There I was, heart in mouth, bouncing along in 4 wheel drive up a "road"--read rutted dirt track-- barely wide enough to accommodate the truck, with ditches or dropoffs on either side. Ahead of me, Maria Ruiz, 4th generation of Ruiz women who have been the driving force behind farming this land, in her massive SUV. Beside me, Domitillo, a Cafe Ruiz foreman, calmly chatting away about the farm, which is one in the Cafe Ruiz holdings. I had this feeling that, simply because I was an American who actually spoke Spanish, he had (totally unjustified) confidence in my driving ability under circumstances that would have given a goat pause. I am nothing if not a superb actress.
We finally got to the coffee area itself. I parked the truck, and Domitillo and I followed Maria into the row upon row of blooming coffee plants. What a spectacular sight! As I walked among the plants, I was struck with a jasmine-like (but more delicate) fragrance from the coffee flowers. It was hard to believe that this was a commercial operation whose end result was something as mundane as coffee.
Yet I already knew that the coffee that I reach for almost blindly in the morning is anything but a mundane agricultural product. Few are. Producing coffee is a year-long, complex process. If you visit Boquete, there are several tours of coffee farms and producers that you can take. I can't speak for the others, but I've gone on the Cafe Ruiz tour, and I guarantee you, it is fascinating. They not only raise the coffee, but like some of the other producers, they process the beans and put out the final product--the roasted bean, whether whole or ground, that you use to give yourself that inimitable morning boost.
From the time that we took the tour, I have been fascinated by the whole process; at heart, I'm a farmer. I finally asked Maria Ruiz if I could document the whole cycle, from beginning to end; it would mean a year-long effort that would involve video as well. She graciously gave me permission, which is why, on Friday morning at 7 am, I was walking among the rows of coffee plants, cameras dangling from my neck.
At this point in the yearly cycle, they are finishing up the pruning of the plants. They prune for all the usual reasons, but in addition, pruning helps to eliminate nonproductive or weak growth, which will strengthen the plant to deal with the rainy season. The difference is striking, as the pruned plant to the right shows.
Many of the farm workers are members of the indigenous tribe, the Ngobe Bugle, whose Comarca (semi-autonomous reservation) lies in Chiriquí. Many live in the towns and pueblos; a number hire themselves out as unskilled labor for a season then return to the Comaraca. Pruning is skilled labor, and this young man probably lives in Boquete or nearby.
Pruning is extremely labor intensive. When sold as a commodity, coffee, like other agricultural products, does not earn much. I think the latest figure I saw was that the most expensive Panamanian beans sold for $1.80/lb. That's right--just calculate the difference between that and the coffee you buy, and you figure out who's making the money. Cafe Ruiz sells both bulk coffee and the finished product. As with all such goods, the further along you are to the finished product, the more value that is added on and the more you can charge for the coffee.
Still, like other producers, the majority of Cafe Ruiz's sales is not in finished product. Maria told me that many countries have abandoned selective pruning because it's too expensive. No matter how cheap labor is, given the sheer quantity of plants, it's going to add considerably to your costs. Domitillo informed us that they started pruning at the end of January and were just finishing up that week. Cafe Ruiz continues to do it, because that is the way to maintain high-quality coffee; when you stop, the quality of the coffee goes down after a few years. Having grown fruit trees, I understand the necessity; the principle is the same.
More in another post.