Monthly Archives: April 2013

Working the coffee II

In our last post we described the beginnings of the project of restoring our coffee finca to production. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress.

To recap, the photo below shows the upper level of our coffee, with our house perched above. Our property begins just on the other side of the big trees.

House & coffee

The access to our property from here crosses a ravine, with a culvert providing for drainage. The uphill side of the old culvert had been buried and blocked, with water washing over the road and undermining the culvert and the road from below. It had to be fixed. Maneuvering and installing the concrete drainage pipe required a back hoe.

Back hoe

Here’s the upstream part of the repaired system, with the culvert opening cleared and reinforced.

Upper drainage entrance

And here’s the discharge.

Upper drainage discharge

As you can see, erosion can be a big problem. It was surprising to discover that rainwater management is such an important consideration in coffee growing in Costa Rica. If you’re not careful, the coffee fields can just wash away.

Upper fields

The old coffee plants have been ripped out of most of our upper field – on the left of the photo above – and the area is now ready for replanting. All of the ripping out was done by hand – no tractors here. No access, and the slopes are too steep. The coffee trees on the north side of the drainage (the right side of the photo above) were left in place because they are only a few years old. They had been planted in rows between rows of older plants. With the older and bigger coffee trees removed, they’ll have room and sunlight to grow and produce.

The section of newer plants freed by the removal of the old coffee trees continues down to the second level of our coffee finca.

Newer plants, second level

Just below that section on the second level is the only area of fully mature, producing coffee that we currently have.

Mature coffee

We had to repair drainage on the second level, too. Again, the drainage pipe had been buried at the entrance and water was washing over and eroding the road. It’s now been dug out and fixed.

Second level drainage

To the left is a little shelter our coffee workers threw up to protect themselves from the occasional afternoon downpour. I had salvaged the roofing material when I dismantled the chicken coop.

We’ll be filling in empty spaces in both the newer and mature stands of coffee, but other than that they’re now in pretty good shape. We’ve sprayed for two coffee diseases,  ojo de gallo and the roya that has been devastating coffee production in Central America. The lower level of our finca especially was heavily infested with both diseases.

Roya

Roya

It’s now been stripped bare of coffee plants. You can catch a glimpse of the lower level through the trees at the bottom of the access path. The slope to the left is being prepared for planting.

Path to lower level

And here’s the lower level, staked out for replanting.

Lower level

The path to the lower level also crosses a ravine. This drainage required some attention, as well.

Path crossing ravine

We’re about done for now: the access and drainage infrastructure has been repaired and is in place, and the fields have been cleaned, thinned or cleared, and sprayed. That work has taken three workers four weeks, working eleven hours a day, five days a week. The work has provided plenty of entertainment for Camille, our dear, 85 year old friend from France who has been our guest for the past month.

Camille

We won’t be putting any new coffee plants in the ground until we can count on a shower every afternoon to provide ample moisture. That shouldn’t be any later than a couple of weeks from now.

Working the coffee

The three acres (mas o menus) that came along with our house in El Cajón includes a coffee plantation. One of the projects that’s been on the back burner since moving in has been, what to do with it? The coffee has been a bit neglected for the past several years, and is demanding some attention and management.

First, let’s set the stage. This photo is overlooking our coffee and takes in the opposite side of the canyon.

View from shop

As you see, trees and brush have pretty much overgrown our coffee trees. It’s hard to see the coffee plants.

Notice that kind of grayish-green area on the other side, just to the left of center? These are older (~30 years) coffee plants that need to be replaced. Within a couple of weeks of our arrival, we we able to observe the work as it progressed on that coffee field across the canyon. First, the plants were cut back to within about a foot of the ground. Then workers began to rip them out.

Coffee field overview

Most of the ripping out was done with a tractor. Notice the freshly-cut road to the field at the bottom left corner of the bare area? That was hacked out of the hillside by hand in a couple of hours, to enable the tractor to access the field. Here’s the tractor work in action.

Tractor backing up hill

First, the tractor was backed up the hill. The workers wrapped a chain around several plants a row . . .

Pulling coffee trees #1

and the tractor then pulled them out of the ground as it drove back down the hill.

Pulling coffee trees

The debris was collected (note the dog – he was there every day, making sure things were done right) . . .

Dog helping

. . . and burned.

Burning

The tractor wasn’t able to get to some areas, which had to be cleared by hand. The field is now cleared and ready for planting, awaiting the start of the rainy season. We’ll see the prepared field in a minute.

At the beginning of last week we finally began work on our own coffee plantation. Finding someone knowledgeable and willing to take on the task proved a bit of a challenge. At our wit’s end, we asked our neighbor Jenny for advice. Her family has lived here on the ridge, working coffee, like forever. She’s married to Tim, a Canadian, and lived in Canada for several years, so she speaks English fluently. For the coffee work she volunteered her brother, Jonny. Jonny came over and we walked through our coffee fields together. We explained that our objective was to restore the coffee plantation to health and productivity. Jonny then laid out for us what needs to be done (Jenny translating). We settled on the financial details, and on the Monday after Semana Santa, he showed up with his crew at the crack of dawn – 6:00.

The first task is trimming back trees and clearing brush so the coffee can get the sunlight it needs to grow and thrive. Here’s Jonny at work with the chain saw. Camille, our friend visiting from France, is supervising.

Jonny at work

Our coffee plantation consists of three fields, an upper, middle, and lower. This is the upper field, just below the house.

Upper field

The photo below shows part of the middle field. An access road divides the middle field into an upper and a lower section.

Middle field

The photo below looks down over the lower section of the middle field. In the background across the canyon you can see the coffee field on the other side of the canyon we talked about earlier, ready for planting.

Middle field, lower section

There’s a pretty steep trail that leads to the bottom of our middle field, appearing to dead-end where the terrain drops almost perpendicularly to the river below.

Trail to lower field

Jonny was hacking away at the brush at the bottom of this trail and discovered that the trail didn’t end there at all. It turns to the left, crosses a little ravine, opens up onto a lower field of coffee, and then continues all the way down to the river. We didn’t even known this part of our plantation existed. Below, the crew is at work reclaiming the lower field from the jungle.

Lower field

After eight days of work, the clearing process is finally pretty much finished.

All along, as the crew has been taming the jungle they have been cutting coffee trees back as they went. Next time we’ll talk more about what we’ll be doing to rejuvenate the coffee plantation.