On the Road: Costa Rica Part Two – AFAORCA
Here is part two (read part one here) of Emma’s wonderful Costa Rica trip log. In part two Emma describes the team’s visit to the AFAORCA Cooperative during the christening of their new dry mill and joins in on the end of harvest celebrations.
After we packed up our bags and loaded up in the van, we said a reluctant goodbye to the Hacienda La Minita, already missing its ordered greenness, and the breathtaking view that had started to become comfortingly familiar. Yet as soon as we started driving north along the valley we remembered that stunning views were in no short supply here in the mountains of the Tarrazu region, and we began to look ahead towards the next panoramas that would, again, take our breath away and become ingrained in the landscape of our memories of this trip.
We only drove for about an hour before the next opportunity arose. We were visiting the cafe which had been created by the AFAORCA co-operative as a showcase for their fine coffees. We pulled off of the road and parked at the café perched on the side of the hill. Its large, high-ceilinged room was filled with sky, the cypress walls and tables where couples sat chatting quietly gleamed with sunlight, and a two-story wall of windows framed the valley like a 19th century oil painting: flawlessly composed, and glowing with green and gold light.
We were welcomed warmly by Christian, one of the founders of the Co-op organization; Minor, another founder and owner of the Los Bobos coffee farm; and Veronica, a co-op member and right-hand to Christian. Veronica was the only one who spoke English, and had a family farm of her own that she was transitioning to organic. She was a passionate advocate for the co-operative model, and was an enthusiastic interpreter for us during the next two days.
AFAORCA is an acronym for, (in English), the Association of Organic Families of the Caraigres Hills. It was formed in 1996 when a group of farmers came together to better produce and market their organic coffee. Up until 12 years ago, Minor could only sell his coffee cherries to a processor, after which the quality of the beans was out of his hands. So he and others in the Co-op built a micro wet-mill to get the fruit off of their cherries themselves, allowing them to ensure the quality of their coffee for one more step along path from farm to roaster.
During this visit, we would be privileged to be present for the celebration of one of their long-time goals: the opening of their new dry mill facility adjacent to their existing wet mill the following day. This was a huge investment for them, and one that will help them maintain the integrity of their specialty coffee as far to the end consumer as possible. This also allowed them to continue to work together as a group, maintaining the strength of their shared vision and relationship.
The Blessing of the Mill
We visited Minor’s farm before heading to the mill, and to prepare for the end-of-harvest celebration that was supposed to take place that afternoon. His coffee was planted on a steep incline that ascended from his home by the river. It was such a steep pitch that the upper half of the farm was designated SHB (Strictly Hard Bean, grown over 3,900 feet), while the lower part was not. The coffee plants were interspersed with other fruit trees, and they sold their oranges, tangerines, and avocadoes at a farm stand in San Jose.
The dry mill was in a warehouse that they had enlarged 40% by adding recycled sheets of corrugated metal outward and upward into a second story. Inside, along one side, were stacks of rough burlap bags packed tightly with the dried coffee beans. The new drying equipment took up more than a quarter of the space, including a used drum dryer from Germany the size of a tanker truck, and a shiny brand new red furnace run with wood and parchment to power it. Though their coffee would still be sun dried in part, the mechanical drier would help maintain more consistency in their product.
Soon people started arriving. Trucks filled with people hanging over the sides, SUV’s full of families, all wedged their vehicles in every which way and tumbled out onto the dirt drive. Twenty eight farmer families would be attending this end-of-harvest party, made especially important by the christening of the new dry mill equipment.
I stepped outside the open bay door into the quiet and afternoon sunlight outside. Next to me, I could hear the trickle of water into the concrete holding tank, the first point of processing for newly delivered cherries—it is partially full, and they glisten red in the dim depths. A warm breeze flaps the fronds of nearby banana trees like snapping flags, and invisible birds chirp and warble in the trees. The music of the farmers’ children reverberates, muffled, through the walls of their new mill.
I am moved by this group of people who have become not just a group of families, but a group that has become a family over the years. Though their farms may not be near enough for regular contact, these gatherings have become family reunions, with farmers embracing farmers, and adults exclaiming over the growth of the young.
There has been such an overarching feeling of mutual appreciation, of camaraderie, and of shared gratitude throughout our visit to the AFAORCA community, that I find myself deeply thankful for this uplifting glimpse they have given us of their lives. We will be returning to our Northwest homes holding not just the sunlight of the Costa Rican sky, but the warmth of the people we met along the way.