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Down the mountain
I wasn’t born a coffee farmer. In fact, for the first 25 years of my life, I had no idea what farming coffee was even like—until I traveled to San Juan Coatzóspam, a small town in the mountains of southern Mexico.
As I learned on my first day there, growing coffee is backbreaking work.
I stayed with my friend’s uncle, a friendly, sixty-something man named Don Adán. In many places, he would be close to retirement. In San Juan Coatzóspam, though, he still worked in the fields every day. I offered to help him out when I arrived. “You can join me tomorrow morning,” he chuckled. “We’ll see how much you can handle.”
We walked out of town, crossed an asphalt highway and followed a narrow dirt trail that cut down the mountain, through the lush forest on all sides. The trail gradually became steeper. We hadn’t even started working yet, and my shirt was already soaked.
“You’re sweating already?” Don Adán asked. “You’ll have to get used to this hike. You’re going to have a hard time working if you’re already tired.”
“Don’t worry,” I wheezed, “I feel fine.”
* * * *
Over 25 million people in the world grow coffee for a living. Most of them live a life similar to Don Adán’s: they are rural farmers working small plots of land. They work year round—tending the plants, clearing the field—all for one annual harvest. That harvest is everything.
Despite the fact that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (after oil), a business worth $100 billion dollars, most coffee farmers are very poor. The people who do the most backbreaking work in this global business will barely see any of the profits.
Don Adán’s story is an “Everyman Tale,” one that has been repeated by millions of coffee farmers around the world. My first visit to his town in 2006 gave me just a taste of it.
Grown in the shade, grown in the forest
The red clay soil was still moist from the previous night’s rain, slick and muddy. Shortly into our hike, I slipped and fell in the mud spectacularly.
“Cuidado,” Don Adán said. “Be careful, David. Remember that you’ve got a machete in your hand.”
We hiked straight downhill for more than an hour. The lower we went, the more humid and tropical the landscape became: massive, waving fronds of banana plants; buzzing wasps’ nests; giant spiders crouched in their webs. By this point, I was sweating even more than I usually do. At last, Don Adán stopped and hung his yellow plastic water jug on a tree branch.
“Well,” he said, “here’s the cafetal.”
I had been expecting a literal “coffee field”: rows of plants on a flat plot of ground. This cafetal was just the steep side of a mountain. If I had a hard time hiking down this slope, it would be a heck of a task to work there—especially with a razor sharp machete in my hand. I was having trouble standing straight up, my legs trembled, and we hadn’t even started working.
“So what’s our job today?” I asked.
“We need to clear the underbrush from the coffee field. If we don’t, the other plants will choke out the coffee, and it won’t grow.”
I couldn’t even see the coffee; everything looked like just one huge mess of greenery. Plants grew like crazy in this lush, fertile soil.
“All you have to do is cut down every plant that isn’t coffee,” Don Adán said, pointing at my machete.
“Um…which of these plants make coffee?”
He indicated a bush about a meter tall, with flat, shiny green leaves. “These are the coffee plants. Don’t cut them down.”
I told him I didn’t see anything that looked like a coffee bean on it.
“These are the cherries.” With his machete, he pointed at a few bright green berries on a taller plant. “The coffee is inside them. But it won’t be ready to harvest until Spring, when they turn red.”
“Got it. Clearing the cafetal.”
I watched Don Adán work first. He slashed at the underbrush close to the ground, pulling the cuttings into big piles with one foot, moving with surprising agility. I started to swing my machete, imitating his motions. After a minute, Don Adán glanced over, saw my pile of chopped greenery, and scolded me.
“¡No vayas a cortar el cafetal! I told you, don’t cut down the coffee plants! Just the weeds.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll be more careful.” I made a mental note: When you’re farming coffee, try not to chop down the coffee plants.
As we worked, Don Adán gave me a crash course in coffee farming. This particular cafetal was over fifteen years old. Maintaining it was a year-round job: clearing the underbrush, pruning the plants, checking for pests or diseases like the “coffee rust” fungus.
“How many harvests are there per year?” I asked.
“What do you mean, how many?”
“How often do you pick the coffee beans?”
“Once a year. Between January and March, right before Holy Week.”
“So you work all year, just for that one harvest?”
“What if something happens to the harvest? What if a disease hits, or nobody buys it, or the price they offer is too low?”
Don Adán shrugged.
“No, pues, está difícil. It’s tough.”
* * * *
The highest quality coffee is shade-grown, grown in remote jungles and forests, protected by thick vegetation. The plants need constant care, however, to keep them from getting strangled by the surrounding plants. The ground needs to be cleared on a regular basis.
For most coffee farmers, this work is done painstakingly by hand. In a shade-grown coffee plot, there is no machine that can substitute a human being—one person swinging a machete for hours on end.
Coffee farming is not for impatient people. It takes a new coffee plant three to four years to start producing flowers, growing usable beans a year later. After 20 years, plants become less productive, and new ones need to be planted.
All of this means that a farmer needs to plan ahead—planting new fields of plants enough time in advance to start producing beans before the other plants age out.
Growing the coffee, harvesting the coffee
I noticed the coffee plants were evenly spaced out, which made it easier to find them. After an hour, I got used to the look of their shiny green leaves and smooth, dark branches.
The ground was soon covered in the fresh, wet greenery I had chopped, and I had to constantly check my footing. My boots slid out from under me every couple steps; it seemed like only a matter of time before I impaled myself on the machete.
“Not enough traction on your boots,” Don Adán said. “I saw that right away. Better be careful.”
After several falls, I figured out how to prop one foot in place by a rock or root. While this kept me from falling, it exhausted my leg muscles. After clearing just a couple feet of growth, I was panting.
I cast frequent glances at the yellow plastic jug hanging from the tree. I’ll just wait until Don Adán takes his water break, I thought. To not be rude. Then I’ll have a drink after him.
I waited. He did not stop. The break didn’t come. After an hour, Don Adán gestured toward the jug.
“Have a drink if you want,” he said. “You sure sweat a lot.”
I greedily guzzled from the jug, pouring half of it down the front of my shirt.
“Would you like some water too, Don Adán?”
“No thanks. Lots of work to do still.” He hadn’t even broken a sweat.
We kept working. My throat had gone bone dry and my lower back ached. After another hour, my thighs burned. Two hours and I couldn’t feel most of my body anymore. At three hours, I was begging God to throw me off the face of the mountain and give me a merciful death.
God did not answer my prayers. We kept working. Don Adán didn’t show any signs of tiring. While I took longer and longer water breaks, he kept chopping nonstop.
The sun seemed to hang directly overhead forever, never getting any closer to the Western horizon. I started to wonder if this mountain was like the hotel in “The Shining”: Maybe we were lost souls, condemned to spend all eternity up there. Finally, miraculously, Don Adán said we had done enough.
“Let’s head back up to town.”
* * * *
The work I did with Don Adán my first day in the mountains was “the easy part” of the season. The truly hard work comes later, when it’s time to harvest the beans.
In southern Mexico, the harvesting season comes between January and March. Towns like Coatzóspam jump into action, with every free pair of hands working like crazy to collect the red cherries from the plants. Every minute counts, to bring in the cherries while they are at their peak.
That is far from the end of the work, though: the coffee bean is still trapped inside the red cherry. After bringing in the harvest, a long list of steps follows:
- The cherries are soaked to loosen the fruit from the bean
- The pulp is removed
- The bean that is extracted must be dried.
- Each dried, green coffee bean has a thin husk around it. This husk needs to be removed.
Some coffee farmers are lucky enough to be associated with a cooperative that owns machinery to do these steps efficiently. Others are not so lucky—the farmers and their families do every step by hand, painstakingly removing the pulp and drying the beans in the sun.
Only after all this work will the green beans be ready to be sold.
All that work for so little money
A ragged sigh of relief rattled out of my pitiful lungs. I sheathed my machete, grabbed the yellow jug, and followed Don Adán up the mountain. The muddy hike uphill was pure agony: nothing but steep, rugged, rocky, irregular terrain. Each step we took was like three stairs of a staircase, but always headed in a different direction.
The air burned as it entered my chest. My feet trembled when I lifted them. All the while, Don Adán kept moving steadily up the mountain. After a half hour, my legs collapsed on their own accord. I landed on my butt and panted out an apology, in a mixture of Spanish and English.
“Perdón, Don Adán, es que… I just can’t hang, bro.”
“Why don’t you drink a little water,” he suggested. I took a deep swig and offered him the jug. He shook his head. “No thanks. I don’t really drink much water.”
I gasped. “How do you do this every day? I’m already exhausted.”
“But we’re only halfway up.”
I stared down the hillside, dumbstruck. Already, the cafetal was just a tiny brown patch in the distance below. I stood, dusted off my pants, and said I was ready to keep going. Don Adán led the way, not stopping once. After what felt like hours—days, even—I glimpsed the highway far uphill from us.
I don’t even know if I’ll be able to walk tomorrow, I thought. I can’t even imagine a paycheck fat enough to compensate for all this work.
It was then that I realized—there was no paycheck. A whole day’s work, backbreaking labor, and no immediate reward. The “check” would come six months later, when it was finally time to sell the coffee harvest. And I didn’t even know how much Don Adán would get paid for a year’s worth of work. What did a kilogram of coffee go for, anyway? Was it even worth it?
When we finally reached the paved road that led into town, the level ground felt like heaven. I sat on the tiny wooden chair in the adobe kitchen that evening, watching Don Adán stoke the fire. Every muscle in my body ached. My host put the pot of coffee over the fire; I sat in silence, staring at the gray smoke.
When he handed me a steaming cup of coffee, I felt guilty for even touching it. It was like gold. I had never realized how much work went into growing coffee.
* * * *
Most coffee farmers work all year to bring in one harvest. That harvest is everything. The money it brings in is used to cover the costs invested in the field all year, pay for laborers, and in the end, put food on the table.
Many coffee farmers are paid a pitifully low price for their final product. Sometimes, the price is so low, they actually lose money in the process—they never even make back the money they invested in their field. Why is that the case? See this article to find out.
And find out how Fair Trade coops are getting coffee farmers organized, [LINK – HOW THE FAIR TRADE THING WORKS] getting a better price for their harvest and making all that hard work worth it.
While many coffee drinkers will go their whole lives without ever seeing a coffee field, we can all appreciate the value of hard work. The people who put the most labor and effort into the coffee trade should be able to reap the rewards as well.