Saving the Family Coffee Farm: An Unintentional Organic Journey

Gerarldo and SoleBack in 1992, the El Toledo coffee farm had already been in the Calderon family for decades. Located in a tiny neighborhood miles away from the small town of Atenas, Costa Rica, the farm was a source of both sustenance and great pride for Gerarldo Calderon, his wife Sole, and their two boys -- Gabriel, age 7, and Raul, age 4.

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.

Gerarldo and Sole farmingEarly 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.

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As a boy who grew up playing games in the shade-grown fields, Gabriel had a particular affinity for nature. His father's decision to go organic during his formative years couldn't have been more perfectly timed.

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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The Shocking Truth About These "Indie" Brands
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Saving the Family Coffee Farm: An Unintentional Organic Journey

Organic brands Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen may make you think "small." Don't they both sound kind of pastoral, the sort of products that might come from family farms? Think again: Both brands are owned by food giant General Mills (move over, Betty).

Vans footwear calls forth images of rebellious skater youth, not to mention some musical credibility, given its frequent sponsorship of the annual Warped Tour. However, it may lose a few counterculture points given it's owned by brand giant VF Corporation (VFC), which also owns Timberland, SmartWool, 7 for All Mankind, Lee, and Wrangler, to name just a few.

In Maine circa 1970, a guy named Tom and his partner Kate dreamed up a whole slew of natural products for folks who, like them, yearned to simplify their lives. Certainly some of Tom's customers really wanted to stick it to The Man and all his chemical-laden merchandise, too. In 2006, consumer giant Colgate-Palmolive (CL) acquired Tom's of Maine. But let's face it: Tom's of Colgate-Palmolive just doesn't have the same ring.

Trader Joe's products always give a mysterious, boutique sort of feel, like some remarkable merchant named Joe has gone all over the world picking out exotic goods to stock the shelves. It's a nice thought, but in 2010 Fortune magazine revealed that some of Trader Joe's store brands are actually made by big companies like PepsiCo's (PEP) Frito-Lay. Incidentally, Trader Joe's is owned by Germany's Albrecht family, which also owns the Aldi Sud global supermarket chain. (U.S. Aldi supermarkets are owned by a different part of the same family.)

Morningstar Farms may sound like it should be just up a country road from Cascadian Farm, but the veggie-burger maker is owned by Kellogg (K). Who knows if Tony the Tiger participates in "Meatless Mondays" after a hearty breakfast of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes? Meanwhile, Kashi might make a lot of people want to don their tie-dyes and grab handfuls of granola, but it also happens to be a Kellogg subsidiary.

The fact that many brands boast counter-cultural appeal but are actually parts of huge conglomerates isn't necessarily awful. For example, Kashi says it's still run independently in La Jolla, Calif., according to its original business philosophy. In fact, it says its mission expanded in 2000 "with a little help from a friend." (Kellogg's one heck of a big friend, that's for sure.)

Likewise, Tom's of Maine still claims to be holding true to its original all-natural mission, despite Colgate-Palmolive's involvement. On the Tom's website, it claims, "Our simple, direct approach hasn't changed one bit: we listen to what our customers want (and don't want) in their products, we learn how it can be done, and we respond with effective natural (and sustainable) solutions."

Still, from the consumer viewpoint, it's always good to know a little bit more about what you're purchasing -- and putting in or on your body -- and from whom. Your dollars equal support, after all. Betty Crocker never had a choice as to which products she'd purchase (she was obviously a General Mills gal all the way!), but American shoppers do.

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