Jorge Umana, manager
1. How and why did you get involved in coffee farming?
My involvement in coffee farming can be traced back to my great-grandparents, when they arrived in the San Marcos, Pirris River Valley in the 1860s. They traveled by horse and ox carts and placed the foundations of what is now a worldwide recognized coffee region. With shovels and pickaxes, they built a network of gravel roads and brought their families to this rugged valley at the base of Mount Trinidad or Tarrazú. Like the pioneers in the United States' Wild West, our ancestors came to this remote valley searching for gold but found instead a fertile, highland valley with great potential for coffee farming. Despite lack of access roads, outlaws from South America, plagues, and all kinds of hardships, they survived. Coffee seeds were brought along with cattle but it was not until the late 1890s that the first coffee mill was established by Mr. Pedro Perez and Mr. Ramon Blanco.
My family has been in the coffee trade ever since not only because of tradition, but because we feel proud of continuing the efforts to provide high-quality coffee beans to people abroad, just like our ancestors did. There is a romantic side in Tarrazú coffee farming also. It is gratifying, for me, and the rest of us, to watch, for instance, a Caturra coffee tree grow from seed to fully mature tree, or the harvest, when all members of the family grab their ¨canastos,¨ or baskets, to pick the beans. What keeps the Tarrazú coffee tradition alive is not greed but a profound respect for what identifies ourselves abroad. Tarrazú coffee farming is a wonderful interaction between the land and the Tarrazú community. Tarrazú is not only a designated geographical region that is defined by a product whose characteristics and quality are absolutely unique and essentially due to the environment within the San Marcos de Tarrazú Valley. It is, too, a closely connected community whose way of life is dramatically exemplified by farms and families like ours. When Tarrazú coffee is mentioned, it must come to mind not as huge coffee plantations or ¨Haciendas¨ the size of Rhode Island but small, family-owned Fincas the size of your backyard, located in a remote valley high in the Costa Rican Talamanca Sierra.
2. As a specialty coffee grower, what are your biggest concerns to date?
There is vastly more coffee sold throughout the world as Tarrazú than is ever shipped from this famed valley. If you stand at the park in downtown San Marcos, you cannot help but realize that our small, bowl-like valley cannot yield such vast quantities of Tarrazú beans. Tarrazú coffee is only grown in the valley where the tiny town of San Marcos de Tarrazú is nestled. Beyond our highlands, the soil changes, the climate is different and the plants produce a less-distinct bean. Hundreds of coffee roasting firms and thousands of small retail businesses who are offering so called ¨Tarrazú¨ coffee to the public don´t have the slightest idea where that coffee originated. Even worse, they cannot tell which farmer is providing the bean. Those offering Tarrazú coffee to the public should be prepared to thoroughly describe at least the historic town of San Marcos and surrounding coffee fields, and the farmers who supplied the beans. There is no such a thing as a cheap genuine gourmet Tarrazú coffee. You can find endless examples of make-believe Tarrazús that, solely by taking note of the price, will qualify as fake. As I recently told a friend, we have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, but we would likely perish if we as coffee growers, and the consumers in general, do not do something to combat make-believe Tarrazús.
The Costa Rican government is definitely largely unprepared to create and enforce a legal appellation. The money they spend in useless campaigns should be better spent in helping families and communities like ours and enforcing origin designations.
3. What solutions do you see, if any, to drive up the price of specialty coffee?
Producing and consuming countries should start formalizing designations. Their role should be to blast minds open, show both roasters and coffee growers the radically different reality that now governs the coffee trade and come up with a solution. Registering for trade and certification marks, guaranteeing the origin and quality is an obvious one. Unfortunately, most governments in Latin America cannot certify that coffees come from a legally defined area, or certify mills that can legally produce coffee with a special mark. Most likely, in the case of Tarrazú coffee, a formal Tarrazú appellation system will require oversight and enforcement from consuming countries due to inefficiencies governing local institutions.
We realize also the key to a sustainable future in coffee is balancing origin, quality product with social and environmental responsibility. Coffee growing and processing must contribute to soil and water conservation, as well as biodiversity and the eventual elimination of agro-chemicals. Waste recycling technologies, children's access to education, local public works and infrastructure projects must also be implemented.
A frost in Brazil won´t solve our problems. Building a loyal clientele, generating a healthy and sustainable environment around us and, above all, a focus on quality are making our valley´s tempests subside.
4. What advice do you have for roasters when it comes to purchasing green coffee?
Consumer awareness should be taken into account. Our coffees are shade-grown, bird-friendly and indeed fair-trade. We have tried to get third-party certification, but regretfully, most of them are after the money and are quite expensive for the average Tarrazú coffee farmer. Those who have contacted us have failed to clearly define and support certification. What we do is convince on site. Our customers enjoy touring our farms, forests and waterfalls and they themselves gladly certify our coffees. Farm size is also practical. Highland coffee farming is labor-intensive, as determined by the rugged terrain. For us farmers to be able to spend the proper amount of resources in each coffee tree, the coffee acreage must be limited. The small farm size also allows for more familiarity between farmers and coffee trees. We really enjoy the close relationship and frequent contact with our coffee trees, which help form real bonds. An appraisal of the farm size, trees grown in it, and the way the coffee farmer effectively emphasizes the importance of farming as a means of producing quality coffee should therefore precede any decision in purchasing green coffee.
Please Note: Some pictures or diagrams are only
Originally published - March 2002