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Coffee Farming: Ignorance Can Be Bliss

America’s coffee obsession is paying off in groves… hundreds of groves.

Picking coffee cherries.

Picking coffee cherries.

I miss not knowing where my food comes from.

I miss the blissful ignorance of sitting in a cafe, being only vaguely aware that coffee comes from a tropical tree, or maybe a bush, but never quite being able to picture it. This Carolina girl is spending her summer and fall working on a coffee farm in Ecuador, and it is sweltering enough for me to stare longingly at the exit of the figurative kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong— I love my fellow trabajadores. My role on the farm is just not quite what I expected, as nothing ever is. It has been different in some unexpected ways.

The Work is Truly Exhausting.

I thought that because I’m young and fit, I could handle it pretty easily, but that has not been the case. After going to bed at nine, we get up around sunrise and join the light in hitting up the plants; like beggars asking for change, we stop at every tree. We just look for an opening for our hands and we go for it. Eventually the sun shatters our delicate facades of sunscreen and long sleeves, breaking a sweat, but never our spirits. Each picker wears both apron and bug repellant, and for five or so hours we systematically remove the reddest coffee cherries from the trees, trying our darnedest to avoid the spiders.

What are not present in the description above are the sensations associated with each action, each movement. You can’t feel the soreness from yesterday’s workday as you crawl out of bed, or the pinching pain of a red ant bite, or the swaying feeling of sweat dripping down your back and finding a home in your already-soaked jeans. The long-sleeved shirt and heavy jeans and rain boots that you have to wear to avoid insects give off an overwhelming feeling even before you put them on, feeling the burn of your own body heat boomeranging back in waves.

This is the reality of agriculture, and while right now it is my reality, day-to-day it is the reality of millions. And not just fully-grown adults such as myself, but also children who know no better than to do what they and their parents have always done.

Agriculture is Generally a Thankless Job.

Mother Nature, in her ceaseless wonder, is always growing and changing and renewing. This often means that though you are faced with a seemingly impossible task most days, it always gets done by someone, sometimes more than once. As fruits and vegetables are picked and whisked away from the farm, new growth appears in its place. It is a very good illustration of the power of nature, but caring for such resilient plants can wear down on one’s ability to see a tangible result at the end of the week, especially when dinner never actually includes the fruits of your own labor.

The day's coffee harvest.

The day’s coffee harvest.

Too Much Stress on Just Marking Things Off.

For a perfectionist such as myself, it was sometimes hard to have one person tell me to do something one way and a week later someone else another. But the way they saw it, the task was getting done in a similar time frame, and that is all that matters. Another aspect of this is that the quality of things plays second fiddle to the quantity— you hit your quota and you are done for the day; you fill your basket with coffee cherries, and that task is complete.

As on every farm, there is always something to do next, sometimes the same thing as the one you did last, and there is no rest between now and then. No more thoughts or worries are gifted to a job once it is done. It is just on to the next one.

Perfect for the picking!

Perfect for the picking!

There’s Little Wage Regulation & Too Few Jobs.

Meet Olga, a strong woman who lives nearby and works on the farm from 7am to 4pm, 5 days a week. She makes just $20 a day. This is the same no matter what the tasks, and her responsibilities range from cutting the grass, to scaling orange trees and cutting down bamboo with a machete. What’s more, she has to work every weekday, even on holidays.

This may not be the case for everyone, and I can only speak to my experience, but this seems unfair. Holidays like Independence Day should be the equivalent of a paid sick day, a “thanks” from your employer for years of loyal service, but that sort of regulation just doesn’t exist in Ecuadorian agriculture. With four kids, there is little money left over for frivolous things such as bus tickets or imported anything. As a result, Olga and most other Ecuadorians have never left the country.

My beautiful & strong boss Olga, holding up a harmless butterfly, thinking I wanted its picture.

My beautiful & strong boss Olga, holding up a harmless butterfly, thinking I wanted its picture.

There’s a Lot of Experimentation in Agriculture.

A coffee farm is rarely just a coffee farm. It’s also a processing plant, a cacao plantation, a maíz stomping ground, and a large garden of tropical flowers and fruits. Additionally, it is the natural habitat of a variety of insects and spiders, both huge and miniscule.

Though we primarily grow coffee and cacao here on the farm, there are also many other fruits and vegetables and herbs grown in enough abundance to merit selling them at market. Some of these are yuca, lemons, oranges, plantains, and corn, all of which we must harvest in rotation. The style of the farm is experimental permaculture, meaning that the crops are grown around other crops that would natively grow around them, and then after everything is harvested, the owner takes a portion of it all and plays around with it, trying out different fermentation methods, drying techniques or plant rotations.

This can mean that our expectations change daily, and we are not always informed ahead of time. Although it has proven helpful in honing my flexibility, this leads to endless exasperation for everyone. Experimental farms are not uncommon, from what my coworkers tell me.

So I beseech you, whenever you eat a mango or sip a hot chocolate, to think of these hard-working people whom I have joined for the summer. Remember that your cup of coffee did not just appear from behind the counter of your local café, but that it was hand-harvested by real people, full of blood, sweat and tears.

Coffee Flowers.

Coffee Flowers.

Have you ever worked with food? Were you surprised at how it was handled behind the scenes?

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