Authored by John Gerwin
A significant element of the Nicaragua economy is based on coffee exports. Based on numerous surveys, a significant number of birds thrive among the vegetation found in traditional coffee farms and there are many such farms in northern Nicaragua. On a traditional farm, the coffee bushes are planted under the canopy of taller trees. Those trees can be a broad mix of native species, or a mix of native and fruit/nut bearing trees, or even a single species. Although a forest consisting of a mix of native species is preferred, even one of only a layer of the Flowering Inga can provide food and “lodging” for a suite of birds. And of course, coffee growing/harvesting/processing is a form of agriculture, and this suite of activities yields employment for many people.
One of those jobs is the “cortador”, or harvester; a.k.a coffee picker. Well, the person is not picking “coffee” but rather, coffee beans. And technically, coffee fruit, called a “cherry” because the typical fruit is a bright red color when it is mature. Finca Esperanza Verde is located in the north-central highlands of Nicaragua. In these parts, the coffee cherries mature between December to mid-February. Some bushes will continue to yield ripe fruit into early March, at higher elevations. The cherries on a given bush do not all ripen at once. Thus, pickers will re-visit bushes several times during the harvest season.
Another critical element of life here is the machete. In Spanish, the verb
“cortar” also means to cut. Here our Young Naturalists learn the importance of knowing homonyms (“twin” words).
On a traditional coffee farm, the cherries are picked by hand. In some places, the pickers cheat a bit and strip all the cherries off, discarding unripened ones. This is a bad technique for two reasons. It wastes those unripened fruits that would continue to ripen if left on the bush; and it damages the stem where the cherry had been attached and this can cause that part of the bush to not fruit again. So, on a farm that is designated, or strives to be, sustainable, pickers are not allowed to use that technique. Each farm employs a “coffee manager” who oversees how the picking is done and how it is proceeding each year, which ensures compliance. At FEV, a coffee cherry is picked, one by one. As you can imagine, this is a laborious process.
In this photo of coffee cherries, red are ripe, green or ‘reddish’ are still ripening.
To get a sense of just how laborious, I asked Vanessa and Olivia to give it
a try one morning. We set out with Luis, the resident coffee “mandador” on a bright sunny morning in mid January. Luis helped them attach the baskets around their waists that local pickers use. Two sizes can be found – the women got a size that holds about 15 pounds of coffee cherries. With baskets tied around their waists followed by a quick introduction to picking, it was time to get to work. Each spent the next hour tugging, pulling, and twisting away.
When a basket is full, a worker will empty it and return to pick more. At the end of a day, her coffee haul is weighed and she is paid for the day. In the Matagalpa region and provinces to the north, most of the pickers are women. Different folks have told me that the women have better dexterity and concentration. And as is the case in most cultures, their focus is on providing for the family. Pickers may move around a province, or remain in a smaller area, perhaps working a few farms. But the work is considered “migratory”. Often, women bring their children along (there is no school in January; also a Fair Trade certified farm cannot allow children at all). When a social cproblem arises among a group of pickers it tends to be testosterone-driven, exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Thus, overall, women are preferred.
Thus, I felt it was best to just have Vanessa and Olivia do the picking while I watched and took photographs……. I’m sure you would all agree.
Our Young Naturalists now hard at work (yet still smiling)
A skilled picker will pick enough coffee cherries to yield 130-160 pounds. In January of 2017, a picker will receive 200 cordobas (Nicaraguan currency) for 130 pounds picked, which is nearly $7 USD at this time. And so, after one hour, Vanessa and Olivia ended their coffee-picking session and it was time to weight the fruits of their labors.
So how did our industrious Young Naturalists fare? Will they earn enough to eat dinner tonight? More importantly, will they earn enough to feed their mentor Juancito dinner tonight?
Each picked about 3 ½ pounds. After doing some complicated math, we come to the realization that we will all be going to bed hungry tonight. They have each earned about $0.10 in one hour, so if they were to work a 10-hour day, they would each get $1 USD. Of course, with enough time, practice, and putting their deXXterity and concentration into play, I’m sure they would soon be up to the more livable $7 USD/day. That is livable right? Parents’ wishes notwithstanding, I ask each if they would like to come back and be a seasonal coffee picker, or go home and on to college – for now, they will go to college. It’s nice to have such choices.
Picking coffee fruit is only the beginning of a very detailed, laborious, multi-multistep process in getting fresh beans to your local roaster. I won’t go into all those details (you can find a lot written and described online). Suffice it to say, to produce really good coffee beans requires a lot of hands-on work, with an eye towards minutiae. Good coffee is expensive and I understand why. I wish the people in Nicaragua were paid more, but that’s how the market works. In the end, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enjoy good coffee, and the birds I love (both at home and in the tropics). And once/year visit my second family here at Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm).
John Gerwin is Treasurer of Wake Audubon and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
All photos are by John.