Different crops, same problems for Central America farmers

I had an opportunity to take a vacation recently and spent some time in Central America. What does an aggie do on vacation? Visit farms, of course, or pretty much the same thing I do when I’m not on vacation.

While visiting a banana farm in Costa Rica, I had a chance to talk with the farm manager. I asked him, “What are the major challenges for growing bananas in Costa Rica.”

You could substitute, “What are the challenges to growing cotton in North Carolina or soybeans in Virginia or peaches in South Carolina,” and the answer would be about the same.

“We have huge labor problems. Our labor comes from Nicaragua — the second poorest country in the Americas. Some of the labor is legal, some not. The government keeps changing the rules and it’s difficult to comply. Costa Ricans don’t want to work on the farm for two dollars an hour (minimum wage there),” the farm manager said.

“Input costs have gone up and up over the past few years and the price we get from Dole and Chiquita (this farm grows bananas for both brands) hasn’t kept pace with the costs of fuel, pesticides and labor,” he adds.

“Then there is the weather. I don’t know if it’s due to global climate change or what, but we typically get 70-80 inches of rainfall a year, but it never seems to come at the right time,” he laments.

If you don’t know, bananas grow both domesticated and wild in Central America. The wild ones are basically non-edible. The domesticated, commercial banana plant, technically not a tree, grows only one stalk of bananas. This one stalk is covered by a blue plastic material that provides extra heat that makes the bananas sweeter and protects them for insects and other pests.

Once the stalk of bananas is harvested, suckers or sprouts from the mother plant grow and produce another stalk of bananas. Of course, all the bananas are hand-harvested and run through a packing house, which looks similar to an apple or peach packing house.

From the banana plantation along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, we moved to the mountains, where coffee is the primary crop.

Not only is the climate considerably different — it was 90 degrees cloudy and humid at the banana farm and 75 degrees and sunny at the coffee plantation — but the terrain is like a whole different world.

Coffee could never survive 50 miles away on the coast and bananas couldn’t make it in the Costa Rican mountains.

If banana production sounds difficult, multiply by a factor of 10 or so and you can get the complexity of growing coffee. Virtually all the work is done by hand. Like coffee drinkers, coffee plants want it NOW.

The mountains of Costa Rica and coffee were made for each other. Soils there have the right amount of acidity from ashes left behind by still active volcanoes and are rich in organic matter. The soil is ideal for root uptake of nutrients, retaining humidity and generally invigoration of the coffee plant. The end result is the distinctive taste of a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and other brands of popular coffee.

The quality of Costa Rican coffee — they claim — is unsurpassed by coffee grown anywhere else in the world.

There may be some justification for this claim. The varieties grown in the country belong to the Arabica species, which yield a tasty, superbly aromatic and well-balanced coffee.

As one member of our tour group summed up perfectly, “I never knew so much work went into a simple cup of coffee.”

Too bad more people can’t visit farms and see for themselves how much hard work and capital investment go into the food they eat, the beverages they drink and the clothes they wear.





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