Small Coffee Growers Are Confronting Crisis With Ingenuity

Southern Comfort: Small Growers Confront Crisis

October 2003 - Steve Aronson

On a recent coffee-buying trip through Costa Rica’s remote Southern Zone I came across two dynamic examples of growers’ cooperatives whose “can do” attitude; focus on quality and hard work is cultivating a profitable, promising future despite their commodity-focused industry’s five-year-old financial crisis.

Coopeagri of the southern hub-city of San Isidro de El General and Coope San Vito, a little farther south, unite more than 11,000 mostly small-scale growers who’ve abandoned their generations-old “commodity mentality.”

These farmers are going after their share of the gourmet coffee market by working together to become more efficient, grow at higher elevations, modernize their mills and develop forward-looking, professional management. They’re giving high-end customers what we want, and we’re making it worth their while. I bought coffee from both of them.

World commodity coffee prices haven’t covered Costa Rica’s production costs since 1999, and the tough times have generated something of a “poor us” mentality both here and in other coffee-growing countries. Yet, coops like Coopeagri and Coope San Vito are thriving. Unwilling to simply bow their heads and accept their diminished commodity profits, these groups are changing with the times and aggressively pursuing new customers. The crisis is making them stronger.

Costa Rica’s coffee-industry watchdog agency, Icafe, estimates that as much as 40 percent of Costa Rica’s high-quality, Arabica crop is now destined for higher-paying specialty markets like Café Britt.

And it should be. The country’s geography, climate, know-how and infrastructure are capable of producing a world-class, stand-alone product too valuable to be traded as a commodity. The crisis is forcing Costa Rican growers to awaken to that reality.

Crisis is often necessary to weed things out; clean things up. Some of the big guys have gone broke here, but the more agile, adaptable cooperatives are coming into their own. The coops’ ingenuity, and the strength of their many, small-scale associates, may just help preserve coffee’s reputation as “Costa Rica’s most democratic crop.” And that’s really good news for Café Britt and our quality-conscious customers.

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