Rodrigo Vargas' company, Santa Eduviges, is one of the largest single-family owned operations in Costa Rica with 32 farms, totaling more than 3,900 acres of coffee fields spread out on the hillsides of the active Poas Volcano.
This year, Vargas, a third-generation coffee farmer, will sell 70 percent of the more than 7 million pounds of beans harvested on his farms to Starbucks.
Vargas believes that Starbucks, purchasing huge quantities of specialty beans and requiring a set of regulations called Cafe Practices, saved the coffee industry in Costa Rica.
Manuel Valdes' story:
Seasonal coffee workers unload their baskets of coffee cherries into a transport truck at the end of the day at Rodrigo Vargas' coffee-farm, Santa Eduviges in Costa Rica. Workers receive plastic tokens worth money for each basket they deliver.
Rodrigo Vargas' family founded the Beneficiadora Santa Eduviges in Costa Rica's Alajuela Province. The family manages more than 3,900 acres, where 200 permanent staff members and 2,300 temporary workers harvest coffee November through February.
Rodrigo Vargas looks over a field once owned by his grandfather. Vargas is the third generation of his family to grow coffee. Its operation, Santa Eduviges, is one of the top single-family owned coffee-production companies in Costa Rica.
Joel Martinez, 28, of Managua, Nicaragua, picks coffee berries early in the morning in the Santa Eduviges fields.
Coffee plants at Santa Eduviges are examined. From left, Edgardo Alpízar, an agronomist at Santa Eduviges; Carlos Mario Rodríguez, director of agronomy at the Farm Support Center (FSC); Peter Torrebiarte, FSC general manager, in center; Chris von Zastrow, Starbucks general manager Africa (in vest); and Orlando Mora, an FSC agronomist.
Workers walk through one of the fields at Santa Eduviges. A variety of banana trees are planted among the coffee plants to help soil quality. These trees help meet Starbucks' standards for soil conservation and shade-tree requirements. Workers use plastic buckets, called "cajuelas," to collect the coffee cherries. While picking, they tie the buckets to their waist, a practice that has not changed in more than 100 years.
By late afternoon, tractors and trucks file down the farms' dirt roads to be loaded with the day's harvest. Most seasonal workers that pick coffee in Costa Rica are Nicaraguan or indigenous Panamanians. Even though Santa Eduviges provides free day care, children sometimes work side-by-side with their families. Above, a young boy watches a man fill a cajuela with coffee before it is unloaded unto the truck behind them.
Workers, including Ignacio Rodriguez Castro (in red hat), spread out coffee cherries just hauled in by the field workers, in the bed of a transport truck.
Wilmer Flores, a seasonal worker from Nicaragua, cashes in his plastic tokens at the end of the week. Workers receive one token for filling one basket, or cajuela, of coffee. In December, one token equaled 700 Costa Rican colones, or around $1.40. The value of a cajuela varies throughout the harvest season. Starbucks requires workers are paid the minimum wage set by the Costa Rican government.
Maixcol Ibarra, 20, cuts hair outside a row of worker housing at Santa Eduviges. Permanent workers pay for electricity, and no rent. Seasonal workers do not pay rent or utilities. "We really need those people," said Norman Alpízar, a supervisor at the Santa Eduviges mill. Many Nicaraguans migrate to Costa Rica to pick coffee due to harsh economic conditions in their home country.
Martha Lopez, 36, of Granada, Nicaragua, cooks rice and chicken by fire inside her home at the end of the workday.
A worker carries a bag through a Santa Eduviges field.
Mauro Zelaga, 46, said pay and overall conditions have improved at Vargas' farms over the years. Zelaga, from Nicaragua, said he has come to work in Costa Rica for 20 years. Due to harsh economic conditions in their home country, many Nicaraguans migrate to Costa Rica for jobs.
Seasonal coffee workers in Costa Rica unload their baskets full of coffee into a truck at the end of the day. The process is called "medida" or "to measure."
Workers unload their baskets of coffee cherries into a truck at the end of a busy day at Santa Eduviges. Rodrigo Vargas, whose family founded the company, said "Starbucks saved the coffee industry in Costa Rica."
All images copyright The Seattle Times
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