Today was coffee day and our guide was Dr. Reinhold Muschler who works at CATIE. The coffee farm that we visited in the morning was 1000 hectares in the Aquiares village. Coffee originally evolved in the understory of the forest and so was well adapted to shade. The farms began to remove more and more trees so that they could plant more coffee during the industrial revolution and today we now have coffee plants that are in full sunlight. Within coffee nitrogen is a limiting nutrient because they cannot fix atmospheric nitrogen and so more and more producers are planting leguminous species within the coffee fields to aid in the transfer of atmospheric nitrogen to available nitrogen. For a coffee plant to become established as a productive plant, it takes about 2 – 3 years from planting. In year 4 and 5 you will have a full yield and after that your yield will decline and producers will clear-cut the coffee plants and replant their crop. In years 3 – 5 after harvesting of the coffee has taken place, pruning will occur to allow a new shoot to grow from the trunk of the plant and from here it takes about 8 – 9 months for that plant to be ready for harvest again.
Coffee requires an average temperature of 20 degrees Celsius and with every increase in 1000 metres your temperature decreases 6.3 degrees. In lower elevations with higher temperatures you need more shade for your coffee plants, compared to in higher elevation where trees are more important for erosion control instead of shade. The ideal scenario is that the more stress the plant is under the more trees that you need around it. There is a relationship between the altitude of the coffee plant and the quality of the crop. At higher altitudes your beans ripen slower, the quality is better and there is a more balanced profile of the amino acids. However at higher elevations you also have a higher acidity level. Costa Rica, Columbia and Brazil are high in productivity but low in the number of coffee plants that they have. The top producers of coffee worldwide are Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, Mexico, Africa and Central America.
Harvest of coffee is about 30 – 40 sacs/hectare and each sac is about 100 pounds. Organic production is 10 – 40% less productive compared to conventional. An exception to this is on volcanic or very fertile soil that is managed intensively then you can achieve higher yields but it is not always more profitable. Currently there is not much profit in the coffee industry and it is more of a breakeven system. It is common for farmers at lower elevations to abandon their coffee fields and try to find work elsewhere. In terms of climate change and coffee production there are some aspects that will change. Plants will require more shade due to higher temperatures; you will have coffee production at higher elevations; there will be more water conservation issues and land right and use problems.
The rainforest alliance has 11 rules that producers are to follow. One of the rules pertains to preventing runoff from entering the lakes and as mentioned from day 1 the electrical companies are trying very hard to educate farmers on ways to prevent runoff and erosion. Another part of the rainforest alliance is that workers need to be paid fairly. Within a harvesting season a plant could be picked up to 10 times due to the beans being ripe at different times. At the Aquiares Coffee Farm there are anywhere from 300 – 400 people working per day and on a busy day there could be upwards of 1000 people. During a rainfall you need more people relatively fast so that you can get the beans off before they fall to the ground and most of the pickers are from Nicaragua. On a normal day pickers would work from either 5 or 6 am until 1 or 3 pm.
The processing of coffee from Aquiares is all done on site. There is no sundried coffee on the pacific side due to the variability of the weather and so everything is dried mechanically with air from firewood. It takes around 24 hours for coffee to dry and then it is stored in silos for 3 or 4 months. The parchment is removed from the bean prior to storage and is used as an additional fuel source.
After spending the morning at the large scale coffee farm we made our way to a small scale intercropped organic coffee farm where we ate lunch. Edgar and Flori were very interesting to talk to and listen to about how they made their farming operation work for them. Almost everything we ate was grown on their farm in their vegetable garden; it was about 75% in total. The most noticeable difference between the coffee plants at both farms was the amount of foliage that was on the conventional plants compared to the organic plants. As somewhat shown in the picture to the right you cannot really distinguish which plants are the coffee plants. The intercropping is done to break the cycle of disease and help maintain the soil structure. One explanation that was given for the reason of less foliage, was that rust in coffee is more severe than rust in our cereal crops at home. The leaves that are infected with rust are removed to prevent the spread of the disease.
This integrated farm is 7 hectares with 4 being coffee, banana and citrus crops, 2 ½ is protected forest land where bees are kept and ½ a hectare is used for the vegetable garden that feeds the family and provides a source of income from selling the produce at the local market. The decision to move to organic was made after 5 years of conventional production and not having enough income to survive. When the switch to organic occurred the vegetable garden was planted and Edgar and Flori decided to produce and sell their own coffee beans. The process from changing from a conventional monoculture to their integrated system today was not an easy one. They decided to become organic, add value by producing their own coffee beans, and directly market their vegetables to consumers and to diversify their crops.
One limitation that has presented itself as a challenge has been building the soil back up due to the break down of the soil over the years and the elimination of all inputs that are not organic. The reformation of soils is difficult and it takes time so it was a slow process to switch from conventional to organic.
The three key learning points of this day were that diversification and value added is key to making a small farm and potentially even an organic farm profitable. The second was that the value chain on how little the farmer actually receives from the coffee product. The coffee system is more of a break-even business rather than a successful money making business. The third learning point was that producers are the ultimate decisions makers when it comes to our soil and what we do with it is our decision and we should take care of it.