December and January are cool and lush after the winter rains, and the months of the coffee harvest in northern Nicaragua. In Matagalpa, the commercial center of coffee production, gray-beaned café en pergamino is spread out on black tarps by the side of the road to dry in the sun.
Nicaragua has many small family producers organized into cooperatives, conducive to growing high-quality Arabica beans for the Fair Trade, organic, and shade-grown markets. The farmers in Miraflor are organized into several cooperatives, one with a cupping lab.
In Miraflor during the season nearly everyone of working age spends some time cortando café, literally “cutting coffee,” making about 40 córdobas a ten-pound bucket, or $2. My friend Alex has a few acres of coffee plants growing in the shade of oak and jocote trees and I hiked up the hill from the house one morning to pick coffee with him. I wove through rows of glossy, dark-leaved bushes dotted with lime-green, yellow, and reddish-pink berries to find him.
Alex gave me a big woven basket that I wore in front with two thin leather straps looped around my shoulders. Almairie and her daughters Yosselin, 12 and Yancy, 9 (aunt and cousins of “my” family) showed me how to pull down the meter-tall bushes to get to the ripe red or yellow berries on top once I’d stripped the lower branches. The technique for picking the berries, Alex explained, was to pull without yanking, leaving the stem on the plant. If the stem is removed, no new growth is possible.
Soon I got the hang of it, a twisting pull, then dropping the firm berries in my basket, fingers sticky and stained brown. Yosselin complimented me on my technique, “¡Cortás bien bonito Sara!” “You cut well!” as she deftly harvested berries into a halved plastic jug tied around her waist.
Unable to resist the bright red berry, I popped one into my mouth, sucking the thin layer of pulp off the beans. It tasted, well, vegetable-like, but sweet.
Time passed quickly as Almairie’s 2 ½ year-old daughter Naomi kept us cracking up with comments about her “snot-nosed” sisters and Yosselin peppered me with questions about travel (How high do the planes fly? What do the clouds look like from the plane?)
At intervals we stopped to dump the berries into bags at the end of the rows. Almairie worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day, when Alex loaded the bags onto his horse and carried them up to the mill. Then they were de-pulped and laid out to dry, eventually to be de-husked, roasted, and ground into the lifeblood of the north, café.