“To be honest, organic coffee could become a dying breed in Costa Rica.” Leland Westie and I stare at each other, neither of us quite sure how to continue the conversation. Westie seems startled by his own frankness. After a long pause, he qualifies his statement with an apologetic smile: “I mean, I hope it will survive. I am an optimist. But we need all the help we can get.”
Westie would know – together with his wife and a group of engaged citizens, he co-founded and co-organizes the Feria Verde de Aranjuez, the largest organic farmers’ market in San Jose. In the beginning, the market seemed to lack a gathering spot for shoppers to connect. This is why he founded Taza Amarilla, a local organic coffee roaster and coffee shop that has become emblematic for the market. When one ambles about the stalls, it is striking that almost every second hand is holding a trademark yellow mug. Every Saturday, the micro-enterprise sells around 500 cups of coffee and another 85 bags of their beans. At least on this local level, demand for organic coffee seems to hold up; however, the commitment to organic greatly limits Westie’s sourcing options. “There are two, maybe three organic producers that seem financially sound and of sufficient enough size to survive in the long term,” he explains. Two or three in an entire country of high-end coffee producers. How did it come this far?
Sustainable coffee in general, and organic coffee specifically, is an almost exclusively demand-driven enterprise. While there exist a select few apasionados that pursue sustainability out of absolute conviction, for most actors it means more work and higher production costs that need to be recouped through premium prices. Unfortunately, a mismatch of oversupply and insufficient demand means that currently only about 53% of organically produced coffee can be sold under the label. For other sustainability schemes such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance, the estimated take-up figures are even worse (33% and 37%, respectively). Data inconsistencies due to double or triple certification notwithstanding, inevitably farmers spend time, effort and significant resources to change their production systems, only to find that they cannot bring their organic coffee onto the target market.
And even if they do succeed, many times premium prices do not cover the additional costs. A 2001 study in Costa Rica found that net profit rates of conventional and organic farmers would be the same – were it not for the certification costs organic farmers incur on a yearly basis. When including current certification fees, the price premiums paid to organic farmers would have to increase to 38% above market price to ensure the same net income.
Faced with these calculations, more and more farmers that had switched to organic production during the coffee price crisis of the early 2000s are giving up on their organic fields and moving back to input-intensive production. The recent spread of coffee rust in Central America is giving many producers the last push. “In organic coffee, we have no means of fighting coffee rust, we can only try to prevent it,” explains Francisca from the farm Las Lajas. “Our neighbors just spray fungicides, but our hands are bound. And with adjacent farms and this wind, the fungus keeps jumping from farm to farm.” Las Lajas already lost one whole plot to coffee rust, and had to replant from scratch. Now, after a two-year wait, yields are starting to reach pre-rust levels. “But as I recently inspected the plants, I found new spots,” sighs Francisca. “If they start to spread, we will have to give up our organic status and spray. We just cannot afford to lose this crop too.”
When in doubt, economic realities outweigh all other considerations. In addition, in the high-quality market segment that Costa Rican coffee producers are aiming to reach, the organic label is more of an afterthought. What counts is taste. And in specialty coffee tastings – so-called cuppings – organic coffee is still a dark horse. “Of course the fertilizer mix will affect the taste. When you are trying to reach a particular flavor profile, and comparing organic in the same playing field as conventional coffees, it’s an unfair competition when there are hardly any formal research or development projects assisting the process,” says Westie.
What is needed, according to the coffee connaisseur, is an organic coffee incubator. “We need research, we need marketing efforts for Costa Rican organic coffee, but most of all, we need international industry wide collaboration to share resources and work to support the growers who are actually doing the most work to keep coffee sustainable in one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet.” On a local level, Taza Amarilla is already working on developing consumer awareness – including through their new project, a roastery-slash-restaurant that shares a space with a local micro-brewery in Ciudad Colon. Furthermore, they promote coffee farm diversification to create alternate income streams that increase financial sustainability. Thus, beside the coffee business they also facilitate sales at Feria Verde of organic bananas and avocados where they can command a premium price to then support the coffee conundrum.
But to safeguard the livelihood of organic coffee producers, export opportunities are essential. Taza Amarilla can bring their coffee to you – even emission free, by one of the first cargo sailboats (such a cool project!). Who knows, maybe organic single-origin coffee can become the ‘next big thing’ among gourmets?