When it comes to coffee in Costa Rica, the Tarrazu region is famed for producing rich cups of coffee full of chocolate, orange, and dried fruit undertones. Costa Rican coffee from the best fincas or coffee-growing farms such as Finca Palmilera, fetch upwards of $80 a pound.
They have the highest price per cup ($7) in an exclusive deal with only 48 Starbucks locations. This varietal is notoriously difficult to grow and relies on the expertise of the coffee harvesters to determine optimal ripeness for picking.
Costa Rica Coffee Pickers
Historically, the peones (coffee pickers) who work the Costa Rican fincas were overwhelmingly Costa Rican citizens. In many instances, multi-generational families often worked at the same finca. This has changed dramatically over the last decade for two reasons.
The first is the significant rise in global coffee consumption, particularly for coffees on the more expensive end of the spectrum. With the best coffee fetching significantly higher prices per pound, there has been a sudden rise in the acreage dedicated to coffee growing.
This is very similar to the boon experienced in Napa Valley throughout the 90s when significant acreage dedicated to other types of farming were converted to grape growing for high-end cabernet.
The result of all this new acreage dedicated to coffee growing meant a need for significantly more labor. Which ties directly into the second issue; the dilemma of technology and the advancement of the overall quality of life in Costa Rica.
The stable democracy of Costa Rica has resulted in a standard of living that far surpasses nearly all of South and Central America as a whole. Millennials and younger generations have very little interest in working the fincas the way their family may have. The advent of technology has significantly increased the number and breadth of jobs available.
Who are the Coffee Pickers of Costa Rica?
As a result of the confluence of these two issues, the number of migrant pickers from countries like Nicaragua and Panama has increased dramatically over the years. It used to be the same teams worked for the same fincas for generations; everybody knew each other and often the atmosphere was festive, despite the often grueling work and long days.
Now many times the teams of peones are strangers; there is some resentment, and the atmosphere is less than jovial. The Costa Rican fincas typically pay among the best wages comparatively speaking, and migrants are willing to make the journey and live in ramshackle shacks or their vehicles during the harvest season.
A Typical Day in the Life of a Coffee Picker
But what does a typical day in the life of a coffee picker look like? This article will examine a typical day in the life of a coffee picker at one of the most respected fincas in Tarrazú, Costa Rica during harvest.
5:00am Rise and Shine
Efrem rises well before the sun comes up. He has a 30-minute drive to get to the Finca, or coffee farm. He is lucky because he owns his own pickup truck, and often stops to pick up other workers along the way. Some workers get up much earlier in order to make the walk to the finca which can be several miles each way.
05:15am Breakfast and Dressed
Efrem fortifies himself with a strong breakfast before he leaves, typically a fried egg, grilled cheese, and tortillas. He also makes an extra-strong pot of thick coffee.
Even though the temperatures can easily reach greater than 80 degrees, Efrem wears long sleeves and long pants to protect from the sun and the insects.
The finca that he works for is mostly organic, meaning no chemicals or pesticides to fight insects. Long sleeves and pants help guard against the sun, insects, and the scratching from the coffee trees. He also wears a hat and ties a bandana around the back of his neck for added protection.
05:30am Departure and Pickup
Efrem grabs his canasta (a woven basket that he wears on his waist to collect the coffee cherries). He drives to a set destination on the outskirts of town where he picks up several friends who pile in the back of the truck with their canastas. He has been picking beans on this farm for several years and his “crew” are very loyal.
The ride up the steep hills to the finca can be difficult in places where it isn’t paved. Having made the trip so many times over the years, he knows the road blindfolded. Still, Efrem is particularly cautious. One unseen divot or ditch could send his friends flying- or worse- blow out tires or an axel and make the hard work of the harvest all for naught.
6:00am Arrive at the Finca and Breakfast
The morning arrival is a bit like controlled chaos. Several workers have brought their children with them. The kids participate in a modified school/daycare. There are a few teachers who watch the kids, but it’s more like a summer camp than a defacto school. It allows many families to work together. Many of the same families have been working at the same finca for years, and in some cases, generations work side by side.
A house cook from the Finca who has been up for several hours making tortillas for the workers who will get breakfast before they hit the fields. Large portions of tortillas, rice, cheese, and beans are ladled out.
The finca is generous, and the children, along with the workers typically get three full meals a day during harvest season. Exceptionally strong coffee that is almost equal parts coffee and sugar fortifies the workers as they head to the fields as the sun crests over the hills.
06:30am – Picking Begins
The peones (pickers) gather there gear and are assigned a calle, which is a specific row of coffee trees. Some farms have been growing coffee for so many generations, that there aren’t defines calles; trees often grew from places where coffee beans were dropped and eventually sprouted.
The calles are strictly regulated. Only one person may pick from one calle at a time. This ensures that coffee isn’t mixed from different lots, ensuring consistent quality. This is very similar to how wine grapes are harvested from the finer chateaus.
There is a hierarchy among the peones. Efrem has been with this finca for several years and gets a preferential choice of calles. The foreman of the finca is a fair man, and every day the majority of the calles are randomly chosen to avoid conflicts with the workers. There is some favoritism for the longest-tenured workers like Efrem.
Additionally, some pickers have selflessly given the better calles to families who may be in more of a need to due to a medical issue, or pending birth. There is a familial camaraderie among many of the pickers.
The pickers are paid by the number of cajuelas (a box that measures coffee bean volume) that they have filled. The ripest cherries weigh the most and command the best prices for the pickers.
The pickers move carefully among the calles. On newer fincas, the rows are often more spacious. On older, multi-generational fincas, the rows can be very narrow, and the pickers need to be careful not to brush against the plants and knock down or damage the cherries from the vandolas or branches.
Typical coffee plants are “touched” approximately three times during the harvest period to make sure that no cherries are overlooked. The skilled pickers have a very keen eye and can distinguish quickly between ripe cherries, pintons (under ripe), or green.
While the vandolas can get heavy when swollen with fruit and tend to sag under the weight of the ripe berries, the pickers use extra care when they pick the cherries.
They are picked from the bottom of the plant and work their way up. The cherry is twisted gently to the left and pulled from the branch. Care is made to ensure that the green bud remains behind attached to the tree.
That will eventually become the cherry for the following years harvest. Harming it is literally reducing your potential wages for the next season. There is no room for sloppy, careless pickers, and they are weeded out by the foreman almost as quickly as under ripe cherries.
Even with such a delicate motion, because the pickers are paid based on the volume they pick, they are incredibly fast and nimble as they move down the calles. The cherries are gently placed in the canasta.
When the canasta is full, the picker empties the canasta into a burlap bag. An average picker may pick roughly 70 pounds in a day. Efrem usually does significantly more. His best day, when his body was in the greatest shape, was almost 175 pounds. He averages roughly 130 pounds each day.
For reference, approximately five-pound of ripe cherries produce one pound of roasted coffee. That is the equivalent of roughly 30 cherries per eight-ounce cup of coffee.
11:30am – Mid Day Meal
Around 11:30, a bell is rung several times, accompanied by the call of “Comida!” (Food!) This is the midday meal, and the workers typically retire to a shaded location to take a brief respite from the sun.
The meals are usually lively affairs since most of the workers have known each other for years. The typical lunch is always some variation involving tortillas, rice, beans, eggs, and fried plantains. Very heavy on the carbohydrates to keep the pickers fueled up. Naturally, there is more strong coffee for the afternoon’s picking session.
3:30 pm – Weighing and Payment
The same morning routine continues in the afternoon as the pickers return to their respective calles. The canastas are filled, dumped into the burlap bags, and then refilled again.
Careful attention is paid to the picking process, and many workers carrie small sacks to put any unripe or pintons into the bag to avoid potentially contaminating the burlap sack of ripe cherries.
A few underripe cherries mixed in with a large bag of ripe cherries could significantly taint the taste of a roasted batch of coffee, presenting very tart, bitter flavors. Much like with a high-end winery, the fincas reputation is based upon the quality and consistency of the beans. The pickers are the ones who ensure the initial quality control. This is what allows the best fincas to command staggering prices per pound.
Another bell goes off signaling the end of the day. Cheers of “Vamos!” “Let’s go!” means its time to bring their sacks of picked cherries. The weighing process is a particularly spirited event.
With the atmosphere of a weigh-in between prizefighters, pickers call out, boast, and tease with each other based on their respective numbers of cajuelas they fill.
The workers are paid on the spot once the cherries have been weighed and stored. While the average pay in Tarrazu is $2 US per cajuela, at this finca the rate is a little higher because of the overall quality. The foreman doesn’t mind paying more because he manages to get the best pickers with the best eyes for quality cherries. The average picker empties roughly 20 cajuelas. Efrem emptied 27. Roughly $60 U.S. for the day’s work.
On this finca, the workers and their children are treated to an evening meal. Besides creating a familial atmosphere, the finca is cognizant that the extra cost assures a level of loyalty and consistency with their workers, which equates to the reliable and consistent quality of the cherries during harvest. They also offer access to basic medical care for the workers and their families.
Some of the longest-tenured workers even live on the finca, but Efrem likes to be able to separate his work life from his “real life.” With the last meal finished, Efrem heads back to his truck with his buddies.
They may head into town for a quick cerveza or two, but there is no denying they are tired and have to be up at the crack of dawn to repeat the process. Most of the workers are in bed by 8 pm. Efrem is responsible and knows there will be plenty of time to enjoy the nightlife and spend some money once the harvest has ended.