February 7, 2018

A Day in a Coffee Producer’s Life


For coffee farms across Central America, it’s their busiest time of the year right now. That’s right, it’s the harvest period.

But what does a coffee producer’s day look like? While each farm has its own traditions and routines, join me on a a typical harvest day for Miriam* and her family in Tarrazú, Costa Rica.

Lee este artículo en español Un Día Cotidiano en la Vida de un Productor

Red coffee cherries

Freshly harvested ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

5:20 AM – Rise and Shine

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Miriam gets up and enters the kitchen. She places a pot of gallo pinto (rice and beans) that she prepared the night before over a stove to heat up. On another stove, she has a kettle filled with water for some morning coffee. To the noise of a whistling kettle, her husband Manuel*, daughter Maria José*, and son Kristian* all get out of bed.

You might also like: The Life of a Coffee Bean, From Seed to Cup

05:30 AM – Breakfast and Departure

The family gathers around a small round table placed in the corner of the kitchen. Along with the gallo pinto, there are sunny-side-up fried eggs, grilled cheese, and tortillas. Miriam pours hot water over a chorreador, a traditional coffee-maker. The crystal-clear water transforms into a thick, dark coffee. The strength and smell of this is enough to wake everyone up.

Coffee brewing

Brewing café chorreado. Credit: Asha Price

Everyone puts on their boots and checks how much of their skin is exposed to the sun. Miriam helps as Maria José looks for her mosquito repellent cream. The family places handkerchiefs over their heads, as well as hats, to protect the back of their necks from sunburn and insect bites. Then, everyone gathers a canasta (a basket that sits around the waist and is used for coffee cherries) and jumps on the back of their truck, ready for a morning of picking.

Coffee family

On the truck, heading to the coffee trees. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

06:00 AM – Picking Begins

The morning dew still sits on the branches as the family approaches the farm. They park the truck on a nearby road and greet a group of peones (farm workers) that is ready to begin work. In the group, there are four family members from an indigenous community in the south of Costa Rica. With the harvest in full swing, the family needs extra hands to help collect the cherries before they become over-ripe.

Learn more! Watch our video guide, How Ripe Is Too Ripe?

Coffee tree

Coffee cherries ready for picking. Credit: Asha Price

Each person is allocated a calle, or a row of coffee trees, on which to work. It’s an unspoken rule that only one person picks one calle at a time to avoid mixing coffee from different lots, be more organized with picking, and, most importantly, avoid conflicts among pickers. As pickers are paid by cajuelas (a small metal/wooden box used to measure coffee volume), they know that those who pick the calles with the most ripe cherries have an advantage. For this reason, the calles are randomly chosen – letting fate decide.

Coffee picking

A canasta filled with ripe coffee. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

Once the calles are selected, the pickers move along the narrow rows picking cherries from the vandolas (cherry-laden branches). The vandolas droop with the weight of the fat ripe cherries, which are picked from the bottom up to the top of a plant.

The width of each calle depends on the region, the plant varieties, and the farm’s history. Yet most of the time, it’s barely one meter wide with overgrown branches. Sometimes, generations-old farms don’t have clear calles as the plants grew wherever coffee cherries fell to the ground. But Miriam’s farm went through a replantation period; plants that were as much as sixty years old were removed. Their calles are now well-organized.

Once all a plant’s vandolas are bare, save for any pintons (under-ripe) and green cherries, the picker moves to the next plant in the aisle.

Coffee producer

Cherry picking in progress. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

10:30 AM – Food

Everyone started work early, and so they eat early too. María José, who recently took over Miriam’s role of organizing lunch, yells “Comida!” (“Food!”) Everyone climbs up the hilly farm to a two-hundred-year-old tree. Sitting in its shade, they open their almuerzo de cafetal (coffee plantation lunch). The food for today is tortilla, rice, beans, fried ripe plantain, and eggs, all wrapped in a banana leaf.

Lunch at a coffee farm

Almuerzo de Cafetal. Credit: Sunghee Tark

2:30 PM – Picking Ends With Payment

After lunch, they go back to their calle. Amid laughter, stories, and sporadic coffee breaks, the canastas continue to be filled with freshly picked red cherries. Each time one is filled, it’s emptied into a sack. Every picker also carries a small bag for any unripe cherries that they pick by mistake, along with any other items that could ruin the overall quality of the coffee.

The hours go quickly and, when the workers hear “Ya, vamos!”, everyone climbs back up the hill with their sack of ripe cherries. The day’s picking has ended; it’s time for payment.

The pickers pour their cherries into the cajuela, the metal/wooden box used to measure coffee volume. It fits about 10–12 kg of cherries. The process is elaborate; the mood is energetic. One by one, the pickers come forward with their sack, fill the cajuela, and then pour its contents into the back of the truck. Everyone else yells the number of cajuelas that a person has collected. Everyone’s ears and eyes are the witnesses as Kristian sits, writing down the numbers next to their names. And today’s winner is Ana Lucía*, who picked 20 cajuelas.

Coffee cherry

Measuring coffee in a cajuela. Sunghee Tark

Once all the cherries have been measured, and the sacks and canastas emptied, Miriam pays each picker according to Kristian’s notes. In Miriam’s town of Tarrazú, the average wage per cajuela is US $2.

Bags of coffee

Sacks filled with freshly picked coffee. Credit: Asha Price

3:30 PM – Processing

Miriam’s family built a micro-beneficio (micro wet mill) a couple of years ago. They joke about it being a micro-micro-beneficio due to its tiny size. They’ve decided to process all of their harvest there, using the honey process, instead of submitting it to a local co-op.

Learn more! Check out: Yellow, Red, & Black Honey Processed Coffee: What’s The Difference?

The truck pulls into their backyard, where there’s a tiled basin with a siphon or funnel. They pour the coffee into a fanega, a box that fits 20 cajuelas. By weight, one fanega fits about 200–230 kilograms of coffee cherries. And one fanega of coffee cherries equals one quintal (approximately 45 kg) of green beans after processing. Today, the team picked 5.5 fanegas.

ripe cherries

A fanega filled with ripe cherries. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

After emptying the truck, María José jumps into the water basin to turn on the tap. The water is recirculated through a pipe to be reused throughout the process. Kristian and Miriam are near the chancador (a de-pulping machine), monitoring the beans coming out. This machine peels the cherries but leaves some of the mucilage still attached.

There’s a pipe connecting the siphon and the chancador; as the cherries make their way to the chancador, they are automatically separated by weight. Flotantes (cherries that are lighter due to defective beans), heavy stones, and mud are separated from the good cherries into two separate pipes. From there, they go to two different sacks.

Learn more! Read How to Improve Your Coffee Quality in Harvesting & Sorting

The good cherries, on the other hand, go through the de-pulping machine. Miriam sits in front of it and picks out any skin that wasn’t successfully separated. And as the container of beans fills, Kristian moves it to the drying beds.

Coffee drying

Turning coffee on drying beds. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

Meanwhile, Manuel empties one drying bed full of beans that were put out to dry two weeks ago. He also moves the beans around to make sure they all have even exposure to sunlight. The family shares the responsibility for this, which they do four times a day. Manuel’s careful to start with the driest beans and work his way towards the more humid ones. It’s important that dry beans aren’t made more humid.

You might also like How to Improve Quality When Drying Washed Coffees

Manuel then spreads the newly processed wet beans evenly across the beds, ready for it to begin drying.  

Coffee beans

Coffee dries on raised beds. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

6:30 PM – The Workday Ends

As the sun sets, Miriam is back in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family, having already cleaned the wet mill. Manuel and Kristian collect all the pulp removed from the coffees beans, dumping them on the back of a truck. These will be used in organic fertilizer on the farm. However, the smell of the pulp is too pungent for the family, so they move it from their backyard as soon as possible rather than waiting until the next morning.

When Manuel and Kristian are back, the family gathers in the kitchen to enjoy dinner. They recount some funny incidents from the day and share their favorite memories.

Finally, after everyone has showered and Miriam and María José have finished preparing breakfast and lunch for the next day, the lights are turned off. It’s only 8 pm as Miriam’s family goes to sleep to the sound of crickets chirping in the backyard. They have an early start tomorrow.

*All names changed to respect the privacy of the people involved.

Perfect Daily Grind

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