Life on the coffee mountain

It starts with a drive up the mountain. A steep, winding drive that brings you closer and closer to the cloud line. The air becomes drier and thinner, the vegetation changes from plush bushes to soaring trees and layers of undergrowth. The only sounds you hear are the birds, the engine, and an occasional car in the distance. This is arabica coffee territory and it is not for the faint of heart. Juan Valdez smiling with his donkey in the thick of greenery is a lovely image, but it is far from the reality coffee growers encounter each day. Most quality coffee plots and farms are high grown, 4,000+ feet above sea level, in the heart of old-growth forests. Roads exist but they are not well maintained, they may not even be paved. Once at the farm, the job gets no easier. Growers and harvesters must tend to the crops on steep mountain slopes, often gripping nearby trees or shrubs for balance. Without industrial machines, they use simple hand tools to dig, prune, and care for their plants. All harvesting is done by hand and the collected cherries are hauled down the mountain in sacks or baskets carried on workers’ backs. Entire families often participate in the harvest, setting up a campground on the farm for both ease and protection.  Children may go to school or they may not, depending on the farm, their parents, and the country. It’s a rewarding, dangerous job – and the mighty mountain slopes are just one thing to fear. In South and Central America, gangs often hide out in the mountainous areas, surprising growers, workers, and owners with an unexpected attack. Most people carry machetes for practical reasons and protection. The sweet dogs, mostly pit bulls, lying about double as pets and protectors. In some countries, forgotten landmines threaten every step. When the harvest is complete, workers haul their pickings down to the processing facility where the beans are washed and dried. During drying, the beans must be turned frequently to avoid developing mold. While there may be a machine that does this, most farms have something called a very patient individual who spends hours each day in the baking sun, raking and turning the beans until they are perfectly, evenly dried. In another corner of the farm or local community, women weave burlap and jute sacks by hand. Again, there are machines that can do this but many farms prefer the traditional method, either for cost or craft reasons, or to provide additional jobs for the local community. Coffee farmers face murder and theft and injury on the mountain, and in return, they share love. The people who work the high-grown farms do it out of passion and tradition. The earth is their medium, the physical demands their effort, and the perfect bean their art.

This is an excerpt from our book, Coffee fables, tales, and truths. To learn more, click here. To read another excerpt, click here.

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