As September comes to a close in San Ramón, the berries on the coffee plants are turning bright red, and families all over San Ramón are preparing for the flurry of activity that coffee picking season brings.
It’s impossible to talk about life in San Ramón and not talk about coffee, yet coffee is an extremely difficult and complex topic to talk about. Coffee is the second highest traded commodity in the world, after crude oil, and it’s one of Nicaragua’s top exports. The majority of Nicaragua’s coffee comes from the Central-Northern region, where San Ramón is located. A commodity that wields so much power, in a country as poor as Nicaragua – it’s complicated, to say the least.
There are many differing opinions about how coffee wealth could be distributed more equitably along the production chain – there are folks who have dedicated entire careers to studying this problem, and they have yet to find a solution. I’m not going to get into that debate here. Instead, I want to paint a picture of what coffee-picking season looks like for the people of San Ramón.
Coffee farmers can be divided into small, medium, and large producers. For the small and medium farmers, the process is pretty similar. The berries are picked and washed until the fruit falls away to reveal the coffee bean. If the farmer is independent (that is, unaffiliated with a cooperative), he has to transport his coffee in 100 lb. sacks (often on foot) to the nearest “acopio,” or gathering station, where coffee traders buy from small farmers to sell in the local market. In the spare room of someone’s house, the coffee traders put a desk and a scale, and farmers come in with their coffee, weigh it, and get paid whatever the coffee trader thinks it’s worth. Last year, a farmer could expect to get about $70 for 100 lbs. of washed, wet coffee for sale in the local market. There are those who sell the unprocessed berries, straight from the tree, but those farmers can’t expect to get much more than about $30 per 100 lbs.
However, in San Ramón, most small to medium coffee producers are associated with a cooperative. As a cooperative member, a farmer can get access to micro-finance loans to improve the quality of his coffee. Depending on the cooperative, he might also have access to better processing machinery (getting coffee to the green, unroasted stage is a loooong process!), as well as better markets and better prices. If the coffee is processed under certain conditions and the farm or cooperative has certain certifications, the farmer’s coffee might be exportation quality, and he could get as much as $120 per 100 lbs.
So, if you imagine that a small farm might have, say, 3 manzanas (roughly 7.5 acres), and that farm can produce about 3,000 lbs of coffee, that farmer could make as much as $3,600 for the coffee season. If you take into account that the average Nicaraguan salary is about $200 a month, that’s not too bad. That’s a best case scenario, however, and few farmers reach that ideal.
Then there are the large coffee producers. These are folks with farms of hundreds of acres who have the means to invest a lot in coffee production and international commercialization. The majority of San Ramón families migrate to these very large plantations during the picking season. These families temporarily live in bunkhouses and eat at a mess hall on the plantation and get paid according to how many baskets of coffee they pick a day (a basket holds about 5-6 lbs). Last year, coffee picking was paying about $1.50 per basket. A good coffee picker can pick up to 10 baskets a day. While there are laws against child labor in Nicaragua, many families have no one to leave their children with while they pick, so their children work alongside them. Some of the more progressive farms may have a daycare center or a school for the children of the workers.
Coffee-picking season starts in late September in the lowest altitudes of Nicaragua, and finishes up in early March in the highest altitudes. Here at SCSRN, we’re accustomed to seeing the number of children dwindle at the schools we support as the harvest progresses. And though the school year begins in February, teachers know very well that their enrollment won’t be complete until the end of March, when families finally return from the harvest. Those families have to make that money stretch as they grow corn, beans, and vegetables for sale and subsistence until the next coffee harvest rolls around.
If you’re interested in seeing this side of coffee production yourself, we invite you to come on a cultural immersion ecotour with us and discover the coffee process personally! You can also support our work in San Ramón by purchasing coffee from us here.