Juan Ramón Alvarado (‘99, Costa Rica) has celebrated three remarkable achievements this year: winning Costa Rica’s “Cup of Excellence” competition, selling his coffee for a record-high price in the country’s most important international coffee auction, and achieving the second-highest sales record in Latin America.
As a teenager, though, Juan Ramón would never have pictured himself where he is today. While in high school, Juan was rebellious. At his father’s encouragement, he spent five months away from high school working on the family farm. When he returned to his studies, he met schoolmates who later studied at EARTH and inspired him to attend. “I am eternally grateful to them,” he says, “because it is thanks to them that I could spend 15 days at the University…which convinced me that I wanted to study agronomy. To date, I still tremble with emotion when I am at EARTH.”
Now, he reflects, “Agriculture is a passion, I carry it in my blood.” Indeed, the business has grown out of a family tradition. His great-grandfather began producing coffee on the farm in 1890, working with a cooperative since that time. The farm, which is comprised of 35 blocks of land in the San Isidro de Heredia area, is called Brumas del Zurquí (“Mists of Mount Zurquí”) because of its proximity to Braulio Carrillo Hill, commonly known as the Zurquí.
Despite his recent success , there was a time when his family thought he was “crazy,” he says. “But I always told them that I would be selling them coffee someday. And that’s how it is: I feel I’m an agronomist at heart. My Dad was a great support; my Dad and Mom were dedicated to coffee, and I followed their example.”
Upon graduating from EARTH, he worked for eight months for a coffee importer in Germany, and then for three months in Mexico. When he was in Mexico, his father grew very ill, and Juan Ramón returned to Costa Rica and began working in the livestock sector. In 2000, coffee prices fell internationally, and Juan Ramón’s father’s illness prevented him from caring for the farm. For the farm to thrive in the future, they would need Juan Ramón and his sister Natalia’s help.
The siblings decided to create a micro-beneficio (coffee-processing center) where they could process the coffee themselves. In this way, they could add special value to the product and seek an alternative niche market. At the time they began, theirs was only the second micro-beneficio in the country; now there are more than 150 in Costa Rica.
“When we began with this idea, coffee in Costa Rica was madness, because other beneficios…had gone under, and banks did not want to finance coffee,” he explains.
The company began by building a strong global business network over the course of 10 years. The farm, beneficio and surrounding area have enchanted many international clients; some have even spent Christmas there. The first year’s crop was given to the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE) to be sent to Italy. In 2002, Juan Ramón and Natalia began sending it to Asia. As of now, Japan is Brumas del Zurquí’s main client–with 11 Japanese clients.
What kinds of coffee can you taste in a cup from Brumas del Zurquí? A rich variety grows on the farm, including cultivars from Panama, the Galápagos Islands, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Species include Central American and creole hybrids, java, mocha, yellow and red caturra, yellow and red catuaí and about 22 others.
“I love what coffee is, and I would love to keep growing,” says Juan Ramón. “We’ve gone through hard times, and little by little, we’ve moved forward. We don’t blame anyone [for the difficult moments], and the people we work with have fair working conditions.”
Indeed, Juan Ramón takes pride in the his and Natalia’s collaborative hiring decisions and commitment to fair hiring practices for a workforce of about 15 families on the farm. All of the employees’ children study in primary or secondary school and at the National Training Institute (INA).
Juan Ramón has also dedicated himself to making the relationship between buyer and seller more transparent – and to helping other Central American growers do the same. Four years ago, he worked with other “boutique” coffee growers to create Exclusive Coffees. The company helps 75 Central American growers to position their coffees within the global marketplace by guaranteeing quality control for both producer and buyer. It offers growers packaging that standardizes minimum cup size, a tasting room for buyers to try the coffees, and a platform through which both parties can form partnerships.
At the same time as Juan Ramón diversifies his business network, the farm’s activities have grown. He keeps approximately 40 livestock animals on the farm, where the company “treats them with love.” The animals eat a mixture of some of the fresh coffee chaff, roasted coffee husks, leftover water from the beneficio’s honey-roasting process and animal feed concentrate. The rest of waste from the coffee-processing is diverted into organic composted fertilizers for the coffee plant nursery and to irrigate the animal pastures.
Most recently, Brumas del Zurquí has added a “green” service center for cars and trucks to help stabilize the operation’s overall financial success year-round. It currently features sustainable facilities, a carwash and oil-change center that uses rainwater, and a smart electrical grid to minimize energy use. The company plans to offer alternative fuels and to install a wind tower and solar panels. With the balance of activities from the farm, Brumas del Zurquí may apply for carbon-neutral certification.
Reflecting on the path he has taken, Juan Ramón expresses gratitude for the integrated vision EARTH has given him. “Life at EARTH completely shaped the person I am today,” he says. “If I had not gone to EARTH, I believe I would not be a professional – I would be wandering, I would not have the vision of life that I have, and I would not have the quality academic opportunity I have had… EARTH for me means: training, ethics, entrepreneurial vision, a whole conscience – not only environmental… In my life, it means passion, joy… if I had not studied at EARTH, I would not be as happy as I am now.”
Inspired by Juan Ramón’s story? Join us today in shaping the lives of young leaders around the globe with a gift to the EARTH Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
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