Cup by cup, coffee fuels world market

TRES RIOS, Costa Rica — As morning breaks, scores of pickers dash into lush rows of 7-foot trees and begin tugging at branches laden with ripe, crimson berries.

José María Solano — along with his wife, daughter and three grandchildren — starts picking on a sultry Saturday in late January. The 66-year-old quickly strips the slender branches of their berries, filling the wicker basket strapped around his waist.

Those strong, weathered hands may well have picked the beans that flavor your morning jolt of caffeine — a cup of coffee brought to you by a global economy that links 25 million coffee farmers and legions of consumers.

Because coffee grows mostly in warm climates of Latin America, Africa and Asia, everyone who drinks it depends on workers from those regions to satisfy their fix.

Farmers, pickers, processors, importers, shippers, roasters, grocery clerks and baristas on six continents all have a hand in $70 billion of world coffee sales. Many of those who pick and process the beans have never tasted espresso, and their daily earnings amount to the cost of a few double-tall lattes.

The beans Solano picks on Bella Vista Tres Rios farm make their way through an elaborate international chain of commerce that begins in the fields of Costa Rica, continues on container ships bound for Seattle and ends in more than 4,000 company-run Starbucks stores in the U.S.

Americans' coffee obsession fuels more than a fourth of global coffee sales. Specialty coffee — made by carefully roasting the highest-quality arabica beans to yield richer flavor — has grown to claim about 40 percent of the U.S. market. Starbucks has parlayed coffee into hundreds of millions in profit for its shareholders: Since the company went public in June 1992, its stock value has risen more than 3,200 percent.

The craze for gourmet coffee has become a small but significant player in global economic politics. Rising demand has sparked calls for social and economic change in the developing world. That demand has helped specialty-coffee farmers and workers in developing countries maintain their way of life and has become a weapon in the fights for environmentally friendly farming.

It also has brought together communities that are worlds apart to enrich each other culturally, socially and economically.

The coffee crisis

Coffee is the world's No. 2 commodity, after oil. The most recent annual harvest produced 6.7 million tons of beans.

Arabica beans — the higher-quality ones preferred by specialty coffeehouses — require higher altitudes, temperate climates and nutrient-rich soil. They grow well on the fertile slopes of volcanoes in tropical Costa Rica. In the U.S., Hawaii and Puerto Rico grow the only coffee sold commercially.

The coffee market is dominated by lower-grade unwashed arabica and robusta beans, which are combined to make some canned blends and instant coffees. Robustas grow in hotter, wetter, lower-altitude regions and yield more beans than arabica plants.

In the late 1990s, Brazil and Vietnam began flooding the market with cheap beans, causing a nearly 5-year-old global coffee crisis that has forced scores of Central American arabica-bean farms to shut down and has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of growers and workers.

The glut sent prices plummeting on world commodities markets: Coffee that sold for nearly $2 a pound wholesale in 1997 sold for less than 50 cents in 2001 and 2002.

In Central America, it costs between 60 cents and 90 cents to produce enough beans for a pound of specialty coffee, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. In Costa Rica, costs can top $1 a pound, some farmers say. As prices fell below production costs, farms in Central America began to fail, cutting jobs or shutting down altogether.

Small-scale farmers and those who produced lower-quality arabica beans faced little or no demand for their crops. In Nicaragua and Honduras, countries hit hard by drought and food shortages, farmers and pickers fled to cities in search of food and jobs.

Over the past year, prices have recovered somewhat on the exchanges. Cold weather in Brazil ruined some crops and reduced the overall coffee supply, sending wholesale bean prices to between 70 and 80 cents a pound.

Even at that price, growers struggle to make a profit and must weigh whether to abandon coffee.

The steady demand for gourmet coffee in North America, Europe and the Far East has sustained workers at farms like Bella Vista, which sells its washed arabica beans exclusively to Starbucks.

"Buying that latte is the difference between day and night for the producers," said Alfredo Robert, whose Alsacia Coffee Estate in Costa Rica grows coffee for Starbucks and Peet's Coffee & Tea, among other chains. "It's as simple as that. Don't go farther."

The tradition of coffee

Coffee is a tradition in Tres Rios, where generations have grown up picking beans at Bella Vista, one of Costa Rica's oldest coffee farms. About 30,000 of the country's 4 million people are coffee farmers, and about 500,000 or so — many from neighboring countries — pick and process beans.

Coffee has long been Costa Rica's most famous export, once accounting for nearly one-third of the nation's gross domestic product. While it now claims less than 5 percent of the national GDP — giving way to microchips, textiles and medical devices — coffee remains central to the country's identity.

Most of Costa Rica's presidents have been descendants of the coffee elite. When the seven-month picking season peaks — from December through February — an economic ripple effect swiftly spreads through the region.

"Small business sells when the coffee is picking," said Robert, formerly Costa Rica's minister of agriculture. "The economy moves because of the coffee."

Generations of Tres Rios children have grown up picking coffee, a tradition that stems not only from workers' limited day-care options, but a desire to instill a lifelong work ethic.

"If you don't teach the kids to work, they will be alcoholics and go to drugs," said María Alice Molina Acuña, Solano's wife. Now 67, she began picking coffee at 13, working beside her mother in the same fields she picks today.

Regardless of their current social standing, most Costa Ricans have some connection to coffee. For generations, picking coffee has been something of a rite of passage.

"When you talk to people in Costa Rica, most of the people, they've been pickers," said Luz Marina Trujillo, a native Colombian who owns the Santa Elena coffee farm in Costa Rica's mountainous Terrazu region. "Even if they have money or something ... they grew up in the coffee fields. It's incredible."

Solano, who moved to Tres Rios from a nearby village when he married Acuña 40 years ago, says he has picked coffee all his life. He works as a gardener in the offseason, and Acuña cleans houses year-round to help make ends meet. During the peak of the coffee harvest, Solano picks six days a week. Acuña joins him when she isn't cleaning.

In January, when school is out, the couple's daughter and grandchildren often go with them to the fields to earn extra money. Although public schools in Costa Rica are free and among the best in Central America, families must buy uniforms, books and supplies.

Without coffee, the Solanos might clean or garden full-time or pick other crops such as bananas. They could work at microchip plants or at the detergent factory up the hill.

But Solano prefers picking coffee, which he says puts his mind at ease. And the job's physical demands — picking, sorting and hauling coffee for hours on end amid 80- to 90-degree heat — are second nature to Solano, who earnestly maintains that it "isn't hard work."

A look at the harvest

Solano rises early on a Saturday as the picking season draws to a close. He leads his family on a two-mile walk to the fields, joined by his wife; daughter María, 29; and three grandchildren — Andrea, 11; Junior, 9; and Josué, 3.

As their mother and grandparents hurriedly fill wicker baskets with coffee berries, the children intermittently pluck berries and drop them into plastic pitchers and bowls. Each contribution adds to the family's earnings.

At the end of the picking day at Bella Vista, workers empty their baskets into burlap sacks that weigh nearly 100 pounds when full.

"Buena cogida," Acuña says. Good picking.

As Acuña takes her grandchildren to wash their sap-blackened hands and faces in a nearby stream, Solano and his daughter feverishly sort ripe red berries from unripe green ones and pour them into burlap sacks.

Solano, whose sinewy build belies his 135 pounds, hoists each sack and carries it the length of a football field. He empties the sacks into several plastic buckets, and his daughter hands them up to workers in the bed of a truck. The beans are poured from the buckets into smaller metal bins, and pickers are paid based on the number of bins they fill.

For the Solanos, who picked enough coffee to fill nearly 26 bins, that means about 9,000 colónes, or a little more than $20, to divide among Solano, his wife and their daughter. Bella Vista pays 350 colónes, or about 78 cents, for a bin of berries, the minimum wage set by Costa Rica's government.

Edwin Villalobos Sánchez, a Bella Vista supervisor and agronomy (crop-production) engineer, carries a plastic sack filled with coins to pay workers. He tosses coins into the emptied buckets as they're handed back down to the pickers.

Clink by clink, another day in the coffee fields comes to a close.

Migrant pickers

Miles away in the Terrazu mountains, a group of Panamanian Indians typifies the migratory workers who pick coffee all over Central America. The group traveled four days to reach Santa Elena, which supplies beans to Seattle's Best Coffee, now owned by Starbucks.

Group leader Dionicio Quintero Rodriguez, 30, described how he, his wife and 20 companions spent a day walking in rubber boots from their village in northern Panama to a ferry landing on the country's Pacific coast. The next day, they rode a ferry to Costa Rica, followed by another daylong walk to catch a bus headed for the vicinity of San José, the country's capital.

At Santa Elena, the Panamanians stay for several weeks in temporary housing provided by the farm. The corrugated-metal buildings have concrete floors, full-size bunk beds and rooms lit with a single bulb. Pickers at Santa Elena earned 400 colónes (about 90 cents) for each bin of berries, slightly above minimum wage.

Rodriguez is happy enough with the wages and housing. He vows to bring 100 workers to next year's harvest.

Sitting under the shade of eucalyptus trees after a day of picking coffee on the mountains' steep slopes, Rodriguez and his wife, Rufina Diguison, sorted red berries from green while keeping an eye on their three young children. Diguison intently sifted through her pile of berries with one hand while holding and nursing her 8-month-old daughter, Anelsa, with the other.

The chain of coffee

After the day's harvest, trucks overflowing with picked coffee deliver the berries to Bella Vista's beneficio — a mill that turns the ripe red berries into smooth unroasted beans.

Coffee berries — also called "cherries" — have two beans in the middle, surrounded by a fruity pulp. The berries are dumped from the truck into a water tank with channels leading to whirring, churning de-pulping machines that separate the pulp from the beans.

Once the de-pulped beans have been fermented and washed, they are carried to concrete patios to be dried in the sun. These sun-drenched patios are the domain of workers such as Alvaro Azofeifa Fonseca, 67, who spends 10-hour days shoveling mounds of coffee beans from one long, narrow pile to the other.

Fonseca, a gregarious man whose mustache, tanned arms and wiry frame bring to mind the hero of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," begins shoveling at 6 a.m. His work ensures that beans dry evenly.

His only respites are 30 minutes for lunch and the occasional 15-minute break for — what else? — coffee. Fonseca drinks the lower-grade coffee sold for domestic consumption, brands called Rey and Dorado.

Fonseca shuffles his way up and down 30-yard stretches of drying beans, methodically scraping his shovel along the patio as he lifts beans to the top of the next heap. The work is long and tiring, but easier on his hands than his previous job of milking cows. His take-home pay is about $80 a week.

As Bella Vista's shovelers work into the late-afternoon twilight, the faint chiming of church bells wafts over from the nearby town center: "The best bells in Costa Rica," Fonseca says.

After the patio-drying process, the beans are machine-dried at low temperatures to reach the target moisture content of around 12 percent. Once fully dried, beans are sorted by quality and bagged in burlap sacks, Bella Vista's destined for the Port of Seattle.

At the Port, the sacks are transferred from container ships to trucks and delivered to Starbucks' roasting plant in Kent. There, beans that have been picked by day laborers such as Solano, then de-pulped at the mill and shoveled by workers like Fonseca, are roasted and tightly packed into 16-ounce bags destined for coffee shops and grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada, to be sold for $11.95 a pound.

What coffee buys

Back at Bella Vista, the coins clinking into the pickers' buckets will quickly circulate throughout Tres Rios, underscoring the far-reaching economic effects of coffee.

Consider the pickup-truck driver who charges 500 colónes, or about $1.12, for each daily round-trip from nearby Cervantes to the farms of Tres Rios. Or the snack vendor in Bella Vista's coffee fields who sells banana chips and fruit juice for about 25 cents a pop. Or the merchants in Tres Rios who sell standard-issue school uniforms — white shirts and navy-blue skirts or pants — for about $4 each as the coffee harvest and upcoming school year combine to spur a wave of spending.

"All the stores are asking me how the picking is, because it affects the economy," Sánchez said.

Later in the afternoon, Solano and Acuña return to their one-bedroom house. Others in the row of small homes belong to other family members.

The homes, colored in pastel blues and reds, are bare-bones by Western standards — electricity but no hot water, portable plug-in stoves, metal roofs, concrete floors, small dirt yards. Solano has applied for a $3,000 government loan to add a ceiling and tile floor.

Solano says coffee provides him a life he's content with. He lives within doors of his closest family members, and his neighborhood often rings with the laughter of his grandchildren.

Still, it's not an easy life, not by a long shot. For coffee pickers, part of the routine is uncertainty. Solano says today's earnings will go mainly toward tomorrow's food and the grandchildren's school uniforms, and whatever's left will go toward his family's meager savings.

"They give you money now ... but the money they give you, you're going to spend it immediately," Solano says through a translator. "It's not like a salary, that you know that every 15 days or a month you have a salary."

Come Monday, Solano must return to the fields for next week's subsistence.

"When you pick the coffee," Solano says, "you live day by day."

Reynaldo Matamoros Sánchez worked as Spanish translator in Costa Rica.

Jake Batsell:

Betty Udesen:

Her hands sticky and blackened from the miel (honey) of the coffee berries, Andrea Cano Solano, 11, spent a Saturday working at Bella Vista Tres Rios with her family. (BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Multimedia slideshow
Images and sounds from the communities that bring coffee from bean to cup, narrated by photographer Betty Udesen.

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Costa Rica at a glance

Profile: Costa Rica, considered a developing nation, is the political and economic star of Central America. It has a century-old democracy and the region's highest per capita gross domestic product, $8,300. By comparison, the U.S. GDP is $37,600.

Population: 4 million

Literacy rate: 96 percent, almost as high as the U.S. rate

Per capita income: $4,193 a year in 2003, compared with $28,605 a year in the U.S.

Major industries: Agriculture, technology, tourism

Geography: The country, whose coastal plains are divided by mountains and volcanoes, is slightly smaller than West Virginia.

Climate: Temperatures average 65 to 85 degrees year-round.

Major crops: Bananas, pineapples, coffee

Source: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department, Bureau of Economic Analysis