Latham's Summer Intern, Rachel Norby, Spends Spring Break in Costa Rica

Rachel Norby, Latham's Summer Intern

Guest blog post by Rachel Norby

Rachel Norby, who will intern this summer with Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, spent Spring Break learning about agriculture in Costa Rica. Get a glimpse of the people she met and the places she visited as you read a daily account of her journey.  Watch for more travel tales to post on Monday!

Friday, March 9, 2012

I’m spending Spring Break in Costa Rica through the Iowa State University College of Ag and Life Sciences’ Study Abroad program, “Soils, Crops and Water of Costa Rica.”  We left Ames, Iowa, yesterday at 4 a.m.  Eighteen hours later, after layovers and connecting flights, we arrived in San José.  Thankfully, Costa Rica is located in the Central Time zone.

Today we traveled northwest to the town of Grecia where we toured Argentina Sugar Cane Farm, which is one of the last remaining sugarcane plantations in the area.  Due to urban sprawl in the Central Valley, demand for land is on the rise.  The price of the farmland on this plantation was around $180,000 an acre!

Harvesting a sugarcane field after burning

The farm’s agronomist said their sugar cane plantings last about five years.  Before the fifth harvest, the field is burnt to rejuvenate the fields and to help get rid the field’s of the extra biomass for easier harvest.  During the season, one cutting of sugarcane is harvested.  The average yield is 87 metric tons per hectare, and out of that, only 10% is pure sugar after milling.  This labor-intensive work is done mainly by immigrant labor from neighboring Nicaragua.  Workers receive about $30/day, which is one of the highest farm laborer wages in the country.  Sugar cane workers are paid more due to the dangers of the job; every worker carries a machete for cutting and works in intense heat.

That evening, we traveled into the San José city center area where we experienced the culture and also enjoyed some authentic cuisine.

Saturday, March 10

Today we traveled to CoopeDota coffee cooperative.  Upon our arrival, we were treated to our choice of complimentary beverages:  black coffee, cappuccino, or an iced coffee made from a member of the squash family that resembles spaghetti squash.

This was a nice treat after traveling a couple of hours through the mountains!  After sampling their products, we could understand why CoopeDota boasts that it is one of the best in the country.  Ninety percent of its products are exported to North America and Germany.

This coffee cooperative strives to be carbon neutral, meaning no emissions of carbon dioxide during coffee processing.  They have decreased their use of firewood by 95% by using the pulp from the coffee cherry to run their roasters and heaters.

The coffee is brought to the cooperative by farmers under contract.  During our tour, a farmer brought in a small bucket full of coffee berries.  That was definitely in contrast to the semi-loads we see pulling into local co-ops in Iowa!

Coffee cherries drying on the patio at CoopeDota cooperative

The coffee is sorted into two different milling areas.  The best crops, which are the completely red berries, are taken to the microlote.  Here the berries are dried outside on a patio for 5 to 7 days; the berries are turned by hand every hour using a type of rake.

Coffee that does not meet the CoopeDota’s high quality standards is put in a pit where it is then washed and sorted by size.  The cherries are taken to fermentation pools and the honey, or pulp layer, then comes off; the remaining beans covered in a parchment layer go into spinners where hot air dries them down to 11-12% moisture.  During this drying process, the final layer over the bean (parchment) is removed.  Then it’s time for packaging and vacuum sealing.

We also learned how the manager of the plant grades the coffee by aroma and taste.  Even though I’m not a connoisseur, I’ll now have a greater appreciation for my cup of morning coffee!

Sunday, March 11

This morning we toured the University of Costa Rica (Universidad de Costa Rica).  The university’s main campus, Ciudad Universitaria Rodrigo Facio, is located in the province of San José.  Our host for the trip, Dr. Enrique Villalobos, is a professor emeritus here.

There are approximately 30,000 students enrolled in different campuses throughout the country; about 2,000 of these students study agriculture.  The University of Costa Rica is also the most important research university in Central America, so it’s no wonder it has a strong connection with Iowa State University.  Many Costa Rican students have received master’s and doctorate degrees from ISU.   Dr. Villalobos received his master’s degree from ISU in the early 1980s.

Tables of produce at the farmers fair in Zapote

After leaving the campus, we visited a local farmers market in the city of Zapote.  This was an interesting way for us to experience the culture and also to see the variety of crops grown in the area.  Everything from fresh fish and coconuts to baked goods was for sale.

We then traveled to Tapezco to visit an organic farm in the steep highland area.  The farmer at this farm produces potatoes, cabbage, onions and leaks all just five acres.  By selling his organic produce at local famers’ markets and to his neighbors, he said he makes $60,000 profit per year.