MELLIZAS, Southern Zone – The fire in the 100-year-old roaster is still burning as Roberto Montero scoops up a cupful of beans from the sack. The grinder roars to life, and Montero, the owner of Hacienda La Amistad, empties the beans into the funnel. The grinds fall directly into his hand as he examines the grain size, which is not quite right. He turns it off, then on again.
This time, he is satisfied as they empty into his cupped hand. He takes a pinch of grinds and pops them into his mouth to test the season’s first batch of roasted coffee.He is content.
Two employees grind the remaining 20 pounds and vacuum-seal each 3.5-pound bag for consumption at the farm and guest lodge.
It does not get any fresher than this.
Tucked away in the highlands near the border with Panama, Hacienda La Amistad is the largest certified-organic coffee producer in Costa Rica, according to Holland-based agriculture certifier Control Union. The 200 hectares of organic coffee lie among 10,000 hectares of primary forest, nature reserve and watershed territory owned by the Montero-Zeledón family since the early 1940s.
“It’s the perfect place for growing coffee,” Montero says. “Our product is completely balanced, balanced by nature.”
A New Season
The 2007-2008 harvest has begun. This year, Montero says, Hacienda La Amistad will produce roughly 500,000 pounds of organic coffee, 60% of which he will send to the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe. The 27 families that grow under the Hacienda La Amistad brand will cultivate another 250,000 pounds of conventional crop.
After two weeks of picking,Montero and his crew have already sent a shipment of 37,500 pounds – about 285 60-kilogram bags, of unroasted organic coffee to Costa Rica’s Café Britt.
This weekend, he was lucky to get the shipment out from this secluded mountain town. The road from the plantation in Mellizas to San Vito is a soggy mess. Recent weeks of torrential rains have turned it into one continuous, goopy pothole. For any chance of getting there, one must find a taxi driver with a 4×4 who is willing to traverse the 25-km-long gauntlet of slow-moving transport vehicles. It happens to be the only access to the outside world for most of the coffee farmers in the area.
The rain has affected more than the road. Plantation workers and Montero have been on edge during the first few weeks of the season, curious about how the plants would fare. When the coffee fruit is saturated, it splits and falls from the plant, getting lost in the ground cover.
“To be honest, I was worried about this year because of all the rain,”Montero says.
He says although they have already lost a small percentage of the crop to water damage, he is impressed with the quality and taste of the early crop. He credits the fast-working pickers for saving some areas.
About half of the more than 200 pickers have arrived, the majority being Ngöbe- Buglé indigenous, who come from Bocas del Toro, Panama. Montero has developed close relationships with the indigenous Panamanian pickers over the years. He commends their ability to work diligently in any conditions.
Overall, there is a general consensus about the quality of the crop so far: good, but it will get better.
“Coffee is like wine,”Montero says.“Each year is different.”
Organic vs. Conventional
Becoming the largest certified-organic coffee producer in the country doesn’t happen over night. Certifiers scrutinize every aspect of plantation operations before consideration.
It took Hacienda La Amistad four years.
Montero says the idea to go organic came out of the low-cost coffee crisis of the late 1980s. He wanted to try something new.
He was tired of the chemicals killing so many bugs, plants and even small animals and harming the surrounding forests. He decided to integrate the coffee with the forest on his land.
“I knew that these two things (coffee and animals) could live together,” he says.
It was basically trial and error, because there were no books or manuals on how to go organic 18 years ago. So he decided to bring back methods his father and grandfather used before they had chemicals.
Because the focus at La Amistad is on sustainability, Montero has simply reintroduced natural cycles for coffee growing. The use of nitrogen-fixing trees, such as banana trees, legumes and surrounding forest as shade, and trimming the ground cover to use for mulch have made the soils in the coffee fields more fertile.
The sustainable practices go beyond the rows of coffee plants. During the entire process, from washing the fruit to roasting the final product, Hacienda La Amistad uses all the leftovers. Coffee tree trimmings fuel the fire for the 100-year-old bean dryers and Montero says water drained from the washing process is so rich in nutrients, it is used for composting.
La Amistad´s Future
Even though some may say his farming methods are old-fashioned, Montero also embraces trends in coffee farming.With the industry turning toward quality over quantity of coffee, he says the specialty coffee growers are setting the market standards.
“We survive because we have quality, not just coffee,” he says. “You’ve got to have something special.”
In addition to planting a few more hectares of coffee, he has invested in the fruit dehydration business. He has begun drying the organic bananas from the trees that serve as shade for the coffee plants.
The family is also planning to create a foundation to help the Costa Rican government protect primary forest in La Amistad International Park that crosses the border into Panama.
Building upon his sustainability practices, Montero says he hopes to be certified carbonneutral by early December. He jokes that ultimately the farm could shut its gates and be completely self-sufficient if he were able to convert his transport vehicles to bio-diesel.
Asked if he would ever sell the plantation, Montero says he would never even consider putting a price tag on it.
“I don’t want to change this life for money in the bank,” he says. “This is my heart. Even if I didn’t have much money, I would do something. This is a way of life.”
– Costa Rica Coffee Picking season: October-March.
– In 2006, the world consumed an estimated 120.39 million 60-kg bags of coffee, according to the international Coffee Organization’s October 2007 Coffee Market Report. That’s an increase of 2% from 2005. At the current rate of growth, the world will consume more than 122 million bags of coffee in 2007.
– Costa Rica exported 36,374 bags of coffee in September 2007. The country exported more than 1.3 million bags of coffee between October 2006 and September 2007, a 1.15% increase from 2005-2006.
Source: International Coffee Organization
Four Generations of La Amistad Coffee
1889 – Juan Zeledón (great grandfather) settles the Acosta region as a coffee grower.
1941 – Costa Rica and Panama reach a border agreement, which was negotiated by Jorge Zeledón Castro, Roberto Montero’s grandfather.
Early 1940s – Zeledón Castro homesteads land in the border highlands near San Vito and founds Hacienda La Amistad as a shade-grown coffee farm. A portion of the estate was set aside for 27 families who produced coffee under the Hacienda La Amistad trademark and eventually built their own farms. Most of them still reside in Mellizas, working their own land or working at the Montero plantation.
1990 – Roberto Montero assumes sole ownership of Hacienda La Amistad coffee estate after buying out his siblings’ shares.
1993 – Hacienda La Amistad is certified organic by Skal International (now Control Union World Group) and becomes one of the first farms of its type in Costa Rica.