Volcafe Way in Costa Rica

Based in San Jose, Riley spent years in the field as a farmer support technician, and now oversees the Volcafe Way Farmer Support Organization (FSO) in Costa Rica—a country he moved to as a boy, from Canada. Riley attended Costa Rica’s prestigious Earth University, which focuses on providing its global student body with sustainable-agriculture expertise they can apply in their home countries. Now he’s driving implementation across the varied landscapes of this environmentally conscious country.

The current crop

The last harvest was on the bi-annual scale that all coffee regions have, meaning that there’s a good year and a bad year, in terms of volume. This last harvest was a low year in terms of productivity. But when we have low productivity we tend to have higher quality.

Sometimes people associate big beans with better quality, but in reality it’s the density of the coffee bean that matters. So with a smaller harvest, we have more dense coffee. To a consumer, that means more flavor per square inch of bean. So all of the good things in the coffee, all of the characteristics that we look for in coffee, are really concentrated.

Riley Thomson leads the Volcafe Way implementation in Costa Rica.

Riley Thomson leads the Volcafe Way implementation in Costa Rica.

Labor costs and standard of living in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has the highest labor cost of all of Latin America, after Argentina. And Argentina doesn’t produce coffee.

Labor is always a huge cost for producers, but especially so here. It’s roughly $20 a day, per worker, which to an American may seem very, very low, but that’s about twice as much as the minimum wage in Guatemala. Which is a good thing. Getting farmers to pay their workers a minimum wage in Costa Rica is sometimes a challenge of ours, as a Farmer Support Organization, but it is a type of insurance that the worker is getting good conditions and can maintain a prosperous lifestyle.

Costa Rica takes great pride in being a place with a good quality of life, for everyone. The government provides everyone access to free utilities, education and healthcare. So even in very small towns, people’s basic needs are met and they have the foundation for a good life.

Delivering Farmer Support

We are part of a big company, so sometimes we have to break down misconceptions about the kind of company we are. Farmers tend to assume that we’re only in it to make a profit at their expense—that’s the underlying misconception. So we really just have to make sure the farmer knows that the people in the field are 100 percent on his side, and that we’re giving him recommendations from his perspective, and that we’re doing our very best to put ourselves in his shoes and wear his hat and give him advice that will work for him and his family in the long run.

Alternatively, it’s to convince our buyers, on the other side of the chain, that the work we’re doing isn’t just nice and positive but allows us to educate them on the real needs of the farmer. Sometimes there’s a very big disconnect between what the consumer thinks the farmer needs to stay in the business, and to be sustainable or happy or prosperous, or whatever you want to call it, and what the farmer’s actual day-to-day challenges are.

I feel coffee is very trendy, so people come up with ideas about what needs to happen or what the challenges are, and it isn’t always true.

I think people may be surprised by the amount of contact we have with farmers, and the level of trust we have with them. Like, even though I’m not in the field all the time now, I still get calls from farmers whom I created a relationship with when I was a field technician, and they’re really eager for this kind of assistance.

There’s one Volcafe Way producer, Francisco, in our cluster in the south of the country, and he is just an amazing farmer. He applies all of the good farming practices that we talk about just kind of by instinct. Like, he doesn’t take notes from his neighbors. He doesn’t even take too many notes from us, because he’s got it figured out. His farm is incredibly bio-diverse, incredibly productive. He lives on it with his family, so it looks like the Garden of Eden. It’s an amazing farm.

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