How El Toledo does Organic

Sara Bozorgzad
January 8, 2024

I arrived well after sunset to Finca El Toledo, located in the hills of Atenas, Costa Rica in the Alajuela Province. El Toledo is a family-owned permaculture coffee farm where the coffee is grown, roasted, and sold onsite. They also provide coffee tours and even accommodation, which was especially attractive for someone like me, a solo traveler to Atenas without a rental car. What was the purpose of my trip, you may ask? At the very least, to touch a coffee plant. During my stay at El Toledo I was able to do that and much more. I learned a lot, made some wonderful friends, was able to exercise my Spanish, and had some of the best coffee of my life.

Upper level of container home

The first night of my stay I fell asleep to the sound of the tropical birds, their songs traveling well across the incredibly humid air, and I could tell this was a haven for guests and wildlife alike. In the morning I joined the hosts for breakfast before heading off to a morning coffee tour with the host and owner, Gabriel. It was to my surprise that the introduction to the coffee tour had little to do with coffee at all. We talked about farming versus organic farming and in a broader sense how economical factors tie in, where the industry is headed, and where the disconnects lie between product and consumer. It was eye opening hearing these perspectives from someone who has been a part of a family operation of farming coffee for eighty years and organic for thirty years. For backstory, thirty years ago El Toledo transitioned to organic farming quite abruptly which caused a dramatic change in operations. Cutting out chemicals cold turkey, the plants experienced shock, similar to an immune system coming off of antibiotics after a long while of being on them. It took time and lost plants to get back to a restored state, and therefore lost money, while methods of operation also needed to change. Slowly though, the plants adapted to the absence of fertilizers, pesticides, etc, and became healthy again with increased longevity. Currently, out of 16,000 of the coffee plants, only three or so die per year, compared to the roughly five percent plant death that happens on non-organic coffee farms. 

One of the points discussed was: why grow coffee at all? It is not a source of nutrition, it is merely a want, a luxury. The land used to grow coffee could be used for vegetables, fruit, or anything that we actually need as humans. But it is still produced because it's a lucrative crop, has great output to input, and it is in high demand. Regardless, we proceeded, enjoying the coffee tasting because Pura Vida, but we were still contemplating what it means for coffee to be a luxury. Before us were three cups: a light, medium, and dark roast, all made using the traditional Costa Rican brewing method, a chorreador. A fourth cup was for a coffee tea, made using the coffee berry. We drank the different beverages with salty and sweet snacks to discover our coffee preference and taste pairing. The sweet jam also was made from the coffee berry. It was a lesson that the bean is not the only product that can be salvaged from a coffee plant. 

Coffee berry
Light, medium, dark roast and coffee tea

A walkabout around the farm was the next. Our route was the walkable paths above the terraced rows of coffee plants placed in the hillside blending into the natural curves of the landscape. Interspersed trees and plants such as plantain, curcumin, mandarin, and sweet lemon, tower over and surround the stretching farmland. The canopy of broad-leaved plants with insect sized bites out of them was also a notable feature. The insects are drawn away from eating the coffee plants and munch on the broad leaves instead. This creates a thriving environment for insects, which in turn draws in the birds. The birds poop and fertilize the coffee plants which overall is a pretty good, self-maintaining system. The coffee fruit that is removed from the bean is composted and also goes back to the farm as fertilizer. Of course, more complex and deliberate methods of farming keep the coffee plants organic and healthy but as an observer, these were some features I gathered. 

For the next few days of my stay I got to join in on a couple more breakfasts, coffee tours, and got to witness some of the processing. It was November, the month of harvesting and also the final month of the wet season in Costa Rica, meaning there’s a fifty-fifty chance of rain day-to-day, therefore keeping a watchful eye over the sun-drying beans in case of a sudden rain is crucial. As we push for less chemicals and sprays in the farms, an operation like El Toledo is really inspiring and a beacon of light while it manages to be in symbiosis with its surrounding environment. I had a great time at El Toledo, getting to witness different aspects of organic farming and enjoying coffee as fresh as it will get. I’ll remember the songs of the Guaco, Motmot, and Oropendola for a long while and the words coffee is a luxury. 

Thank you Gabriel and Ivette for an incredible stay.

Written by
Sara Bozorgzad
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