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Costa Rican Travels:
Sintercafe, Coffee Farms and Beyond

By Serena Norr

As one of Central Americas eco-tourist hot spots, Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. Costa Rica is also renowned for its luscious coffee farms that are unparallel anywhere else.

Traveling to Costa Rica, (literally translates to “Rich Coast”), evokes thoughts of a unique tropical paradise. Characterized by an environmental connection unparalleled elsewhere, Costa Rica is renowned for its botanical landscape, volcanoes, national parks and animal marvels that cannot be paralleled elsewhere. Additionally, Costa Rica's climate is renowned as an atmospheric treat, which encases the beauty of this seductive country as a must-see destination.

Despite being a relatively diminutive nation, this Central American paradise attracts well over a million visitors every year. Tea and Coffee Trade Journal had the privilege to embark on a mini-adventure to Costa Rica as we attended Sintercafe. Additionally we traveled to various coffee farms where we discovered this unique coffee-producing oasis.

Exploring Sintercafe
Founded in 1987, Sintercafe, a non-profit organization designed to enforce the promotion of Costa Rica’s outstanding coffee has been supplying exemplary services to the industry for the past 20 years.

Held over two days, the theme of last year’s conference highlighted the organization’s vision throughout the past 20 years entitled “20 Years, 20/20 Vision,” which supplied a constructive and beneficial “melting-pot” for producers and consumers. During the conference they also launched their 2020 initiative, which served to answer the question, “Where will the coffee industry be in 2020?” Such a discussion created a rousing forum where members of the industry from all over the world discussed and contributed to analyzing the future.

The conferences were centered on numerous workshops that investigated “what if” scenarios where “guests had the unique opportunity to exchange information, share their experiences and to interact with the worlds coffee community in order to strengthen coffee commerce,” according to Sintercafe. Sintercafe believes, “looking to the past provides members of the industry with valuable lessons on how to build a burgeoning future.”

The workshops also dealt with various working sessions that pertained to the industries past and future perspectives. There were also several award ceremonies and cocktail events that provided a forum for continued discussion.

With all the rousing excitement from Sintercafe, I was delighted to be given the unique opportunity to visit three of Costa Rica’s luscious coffee co-ops under the guidance of Sebastien Lafaye, General Manager and Trader of Cafécoop RL.

Cafécoop RL is a consortium of 7 co-ops dedicated to sell, to market, to cup, to ship coffee from Costa Rican co-ops. Cafecoop RL co-ops produce about a 20% of the national crop and represent more than 15,670 small coffee producers. Cafecoop RL sells coffee from the main producing regions of the West valley, Central valley, Tarrazu and Brunca. Certified coffees (Rainforest Alliance, Utz, Fair Trade, Organic and Q) represent a big part of the sales together with specialty coffees. Cafecoop RL was set up to build a bridge between sellers and suppliers, providing service and added value among the chain. For more info, you can visit our web site: www.cafecoopcr.com.

Our first visit was to Coope Dota, R.L. located in the city of Santa Maria de Dota, in the heart of the biggest and famous coffee area of Costa Rica: Tarrazu. The Coffee Growers of Dota is a cooperative association, governed by statutes dictated by an administrative council that represents 750 associates.

Founded in 1960 by 96 members, this cooperative has now modernized its production processes and increased its membership by increasing the quantity of coffee produced year-after-year. According to the cooperatives website, “The altitude at which the coffee is produced is 1,500 to 1,900 meters above sea level. In the year 2006, Coope Dota RL produced 65,000 fanegas (1 fanega = 46 kgs). The increase in production and quality necessitates the modernization of production. To meet the needs of the Coope Dota RL coffee producers, Coopedota has implemented certain technologies that bring its coffee production up to date.” Important technological improvement were realized in the pre-drying and drying processes as Coope Dota is using Bioflame burner and pre-dryers to dry more efficiently and in harmony with nature as no fire wood is required. Drying parameters are controlled thanks to a computerized system that checked temperature and time in each guardiola.

According to Roberto Mata Naranjo, gerente general of Coopedota, “the goals of the cooperative are developed to promote coffee production and quality in the zone, in any of the following areas: the cultivation of coffee, the production of coffee and/or the industrialization and commercialization of coffee (for exportation or for domestic consumption). Year after year, Coopedota aims to provide their associates with the additional incentive of improved clearance sale prices. Thanks to the quality of the coffee and the Coope Dota RL customers, the co-ops is paying to the growers each year one of the highest price paid in the country”, said Mata.

“In the last three years, Coopedota has produced, on average, 60,000 fanegas. With Coopedota’s support, farmers in the area produce, on average, 30-fanegas/acre. Some are able to produce an astonishing 45-fanegas/acre,” stated Mata. The Dota county produces one of the finest quality in the country, with a high level of acidity and complexity. Coope Dota RL reached to classified with 4 farms during the last Cup of Excellence in Costa Rica. To answer to a growing demand of small and medium roasters for high quality and traceability, Cafecoop RL and Coope Dota RL developed a micro-mill program called “Sourcing the Best of Costa Rica”, in order to offer taylor made lots to roasters. 87 micro-lots were processed last year. “Roasters come to Costa Rica, visit the mill, the farms and cup the coffee. According to their preference, their pick the coffee they consider to be the best. We supply them with information about growing condition and processes, growing area and altitude, etc… We are also experimenting new processes like semi-washed and natural processed in order to produce the most exotic flavors says Lafaye”, who coordinates this program. For more information, you can call Royal Coffee Inc. in Oakland California.

In 1997 Coopedota began roasting their own coffee brands. Also, to promote better quality consumption, Coope Dota opened its own coffee shop.

Coope Libertad
Our next visit was to Cooperativa de Caficultores de Heredia — Libertad. Founded in 1961 by a group of small producers with the ideals to adhere to quality and environmental management over time, this crystallized to constitute a cooperative company that is committed to the principles of equality, fairness and solidarity for coffee production. This “trickle-down” effect not only benefits the growers, as they receive social benefits, but to all workers as they form a commitment. They also offer employees medical assistance and organized health care for workers who have no access.

Such areas concentrated on specific areas to growers and certify growers. According to Edgar Zuñiga, general manager of Libertad, “The process adheres towards a certification movement that is contained as social, environmental, which discusses the best ecological conditions for the farmers, which will eventually translate to the consumer.” The cooperative adheres to an incentive that growers conduct the proper practices, which is regulated through meetings, workshops and technical assistance. Such allows farmers to go back to a ‘natural’ way of growing coffee and implement the different certifications requirements about traceability, security, environmental sustainability and social practices.

The marketing support of Cafecoop RL was key to boost and diversify the sales to the international market. The first results are a direct relationship between buyers and the co-op, better prices and invested into an improvement of quality, services and social programs as medical assistance.

The cooperative is encompassed with 600 growers where they produce 40,000 bags/ year. The farm also adheres to various certifications programs. Utz Certified was the first. The C.A.F.E. Practices and Rainforest Alliance followed. The farms fulfilled three certifications within the social, environmental, traceability and management profiles. Thanks to the success of the Caribou Coffee program with the Rainforest Alliance program, more farms will be included and certified soon: “Caribou Coffee cooperation has been a powerful tool to incentive growers after years of crisis to increase quality and environmental standards. Sustainability is back on the farms and growers found a buyer who really takes care of them. The Rainforest Alliance premium for the 2006/07 harvest was paid by Coope Libertad last September to the certified growers” said Zuñiga.

Our final stop was to Coopro Naranjo located close to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, and only 30 minutes from the Juan Santamaria International Airport. With elevations ranging from 1.100 to 1,800 meters (3,575-5,850 feet) above sea level, West valley coffee region is the second largest coffee producing areas, with an average annual rainfall of 2,500 millimeters (100 inches) and temperatures between 22° and 26° centigrade (72°F-78°F).

Coopronaranjo R.L. is located in the West valley of Costa Rica. This coffee region has been more and more demanded by the market and won numerous awards during Sintercafé or “Crop of Gold”.

The cooperative was founded by 98 members, who contributed an initial working capital, which was legally registered with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security on April 23, 1968. “Although the initiative was set, the first years were very difficult. By the end of the first year of operations, 10,000 fanegas (400-liter units) had been milled, the cooperative's capital stock rose to 628,000 colons, the value of fixed assets rose to 800,000 colons and sales of farm supplies for the first year exceeded 200,000 colons,” stated Vega.

“Today, members of the cooperative are amazed at the tremendous development achieved over the past 35 years, due principally to the honesty and spirit of sacrifice of those who founded the cooperative, those who managed it through the years and those who are currently in charge of ensuring the ongoing growth of the cooperative.

Cooppronaranjo Today
Currently, they are composed of 2,360 members, where the facilities are designed to offer quick, easily accessible service to their clients, whether cooperative members or the general public, since we offer service at the county, regional and national levels.

The cooperative works with various certification programs including C.A.F.E. Practices, Rainforest Alliance, and Utz Certified and Organic, which they believe assists to change and develop coffee culture. Their ISO Certifications help with the mills, as this changes the culture of process foundation (base of standards) to help improve efficacy of tools for the manager. They also have an environmental quality committee, which analyzes the critical points of this process. This also improves farms, warehouses and soil composition.

Starbucks, who is promoting C.A.F.E. Practices standards, helped to change the way of growing coffee: “it is important to have a buyer like Starbucks to convince growers that the change will benefit not only the environment but their standard of living too. They also established long-term contracts with suppliers which allow us in the case of our Estate farm to cover costs and to invest on improvements” said Vega.

Environmental Concerns
As part of its quality and environmental policies, Coopronaranjo R.L. encourages its members and the farming community in general to observe sustainable production methods. As stated by Vega, “With respect to the environment, the use of agrochemicals is minimized, native species are used for shade trees, and production is focused on protecting and improving water and soil resources as the principal exploitation assets. In addition, byproducts such as coffee cherry pulp are used to produce organic fertilizer by way of vermiculture. This process allows what was once a waste product to be converted using California red earthworms, which transforms and enriches the pulp with mineral elements, microorganisms and ferments that stimulate changes in organic matter, producing an excellent activator effect in plant metabolism and soil microorganisms at low cost.”

Given the quality of Costa Rica's coffee and in a continuing effort to improve quality, we discovered the exemplary work being conducted at these various cooperatives. Such efforts have not only expanded the industry on a burgeoning international gourmet market but have encouraged the production and consumption of specialty coffee around the world and have allowed high ratings among international buyers for Costa Rica.

Tea & Coffee - November, 2007
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