When Jonathan and David Vega took over their family's coffee farm, Finca El Zapotal, in Costa Rica’s famed Tarrazú coffee region, they told their father they had big plans to make the farm more sustainable.
The Vegas wanted to decrease the use of herbicides and synthetic fertilizer and reintroduce shade trees onto the farm, to help shield the coffee bushes against high temperatures fueled by climate change. “He thought we were crazy.” recalled Jonathan. “He said that the farm would be overrun by weeds and that nothing would grow without ‘enough’ fertilizer.”
They proved him wrong. They implemented sustainable and climate-smart agriculture methods they learned in trainings provided by Coopetarrazú, a 4,200-member coffee cooperative. They also started working toward Rainforest Alliance certification, which they achieved in 2012.
With technical assistance from Coopetarrazú experts, the brothers conducted soil analyses and learned how much and what type of fertilizer they needed to apply, eventually reducing the use of synthetic fertilizer by 50 percent. They stopped using herbicides, which had left the soil bare and vulnerable; instead, they began pulling weeds manually, leaving enough ground cover to guard against erosion, which can be a serious problem on steep hills like those on Finca El Zapotal.
They also planted hundreds trees, almost 400 per hectare, including poró (mountain immortelle) (Erythrina poeppigiana), fruit trees, and wild tobacco or “güitite” (Acnistus arborescens), as well as plantain and bananas. The brothers prune some of the foliage during rainy season, when less shade and humidity is needed, and let it flourish during dry times; the shade protects the soil and plants from the sun and maintains the right level of humidity. The trees also help improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen and providing organic matter (from fallen leaves) that works as a natural fertilizer. The tree roots help reduce erosion, and the abundant, sweet fruit not only serves as a magnet for beautiful birds, but as snacks for the Vega family and their workers.
“Our neighbors often ask if we are growing a forest instead of coffee,” Jonathan said with a laugh. “We are really proud because these changes helped us save money and, now that more farmers are achieving certification, we are seeing a lot of animals return to the area that we haven't seen in years.”
In the seven years since taking over Finca El Zapotal and transforming growing practices, the brothers have doubled yields, and they say that they get a higher, more stable price for their certified coffee. “Our father was speechless. He couldn’t believe that this was possible, but he is happy with the results,” Jonathan said.