Coffee Culture in Mexico-- an article on growing coffee in Mexico from the April 10, 1898 Los Angeles Times  

The Los Angeles Times,
    April 10, 1898, p.3:


By a Special Contributor.

    It is said that the parent tree of all the coffee grown in the New World as brought, in 1720, by a French naval officer from its native environment, the forests of Abyssinia, to Martinique, in the West Indies; and that from that single plant sprang all the plantations which constitiute so great a portion of the wealth of Brazil, Mexico, the West Indies, Central, and a portion of South America.
    Nowhere in the United States can coffee be successfully grown, for the reason that the plant thrives only between the isothermals of 25 deg. north and 30 deg. south of the equator, and it cannot be grown where the temperature falls below 55 deg.

    When grown at the extremes of climate, the berry is small and the yield is far less than when grown in its most congenial sphere, which is from 18 deg. north to 18 deg. south of the equator. Successful coffee producers state that from latitude 6 deg. to 12 deg., and at an elevation of from 3000 to 4000 feet, is the most satisfactory, and beyond this, 500 feet of elevation should be allowed for every degree of latitude.
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    The coffee plants are first grown in a nursery and are transplanted to the ground selected; and when a grove is started in the primeval forest, many of the large trees are left to give the required shade. But when lower ground is cultivated, large leaved trees, like the banana, are planted at the side of the young trees as shelter from the sun.
    The trees are planted about eight feet apart, and naturally attain a height of about twenty feet, but when under cultivation they are kept trimmed from ten to fifteen feet and the branches spread horizontally from the trunk, to facilitate the gathering of the berries, or, in the language of the coffee-grower, the "cropping."
    The tree thrives at an elevation of about 4000 feet, where it gets the required shade and moisture, and a temperature which varies but little during the entire year. Hilly ground is usually selected, that the roots may be kept dry, and the best soil is a rich loam or decomposed granite, friable, and containing a large amount of potash and a small quantity of lime.
    The trees begin to produce during the third year after planting, but are not in full bearing until the fifth year.

    A coffee plantation on the uplands is one of the most beautiful sights that greets the traveler in Mexico. The ground is admirably cultivated, the trees stretch far away in straight rows, like a Southern California orange grove, and through the leafy arcades one wanders as through the enchanted realms of a fairy land. The leaves are broad and glossy, the flowers snowy white and fragrant as orange blossom.
    The branches and twigs are slender and the berries, which are shaped like a small bean, are found inclosed in a pulp covered by a tough skin, the berries adhering by their flat surface. It is at first green, but gradually changes color until it is a brilliant scarlet, and a tree laden with glossy green leaves and scarlet berries is quite the most beautiful thing in nature, unless it be the orange tree in all its glory of blossoms, and ripe and green fruit, at the same time.

    The berry is not picked until fully ripe, and machinery is generally employed to place the crop on the market in the best shape. The machinery is expensive, and consists of a set of pulpers, peelers, and separators. With this machinery, and proper oversight, the crop can be cured to perfection by the peon labor of Mexico.
    After the crop is gathered it is pulped and washed and sorted into several grades, according to the size of the berries. Pulping and washing coffee is preferable to dry hulling, and, thus treated, it always commands a higher market price.
    The yield that may be expected from the maiden crop, that is, at three years, is about one pound, and when the trees come to maturity, in the fifth to the seventh year, according to the location, altitude, and rainfall, they bear from one and one-half to two and one-half pounds per tree.

    All the States of Mexico south of the 25 deg. are suitable for coffee culture, and the finest plantations are found about Vera Cruz on the east coast, the States of Colima and Michoacan on the west coast, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
    One of the most successful coffee growers in the republic give his experience in its culture as follows:

    When I came to Mexico, ten years ago, I had $20,000 in gold, which, by the way, is as small a sum as anybody should ever undertake the business with. Most of the failures in the coffee business, and there are many, are due to the fact that the parties have insufficient means to wait from five to seven years before realizing anything from the crop. I had had some experience in coffee-growing in the Hawaiian Islands, previous to coming to Mexico, and learned some very dear lessons there, having planted my trees at too low an elevation, and lost the entire plantation from the rust which prevails at an altitude of from 1000 to 2000 feet above sea level, where most of the plantations located in former days.

    I selected 500 acres of land in the State of Vera Cruz, among the primeval forest, at an elevation of 3000 feet, paying $12.50 in Mexican silver per acre. The land was a rich loam, rather rocky, and cost me $8 per acre to clear. Thus, you see, the first outlay was about $10,250. I left trees at a distance of about twenty-five feet, as they were large, and I calculated that one tree would shade three or four coffee plants. All of the land was on a side hill, where drainage would be good, thus preventing too much dampness about the roots of the plants.

    I selected young plants from a nursery, paying about $800 for sufficient plants for my 500 acres of ground. Of course, the cost was much higher ten years ago than now.

    The distance at which to set trees is a mooted question, some claiming that they may be set as close as three and one-half feet, others say that the proper distance is eight to ten feet. In India and Ceylon the average distance is six feet, with the trees topped at about four feet. In Guatemala they are set at about nine feet and the trees allowed to attain their natural height of about twenty feet. Each planter has his own opinion, but from my experience I am convinced that ten feet is the proper distance in this State, where the conditions are somewhat different from the west coast or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

    I set my trees in holes eighteen inches square, carefully removing all stones and roots from the surrounding soil. The holes were left open for about three weeks, and the plants placed in them just at the beginning of the rainy season.

    When the trees attained the age of eighteen months I had them topped to a height of four feet, which caused them to throw out more vigorous branches, and from these sprang "suckers," most of which I had removed. It requires a good deal of experience to understand the principles of successful pruning, that is, to remove all superfluous wood and leave such branches as will produce the best crop. In the work of pruning comes one of the greatest obstacles to be met with in coffee culture in Mexico. The ordinary peon laborer will cut and slash indiscriminately if not carefully watched, and they sometimes totally ruin the next year's crop.
    The work of weeding and keeping the soil free from grasses, which grow so luxuriantly in this climate, is very arduous and expensive.

    The total cost of bringing my 500 acres of coffee trees to maturity, that is, the fifth year after planting, was abot $18,000 in Mexican silver, which sum included my living expenses and the buildings erected on my plantation.

    The first crop that I gathered averaged half a pound per tree, which I sold for 16 cents a pound, gold. The fourth year the production was one and one-quarter pounds, and the fifth year showed a trifle over two pounds per tree, which has been the average production for the past five years. I have never lost a crop, and my trees are all healthy and the plantation is in the best possible condition.

    The life of a coffee tree is about thirty years. In the twenty-fifth year about one-half of the trees should be taken up and the ground replanted to young trees. This, of course, cuts the planter's income down to one-half for the ensuing five years, but insures the original income for the next twenty years thereafter.

    My income for the past five years from my 500 acres of trees has averaged $40,000, Mexican silver, from which, deducting the cost of curing the crop and care of the land, about $19,000, leaves me a clear income of $21,000, which I consider a good investment for my $20,000, Mexican silver.

    There are many men in Mexico who have enormous incomes from their coffee plantations, and all the old plantations are making money. On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the ideal coffee-growing country of Mexico, I personally know dozens of men whose incomes range from $10,000 to $60,000 per year. It is only the inexperienced growers and those who began without sufficient capital and with no knowledge of the language or labor conditions who are crying about there being no profit in the business.

    With the exception of maize, coffee forms the most renumerative of Mexico's agricultural products. During the past year Mexico sold to the United States 32,387,823 pounds of coffee, worth in gold $4,880,895, as compared with but 18,959,467 pounds worth $3,179,578 in gold in the corresponding period of the previous year. Thus, the average value of Mexican coffee during 1896 was 16.77 cents a pound, and 15.06 in 1897.

    The American people consume over $75,000,000 worth of coffee annually, and the low price has sent the consumption up during the past year some three pounds.

    Americans are the heaviest coffee consumers in the world, over ten pounds per capita per annum being the amount reported by statisticians.


    According to the Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index, $1 in the period from 1884 to 1893 (there was no inflation during those nine years) equals about $22.46 in 2006 dollars. So the $20,000 investment to begin a 500 acre coffee plantation would be about $449,200 in 2006 dollars--still amazingly low.

    $1 in the period from 1895 to 1901 (there was no inflation during those six years) equals about $24.26 in 2006 dollars. So the planter's $21,000 annual income would be about $509,460 in 2006 dollars. And coffee being sold by the grower for 16 cents a pound, would be about $3.88 a pound in 2006 dollars.

    There was high inflation in the United States during the Civil War, but after 1864 there was no inflation in the US--and quite a bit of deflation--until 1902.
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