Coffee in Costa Rica

An intersection of culture, sustainability and coffee

In the small, tropical town of Agua Buena, Costa Rica, coffee growers work tirelessly to produce shade-grown coffee in a complex global market. Each summer, a group of Cal Poly students spend five weeks living within the community to explore first-hand issues of sustainability and culture.The summer course, Sustainable Agriculture and Forest Conservation in Costa Rica, is taught by Nick Babin, an assistant professor in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department. Babin, who specializes in agroecology, the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems to reduce environmental impacts, has traveled to the rainforest of Costa Rica for more than 20 years doing research and has forged strong relationships there.

While the course is focused on Costa Rican coffee and forest conservation sectors as case studies to explore issues of sustainability, the immersive experience exposes students to a first-hand lesson in intercultural communication. Students live with host families for three weeks of their stay, practicing their Spanish skills and participating in the life and culture of a traditional coffee-producing community.

“I’m fascinated with intersections between agriculture and ecology, so this program seemed like a perfect fit to explore those interests,” said Aspen Garrido, a fourth-year environmental management and protection major. “It was definitely a one-in-alifetime opportunity to see firsthand how the issues that we study affect these families and the community built there on coffee farming.”

We saw first-hand that if done properly, coffee can be grown in forests and jungles in a way that conserves biodiversity and soil health.

Joey Paddock, Third-year environmental management and protection major

Students spend their time learning on the 16-acre farm, Finca El Bosque de Don Roberto, which grows shade coffee as well as more than a dozen other crops. They study tropical agricultural practices with an emphasis on the design and management of coffee agroforestry systems and coffee processing and international trading. Students also work on a long-term research project managed by Babin on the links between coffee shade-tree management, soil health and farmer livelihoods.

“We spent as much time doing physical work as we did in the classroom at the farm site,” said Joey Paddock, a third-year environmental management and protection major. “To experience what it is like to be on a coffee farm and understand what the farmers do every day was an eye-opening experience. We saw firsthand that if done properly, coffee can be grown in forests and jungles in a way that conserves biodiversity and soil health.”

The social connection to coffee makes it an interesting crop to study, Babin said. “It is a product that is heavily consumed in the United States and demonstrates a connection across cultures,” he said. “Yet few people know where their coffee comes from or the agricultural practices that are used to produce it.”

The small coffee farm in Agua Buena is a prime example of doing it right. “Their practices exemplify the agricultural connection to ecosystems and coffee produced in a shade system can be fairly self-sufficient and viable,” Babin said. “They developed a shade agroforestry system that incorporates nature and sustains it.”

A Future Partnership

The College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences will soon forge an additional partnership with the Finca El Bosque de Don Roberto farm to further promote the lessons instilled there.

A cooperative agreement will allow the college to import an initial 1,000 pounds of green coffee beans from the farm to be roasted locally and sold as a way of raising awareness of sustainably farmed coffee and to provide additional funding to create a scholarship to allow more Cal Poly students to take the five-week summer course.

The farm has a rich history. Finca El Bosque de Don Roberto was started by husband-and-wife team Roberto and Noemy in 1990 and by 2000 was a regional leader in sustainable agriculture. The farm is constantly looking for new and innovative ways to improve their coffee production. The farm is located at 1,100 meters above sea level and produces the “catuai,” “caturra” and “catigua” varieties of Arabica coffee. The distinctive flavor profile and the singular chocolate notes of their coffee can be attributed to mastery of the natural, washed, honey and anaerobic processing methods.

The farm has its own micro-processing mill, where harvested coffee cherries are de-pulped and processed. Washed, fermented, honey and anaerobic methods of small batch processing are all employed depending upon customer preferences. The processed beans are then laid out in a greenhouse to dry with regulated sunlight and wind. The farm also has a drum roaster and possesses all necessary permits from the Costa Rican Coffee Institute to process, roast and export green as well as roasted coffee.

The Cal Poly collaboration will not only further the farm's efforts but increase awareness of the symbiotic relationship between farming and environmental sustainability. “I took a lot away from the program and it solidified my decision to be an environmental management and protection major,” Garrido said, who plans to pursue a career in environmental field work. “I will now forever read coffee labels and learn where it is coming from to make sure it is sustainable for the environment and people. But more than anything else the value of community was instilled in me. Learning how they built resiliency as a community was inspiring.”

Garrido said she would be first in line to purchase a cup of coffee once it is available at Cal Poly. For her, it is about sharing the lessons she learned while studying in Costa Rica and inspiring others to learn more. “There is value in purchasing coffee with a story that you know of,” she said. “It is a way of connecting people.”


To purchase coffee and support Learn by Doing opportunities in Costa Rica, visit


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