Saving the Family Coffee Farm: An Unintentional Organic Journey
But that summer was wickedly unkind to the industry in which the family toiled. Following the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement, the wholesale price for a pound of coffee beans plunged from a high of around $1.50 to just 49 cents. Many families were forced to desert their land and move into cities.
But Gerarldo and Sole, who valued a tight-knit community, lived within a stone's throw of several family members. They found the option to move away unacceptable.
By the start of the rainy season, another complication emerged. Gerarldo was experiencing debilitating dizziness, headaches, and upset stomachs. The culprit: pesticides that he and all the other local farmers were using on their plants.
Business couldn't continue as usual, and only two options presented themselves. Gerarldo could hire someone else to apply the chemicals, and then continue with production; or he could do away with chemicals altogether, and try his hand at farming without them.
Financially, hiring someone else made more sense, but in the end, Gerarldo simply couldn't do it: "Hiring someone else would have been even worse -- then two people would have been getting sick from the chemicals."
So Gerarldo chose to forgo pesticides, even though he knew production would fall by as much as 50%. So with tightened revenue exacerbated by the global coffee crisis, he was forced to find other work to provide for the family.
Early Signs of the Shift Toward Organic
For nearly five years, Gerarldo's family subsisted by selling the reduced crop that they produced, and supplementing that income with odd jobs.
Then a new phrase entered their lexicon: organic farming.
Gerarldo's improved health was reason enough to validate his decision to eliminate pesticides. But now, he was hearing that the international community was actually encouraging farmers to stop using chemicals and start doing what he had already been doing for years.
On top of that, with certification, he could get paid about 20% to 30% more for his coffee.
Eager to take advantage of this shift, he quickly signed on and was certified organic before the turn of the century.
A Native Tree Saves the Farm
What Gerarldo probably wasn't counting on was that one of his sons, Gabriel, would become so swept up by the movement.
As he grew older, Gabriel had more influence in the daily operations of the farm. His belief in "the natural balance provided by nature" can be seen in several key decisions -- like planting trees that yielded neither fruit nor strong wood solely because they were native to Costa Rica. "I don't know what benefit [these trees] provide, but nature selected them for survival in this area and I trust in nature's choice."
That tactic paid off last year when a fungus attacked large swaths of the country's coffee crop. El Toledo's coffee plants were only minimally affected. "I think it was partly because we have so much diversity on the farm. The fungus had lots of other plants to attack, so many of the coffee plants were spared. I don't know exactly how nature works, but I know it favors balance and diversity," explains Gabriel.
Serving the World, One Cup of Coffee at a Time
Along with being in tune with nature, Gabriel is also quite the entrepreneur. He convinced his dad that the organic movement and ecotourism were gaining ground in 2008. Geraldo cleaned out his old storage shed, and Gabriel converted it into a spot to serve and sell coffee to visitors.
The first tourists started arriving in 2009, but business was slow -- maybe 10 people per month. However, as visitors heard Gabriel's impassioned tour, word quickly got out about the farm. As of this year, the family is averaging anywhere from 40-60 visitors per month.
Though the farm isn't pulling in much more revenue than a traditional farm might, the family is more than pleased with their situation. They get to meet people from all over the world, while helping to educate the public about the benefits of organic farming.
"We can't save the world, or get rich," Gabriel says, "but that's not what's important. I'll be able to pass this land off to future generations. We are doing our part, we are healthy, and we have enough. That's what's important."
Motley Fool contributor Brian Stoffel found El Toledo in 2010, and after hearing the family's story, he has returned for stints as a volunteer.
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