Farm: Aquiares Estate
Varietal: Marsellesa & Obatá
Processing: Fully Washed
Altitude: 800 to 1,400 metres above sea level
Owner: Robelo Family
Town / City: Aquiares
Aquiares Estate Don Alfonso Entre Rios - Costa Rica
Aquiares, one of Costa Rica’s largest and most historic coffee farms, sits high on the fertile slopes of Turrialba Volcano. Producing coffee continuously for over a century, the farm has developed an enduring model for growing high-quality Arabica coffee, protecting a stunning natural setting, and supporting a thriving local community of 1,800 people. Established by British farmers in 1890, Aquiares was one of the first estates to produce and export Costa Rican coffee. In 1971, the farm was purchased by its current owners - three families who have worked together with the farm´s staff and community to implement a modern model of sustainable agriculture. Today, the Estate is the largest continuous coffee farm in Costa Rica, covering 924 hcetares, 80% of which is planted under shade-grown Arabica.
Nestled between the Aquiares and Turrialba Rivers, “Aquiares” means “land between rivers” in Costa Rica’s Huetar indigenous language. The region where the farm is located used to be the centre for this pre-Columbian civilization, and occasionally old artifacts are found among the coffee trees. In fact, Guayabo National Monument, Costa Rica´s most important indigenous settlement, is just 5 km (3.1 miles) away. The land of Aquiares is blessed with infinite sources of clean water, and even provides drinking water to three communities down-stream. Coffee plots are interlaced with natural springs and countless streams and rivers, all of which are protected with forested buffer zones. The network of natural corridors throughout the farm connects the large preserved forests in the two river valleys, providing a healthy environment for the local animals, birds, and plants.
Don Alfonso Robelo, patriarch of one of the owning families, took over farm management in 1992 and made the social welfare of farm workers and the wider community one of his main priorities. The community of Aquiares – originally built to house workers on the estate - sits in the midst of the farm. Originally, the farm owned the houses where employees lived, creating home-insecurity amongst working families. In 1992, under Don Alfonso’s management, the farm started a project to enable people to own their own houses. Each worker was given a bonus for his or her years of service, lots were priced at a fraction of the local rate, and assistance was given to apply for the government house fund. At the beginning, workers thought it was too good to be true, but as the first families obtained their own homes, everyone followed suit. In a matter of three years, the town was brought to life. It was enriched with a deep feeling of security and achievement. Today, only around 15% of Aquiares residents work on the farm (many have gone on to become school teachers, doctors, etc) and 96% of these own their own home, giving them the option to take a path for their future that they, themselves, choose. Aquiares has become a place where many want to live, as evidenced in the value of land, which is comparable to that of San José, Costa Rica´s capital. The town has its own school, youth sports program, recycling committee, early childhood nutrition center, and a church built in 1925, which is a National Architectural Historic Monument. The entire town and the Estate consider themselves to be of the same community rather than one ‘belonging’ to the other!
The farm manages the entire coffee production chain, from seedling production to plant cultivation, harvesting and milling. This ensures that they are able to meet the highest standards of quality assurance and can guarantee a traceable product. Caturra is the main varietal grown on the farm, but climate change and pests require constant experimentation with new varieties that can adapt better to future conditions. Diego Robelo, Don Alfonso’s son, has led much of the new ‘charge’ towards new variety experimentation; he began his post as ‘innovation manager’ in 2013 and has developed collaborations with World Coffee Research (WCR) and the Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE), including a experimental garden for Central American Coffee varieties for WCR. Throughout the season, workers from the community care for the trees: pruning, fertilizing, weeding, and protecting them.
This lot is 100% ‘Esperanza’ variety – a hybrid of Caturra and the Ethiopia 531 variety, developed by various Central American coffee research institutes. Esperanza marries high cup quality with high resistance to disease – particularly the ojo de gallo fungus. Aquiares has found the variety very well-suited to the farm’s high elevation (grown above 1,200 meters in most cases) and as consistently yielding a quality cup.
All Aquiares coffee is picked by hand to ensure consistent high quality. Microlots, such as this one, are picked by a special team of skilled harvesters who are paid well above the daily rate for their exceptional skill in picking the ripest cherries at each pass. Each tree is visited up to seven times during the harvest to ensure that only fully red ripe cherries are picked. The skilled hands of the pickers represent the farm’s most valuable asset. Pickers hail from the community of Aquiares, nearby towns, and even from the neighboring country of Nicaragua. The farm ensures that all workers have a safe work environment and a comfortable place to live. Workers coming from further away can live in on-site housing and use a children’s day-care. The farm sponsors doctors’ visits for pickers and their families twice a week where nutritional health advice is also given. To take better care of its field workers, Aquiares has established first-of-its-kind physical therapy sessions and also a daily warm-up routine of exercise before work. Many pickers return each year, confirming success in providing a secure home in Aquiares.
As coffee cherries come from the field the same day that they are picked, they move into Aquiares’ own wet mill. The farm produces fully washed coffees, honey processed coffees and naturals. This natural lot has been floated for density (with all floaters being removed) and then immediately moved to the farms greenhouse patios for pre-drying. After 2-3 days of pre-drying on the concrete, they are moved to the farm’s African beds, also in the covered greenhouse, where they slowly dry for between 20 and 25 days.
Although Guardiolas are common in this wet, humid area of Costa Rica, the Robleo’s are always searching for new ways to innovate in processing and drying. For instance, they knew that drying was one of their main challenges in producing speciality coffee – particularly as they wanted to start producing honey and natural lots. According to Diego Robelo, “Everyone told us we were crazy. You are never going to make honeys and naturals in Turrialba. We decided to prove them wrong.”
The Robelos sourced a greenhouse from someone in the region who had been producing roses and built drying beds according to specifications gleaned from other producers. After the first lots were dried in the greenhouse, thermometers and humidity gauges still showed a great deal of temperature fluctuation temps depending on time of day and weather. In order to create a constant and even temperature in the greenhouse they installed an airflow system connected to their guadiola system (used for commercial lots). Now, dry air of around 60 degrees Celsius circulates throughout the greenhouse, maintaining an even temperature. The new system works well, helps increase the drying capacity of the greenhouse and reduces variability in lots. Diego and his quality control team consider these steps just the first in perfecting processing at the farm.
Aquiares is strongly committed to, and has become an international leader in, environmental sustainability. The farm has long seen the connection between agricultural, environmental and social health. By planting more than 50,000 shade trees, creating natural buffers around streams and water springs, preserving the river valleys as forest, planting along the contour, implementing integrated pest management systems and many other steps, Aquiares has demonstrated how to make ecological ideals a reality.
For example, given that soil health is the most important factor for a successful farm, Aquiares takes many steps to naturally improve the farm’s volcanic soil. The organic matter from pruning and the leaf litter from the coffee and shade trees are left to feed soil microbes and provide organic nutrients. The diversified shade trees (over 40 species) also cool the ground, slowing the ripening of the coffee, which allows for sugars from the mucilage to be fully absorbed by the bean, thus improving cup quality.
The farm’s agricultural objective is to find synergies like these, where environmental health translates into coffee plant health, which ultimately contributes to a long-term stability in the production of high-quality coffee. The farm’s terrain varies from gently sloping to steep hills. Valleys between hills create microclimates that are ideal for growing mainly Caturra and grafted Arabica-Nemaya varieties. Although Aquiares is considered large under Central American standards, the farm’s belief is that it is crucial to tend to every individual coffee plant’s needs. Therefore, Aquiares utilizes a system of pruning each plant independently, instead of pruning by row or lot.
Through an intensive re-habilitation program, Aquiares has re-planted more than 400,000 coffee trees in small patches of existing fields. This rejuvenated the crop of trees and increased the land’s utilization. It also played a crucial role in the 2012 rust attack, as young plants resisted the disease better, slowing its spread.
Its stringent environmental stewardship enabled the farm to achieve Rainforest Alliance Certification in 2003. In 2012, Aquiares became the first farm in Costa Rica to fulfil the requirements of the Rainforest Alliance Climate Module. This requires adhering to careful standards of greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, which are carefully tracked through each harvest season. This certification demonstrates that the farm’s low emissions do not meaningfully contribute to climate change.
Aquiares has been home to research studies for decades, starting with early sociological studies in the 1950’s. More recently, numerous scientific studies are conducted at Aquiares. In 2007, the farm was among the very first to try to calculate its carbon balance. Today, Aquiares is the main test plot for an ongoing project between the CIRAD Institute of France and CATIE University of Costa Rica. The “Carbon-Flux project” measures greenhouse gas exchange between the farm plot and the atmosphere over long-time horizons. This research station is the only one of its kind in the world, capable of accurately measuring the emission-sequestration balance of a hectare of shaded coffee. With this tool, the researchers are trying to develop a model that can be used by any coffee farmer in the world to estimate the carbon sequestration potential of his farm. This project is part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change research efforts. Also, since 2013 Aquiares has set up a program for Cornell University undergraduate and graduate students to find practical fieldwork experience at the farm. In this short time, the interns have already helped shape the farm’s agricultural strategy and community relations. For example, one intern studied the community, and by interviewing town residents found increasing levels of type 2 diabetes as a result of an unhealthy diet. Following that research, another intern planned and developed a community organic vegetable garden; the farm donated land and women from the community run the garden as a small business of their own.