A Visit To The Largest Coffee Plantation
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AN ESTATE WHICH HAS 5,000,000 COFFEE TREES AND IS FORTY MILES AROUND —HOW THE SOIL LOOKS, AND How COFFEE TREES ARE GROWN—PICKING COFFEE AND PREPARING IT FOR THE MARKET—A RIDE OVER THE PLANTATION ON ITS RAILROAD—ITS ITALIAN COLONIES, AND HOW THEY ARE MANAGED—AMONG THE PRETTY COFFEE-SORTERS.
FROM Sao Paulo I took the railroad for the interior and went 300 miles inland to see the Dumont coffee fazenda, the biggest coffee plantation in the world. It has about 5,000,000 trees, and annually produces enough coffee to give every man, woman, and child in the United States a daily cup for a week. It is owned by an English syndicate, with a capital of several million dollars, and is operated after the most modern methods. In going to the Dumont fazenda I passed through some of the richest coffee plantations. I saw hundreds of thou-sands of acres of coffee trees, going by plantation after plantation where the men were at work picking coffee, and by vast cement floors upon which the coffee-beans were drying in the sun.
The colour of the best coffee lands is a bright red. It is exactly like brick dust, and in this ride I found everything of a brick-dust hue. The weather had been dry for some time, and the sun had turned the earth to powder. It filled the air with red clouds; and the bushes and trees were tinged with it.
The wind was blowing as I rode over the country, and my white collar soon acquired a red edging, my cuffs became a bright vermilion, my hands were coated red, and the only thing about me not seriously changed was my hair, which my friends indulgently call golden, but which those who like me not say is of this same coffee-soil colour—it has a brick-dust hue. Even the children at the stations looked like painted Indians. Unpleasant as the soil is in the shape of dust, it is said to be just the thing for coffee. It lies in beds from three to four feet deep upon a layer of gravel, and in it the coffee tree grows and waxes fat.
The best plantations are on the sides of the hills, at an elevation of from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the sea. These are the altitudes of the rolling plains, through which I have been travel-ling. They are entirely covered with coffee. We were often for hours in nothing but coffee plantations, vast gardens of green bushes shining out against a background of red. Here the men were ploughing, there they were picking, and in other places they were hoeing. The trees were everywhere clean, and most of the plantations were as well cared for as a garden.
Now we passed by a forest which had just been cut down, and now by fields of cleared land, in which the stumps were still standing. In these I could see the little coffee plants which had been set in holes scooped out of the earth, the plants being shaded with sticks from the fierce rays of the sun. Later on, we went by great platforms of cement, upon which the coffee beans were drying, and back of them we could see the labourer's houses, red adobé huts with roofs of red tile. At last, after three hundred miles of such travelling, I came to the station of Rubeirâo Preto, and here was met by an engine which Mr. Phillip Hammond, the manager of the Dumont fazenda, had sent down to take me to the estate. I had letters to him from the Secretary of Agriculture of Sao Paulo, and was therefore entertained right royally during the few days of my stay.
Those who think that coffee grows almost wild have little idea of the business of a great plantation like the Dumont enter-prise. There is not a bonanza farm in the United States, I venture to say, that costs as much annually, or one that employs so many hands. The estate itself comprises thousands of acres. It has over 13,000 acres of coffee fields and 2,500 acres of pasture land. It is planting more trees every year and is kept like a garden. To go round the estate one would have to travel 40 miles, and more than 40 miles of railroad track have been built upon it to transport the coffee.
The estate supports 5,000 people. It has 23 colonies, ranging in size from 70 families downward. It has great stores to sup-ply its workmen with food. It has a bakery, a drug store, a saw mill, a planing mill, and at one time it had a brewery. It has vast factories for cleaning coffee and preparing it for market, and it has offices in which there are bookkeepers taking account of every item of expense, so that they can tell you how much coffee each of the 5,000,000 trees is producing, and give every item connected with picking the coffee and sending it to the sea-ports.
The labourers on the estate are thoroughly organized. Each man has his own work, the employés being directed by administrators, each of whom has charge of a block of trees, ranging up to a million; these trees are divided among families, each family taking charge of from 3,000 to 4,000 trees, planting them and keeping them clean. At picking-time all the employés are set to work to gather the coffee berries and bring them to the cars. One man can pick enough berries in a day to make about 50 pounds of coffee. There are also train loads of coffee berries moving to and from the fields and the factories, and within a few weeks 70,000 bags of coffee-beans will be shelled out, dried, and shipped.
Obviously, it takes a great deal of work to produce the beverage which ,forms the staple of one's breakfast. In the first place, the trees must be sprouted in seed-beds, the beans being sown much as we sow peas. Only the best coffee-beans are chosen for the purpose. When the coffee plants are about eighteen months old, they have grown a foot high. They are then taken up and planted deep in the ground, being shielded with leaves on sticks. They grow very fast when well ploughed, hoed, and kept clean.
At three or four years of age the coffee tree begins to bear fruit. Little red berries, the size and colour of a cherry, appear close to the branches, hanging to them much like plums. They continue to have fruit from this time on for twenty or thirty years, and some trees will keep on producing for forty or even fifty years. A good tree should produce four pounds annually, and a well-cared-for coffee plantation should be good for at least thirty years.
The coffee begins to blossom in September, and in April or May the berries are ripe and the picking begins. The berries are picked into baskets, which the pickers carry on their backs. Each is paid so much for the amount picked, and hundreds of men, women, and children are employed.
This seems a lot of work for such a little thing as a coffee-bean. Yes, but the preparing the bean for market has as yet hardly begun. The berries, as they come from the trees, are just like dark-red cherries; the coffee-beans are the seeds in-side the cherries. Each large cherry has two half-round seeds, the flat sides resting one against the other, with a soft pulp about them. Others have only one little round seed, just like the Mocha coffee of commerce. The pulp must first be taken off. To do this, the berries are thrown into a hopper and run through cylinders that squash the pulp without injuring the grains. They are thus reduced to a mush of pulp and coffee-seeds. This mixture is carried over a long copper cylinder, which is about two feet in diameter. The cylinder is filled with holes, just large enough for the coffee-beans to pass through. As the mush falls on the cylinder, the beans go through the holes into it and are carried into a canal of flowing water below the cylinder. Upon this they float off into receiving tanks or vats.
Take up a handful of the beans and look at them. Each, it will be seen, is covered with a soft, gummy substance ; it is as sticky as though it had been painted with mucilage. It must be washed again before it is ready for drying; this is done in a tank in which a great screw moves round and round over the beans, scouring off the gum, as it were, and leaving them as white as parchment.
But our coffee-beans are green," I hear some one say. Yes, they are, and these will be green by and by. They have two shells on them which must be removed before they can be shipped to market. Before the shells can be taken off, the coffee must be perfectly dry, and the drying is quite a task of its own. There are on every plantation great terraces made of floors of cement, rising one above the other. Some of the floors are more than an acre in size. They are made for drying the coffee. There is no roof over them, and the hot sun of Brazil beats down on them all day long It gradually takes all the moisture out of the beans which are stirred about with wooden rakes, so that all parts are touched by the sun. The men who handle the rakes are in their bare feet. It is important that the coffee be evenly dried, and it often takes a long time to cure it. The grains sometimes lie for two months on the platforms, being gathered into piles at night and covered up to keep off the dew. The men watch also for showers, and at such times cover the coffee.
After the beans are dried, they are by no means ready for sale; each little bean has now to be skinned. It has upon it a thick white hide, known as the parchment skin, and under this another covering almost as thin as a cobweb, which is called the silver skin. These have to be removed before the olive-green bean sold in our stores is reached. The skinning is done by expensive machines, some of which cost as much as $25,000. In the first place, the coffee is run through a ventilator, which fans off the rubbish and dust. It is next thrown into a great corrugated wheel of cast iron, which has grooves so graduated that they break the skin on the coffee without hurting or scratching the bean. After the skin is broken, the beans are carried to a second ventilator, in which the shells are taken off like the chaff in a threshing-machine. A fan blows off the chaff and the beans flow down through the trough to the separator.
The beans are now of a light olive-green colour. They must be graded, however, before they are shipped. The little round beans which came from the small berries on the ends of the stalks will go into one grade and will be sold in our American markets as Mocha straight from Arabia; another size will be classed as Java, and the well-known Mocha and Java which one mixes at home will possibly have come from the same stalk. Other kinds of grain will be classed according to their grades, and from every lot five different grades are put up.
One of the most interesting sights on the plantation is the factory in which the women sort the coffee, picking out the bad beans. Come with me and look at it. We are in a vast room filled with Italian girls of all ages. They sit at long tables at the back of which are boxes of green coffee-seeds. Just opposite each girl is a little opening in the box, out of which she pulls handfuls of olive-hued grains and spreads them out on the table before her. She looks them carefully over, picks out such as are bad, and throws them into a box at the right, sweeping at the same time the good grains through a hole in the table, so that they fall into a bag, which is fastened beneath, and hangs there between her knees.
Some of the girls are quite pretty. They have the large eyes and the bronzed rosy faces of Neapolitan peasants. They have gay handkerchiefs tied about their heads, and as you enter the room their great dark eyes look at you. Nearly all are bare-footed, and I noticed that some of them dug their pink toes into the bags as they worked. As soon as a bag is full it is carried away by men to the sewers, who fasten it up for shipment. At the back of the room are fanning and cleaning machines, through which coffee of the various grades is running in a steady stream. A noise like that of a grist mill fills the room, and burning coffee titillates your nostrils with an appetizing odour. It comes from the rear of the building. Let us go there and learn what they are roasting. Outside we see a great stack of the parchment hull chaff ; this is being used as fuel for the engine. It is the burning of the coffee-chaff that causes the smell.
But Mr. Hammond is ready with his special engine to take us the round of the plantation. It is an American locomotive, we notice, made in Delaware; we jump on and are carried for miles through this great coffee-garden. In front and behind us, as far as one can see, are long lines of green bushes. There are vast areas to the right and the left, all of coffee. Look down the road; see how the lines of bushes run on and on, growing smaller and smaller until they come together. Notice the bushes in that field over there ! They are not as high as one's knee. Those trees have only been planted a year, and the others, farther on in the little holes with chips and sticks over them, have been there only a month.
How green everything is! The coffee-leaves seem to have been varnished. There is no green in nature more beautiful, and the contrast of the background of red soil throws the green out, making it still more beautiful. Now turn your back to the engine and look about you ! We are now on a hill, and we can see the whole land spread out in a great waving mantle of green, through which, here and there, run stripes of bright red, the roads. What a principality! Job would have died of envy had he seen this plantation.
Notice the little green buds on that plant ! They surround the joints of the branches like a necklace just over the leaves. Later on, they will be red berries, and later still will be turned into the coffee of commerce and will be travelling over the world. The beverage they furnish will be partaken of on the boulevards of Paris and sipped by the scandal-mongers in the drawing-rooms of Washington. Lovers, it may be, will whisper sweet nothings over it; statesmen may lay out their campaigns by it; and perhaps, in our lurid south, it may take part in one of those angry engagements which result in " coffee and pistols for two."
Within the last ten years great changes have taken place in coffee-growing in Brazil. Formerly, everything was done by slaves, who worked under overseers and who put in nearly fifteen hours a day. The overseer called them at four o'clock in the morning and marched them to the coffee-fields. Their meals were brought to them there, and they were kept at work until about seven o'clock in the evening. Now that the slaves are emancipated, most of them have left the coffee regions and Italians have been imported. to take their places. The labourers on the Dumont fazenda are nearly all Italians; I am told they make far better workmen than the negroes.