating their lives to coffee production,” Jiménez said.
Jiménez also said the government plan, which charges interest on money loaned by the program after the first three years, is an improper way to revitalize ailing production. Jiménez said that putting the responsibility on coffee producers to pay back the loan with interest is counter-productive, and will diminish the financial gains made by the already cash-strapped producers.
But the push to revitalize coffee production doesn’t end with producers. National coffee roasters are also concerned by the recent drop in production. They are concerned that their international niche market position could be affected by the dwindling coffee supply.
“We need for national production to be increased in an environmentally sustainable manner, and that implies better practices on the part of the producers,” said José Manuel Hernando, president of the Chamber of Coffee Roasters. “There needs to be better planning in this regard, and we are willing to help with the process as best we can.
Though Hernando and Jiménez consider the government plan to be faulty in certain areas, many national producers are pleased to see that their problems are not going unnoticed by the new administration. And, while the renovation plan inspires hope, it remains to be seen whether the multimillion dollar government loan will be able to put the shine back on Costa Rica’s golden bean.