Rejecting tradition, kids leaving family farms behind
Chuck Palahniuk, the American novelist and journalist, wrote that “Every generation wants to be the last.” For a growing number of Costa Rican coffee-farming families, the idea is becoming too much a reality.
Amado Leiva, a Pérez Zeledón coffee farmer, grew up helping his father plant and harvest coffee on the same hillsides where he now works. Along with his siblings, Leiva inherited those fields from his parents, and now hopes to turn them over to his own children.
But his children have other plans.
Rather than staying in small farming communities to continue their parents’ traditions, the youngest coffee-raised generation is coming of age and opting for a university education. Nearly 5,000 coffee producers have quit the business in the past two years (TT, Aug. 10).
While Elibeth López, Leiva’s wife, supports her children’s decisions to study instead of stay home and grow coffee, she does so with a hint of sadness. It worries her that no one will take responsibility for continuing what she and her husband have worked so hard to build.
“This is the big worry because we’re starting to feel old,” López says. “Coffee is profitable enough for us to keep living here, but for our kids, who want to start families, it’s completely different.”
Like all parents, Leiva and López are proud of their two sons and one daughter, who left home to study at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in the capital’s San Pedro neighborhood. The oldest son, Esteban Leiva, now works as an agronomy engineer in the southern countryside, but his specialty is palm trees, not coffee.
“He tells me, ‘Dad, get rid of the coffee plantation. Cut it all down,’” says Leiva of his eldest son.
“He doesn’t like coffee because he thinks it doesn’t pay enough to make it worth it,” he said.
The couple’s daughter, Priscilla Leiva, married a former college classmate from Liechtenstein, where they moved seven months ago. Although she tells her parents she will one day return to Costa Rica, neither parent knows when.
“We miss her a lot. She used to come home every few weekends,” Leiva says.
The youngest of the three children, Marco Leiva, is currently pursuing a degree in civil engineering, and, when asked about keeping up the coffee plantation, says that he would eventually like to build a house on his family’s land and employ “peones” to work the fields for him.
Aside from losing valuable help in planting new trees and harvesting current ones, Leiva and López struggle to support their children.
“Believe me, it’s tough. I mean, even if they have a scholarship you still have to financially support them because it isn’t enough,” says Leiva.
Despite his children’s disinterest in growing coffee, Leiva still plans on leaving a portion of his land to each of them. But he remains skeptical of whether they would maintain it or sell it.
“When I’m not here to work and keep it up, this will all be lost,” he says. “[My kids] have a different mentality [than I do].”
Like other Costa Rican parents in their position, Leiva and López have looked at other uses for their land. They experimented briefly with renewable lumber, but are now thinking about turning their property, along with the crumbling farmhouse that Leiva grew up in, into a destination for rural tourism. The sales pitch would be that visitors, traditionally attracted to more conventional sites, would get a taste of the campesino lifestyle. Leiva and López would leave the tourism business, instead of the coffee plantation, to their children.
Their original plan was to launch the tourism project by January, but heavy seasonal rains damaged coffee crops and local roads. Accessing the farm became too difficult for tourists traveling by bus or rental car. Now the couple must wait for road conditions to improve before they venture into creating a new small business.
Meanwhile, Leiva, who is among a decreasing number of coffee farmers nationwide, still works in his fields, just by himself.
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