A model Costa Rican farm

Hacienda Pilas is a shining example of a Costa Rican farm dedicated to sustainable methods and an open dialogue of learning.

October is Eduardo Gurdian’s favourite month of the year. It’s the start of crop season, when weather conditions are optimal for cherry picking, when staff receive a steady income, and the month he expects his first child to be born.

“October will be a good challenge for production volume and sleepless nights,” Eduardo says.

Eduardo is a sixth generation coffee professional. It’s too early to predict if his unborn son will join the family dynasty one day, but Eduardo is working hard to ensure he creates a sustainable legacy for the next generation of Costa Rican producers. 

His family farm, Hacienda Pilas, is located in the West Central Valley of Costa Rica. The farm covers 160 hectares and operates with 24 full time staff, 300 employees during harvest time, and an abundance of coyotes, racoons, and toucans that call Hacienda Pilas home. 

An agronomist by trade, Eduardo studied horticultural engineering at university and worked in the field with ED&F Man’s coffee business, Volcafe, in Costa Rica and Indonesia. It was there he met Cofi-Com’s Dariusz Lewandowski and started a partnership with the trader. 

“Costa Rica has 200 years of experience in coffee production. Because of our reputation for having very good agricultural practices in coffee, Volcafe gave me the opportunity to work with Dariusz in Sumatra for three years and educate the smallholder farms on common agricultural practices we use in Costa Rica,” Eduardo says. 

“Indonesia is beautiful but the culture is very different. In Costa Rica, we traditionally have big farms, bigger production, and intense farming, whereas Indonesia is full of small farmers. I took on the challenge to share my farming experience and university knowledge on sustainable production practices to help enhance their coffee. I taught the producers soil analysis, how to plant seedlings, and how to prune coffee trees, among many things.” 

After his stint in Sumatra, Eduardo returned to Costa Rica to work with Volcafe’s specialty coffee line of products. He started researching and experimenting with new ways to enhance coffee milling practices, and this time he looked to Indonesia for inspiration. Typically, Indonesian farmers remove coffee parchment, then dry it. 

“It’s something we weren’t doing but have started to,” Eduardo says. 

After two years, Eduardo decided it was time to go back to West Valley and help run the family farm using his newly acquired knowledge.

“When I returned to the family farm six years ago I returned with fresh challenges. We have problems with coffee rust and climate change is very real. We have longer dry seasons, and more adverse climatic conditions and rainfalls. The flowering is also not as good so the cherries tend to drop, which reduces a farmer’s income,” Eduardo says. 

“I knew the only way forward was to start growing new coffee plots. The main problem in Costa Rica is that the majority of trees are getting older, on average 30 to 40 years old. When plants are that old they are more susceptible to disease and less withstanding of dry conditions, which ultimately affects production.”

Eduardo says the impact is noticeable. Last year at Hacienda Pilas, the 2016-17 crop season harvested 4500 bags of Catuai and Caturra coffee. For the 2017-18 crop he harvested 4700 bags, and this year Eduardo expects to harvest 3800 bags.  

“Production isn’t easy. For any coffee grower, the challenge is to maintain the volume of production and unfortunately I think it will decrease by about 25 per cent because of the long dry season. As a result, we have seen crazy coffee prices that keep going all over the place,” he says.

To enhance production volume and cup quality, Eduardo has invested in new production practices and methods of processing to sustain his crops for the future. He has planted new lots with more than 20 rust-resistant cultivars that are proving to have good production yield and good cup profiles, including Centroamericano and Sarchimor. 

“In coffee, time is everything. We need time to see how these new varietals develop and, most importantly, how good they taste in the cup,” Eduardo says. “Quality is also important. For now, we’re doing everything we can to seek new opportunities that can help us become more sustainable in production.” 

Already, Eduardo has planted shade trees which in future can become additional timber income for producers, added cover crops to help recycle nutrients back into the soil, and started a project with World Coffee Research to manage experimental lots and test the management of agricultural practices to assess which new hybrids and fertilisers work best for the area.

“Of course if we can find solutions to avoid using pesticides it will be a cheaper method of production and better for the environment,” Educardo says. 

“My mission at Hacienda Pilas is to be a model farm for other small holder producers in the area. I want to show them what new varietals work well, and what other practices they can apply to mitigate the changing climate conditions. We must continue to test, research, and learn.”

 

This article appears in the August edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.