December 14, 2015

Where to Plant: 5 Production Decisions Faced by Farmers


Growing, harvesting, sorting, grinding, dosing, extracting.

As consumers, many of us might be familiar with what coffee has to go through before it arrives in our cup.

What might not be so familiar is the equally arduous, multi-staged process that needs to be managed by farmers and producers – even before the coffee is harvested – in order for specialty-level quality to be achieved at the origin.

The specialty goal can be reached only when all the participants in the chain of production are fully involved. They must be attentive to the process at every stage. And they also need to be crystal clear about what they are trying to achieve – about what it is exactly that makes specialty coffee special: rich aromas and complex flavours, in short, extraordinary coffee.

Spanish Version: ¿Dónde Sembrar? 5 Decisiones de Producción que Afrontan los Caficultores

Of course, with such a long and detailed process, there is a large margin for error. Each phase is a science as well as an art, and the quality of the end product requires each stage to be properly executed. We won’t get that perfectly balanced flavour if even just one component is missing.

And at the same time, growers and producers face any number of changing, unpredictable variables. There is never a recipe to follow and the results are never determinate.

This article is going to take you right back to the beginning of the chain – way before you get to enjoy that clean, juicy cup. We’re going to talk about the origin of it all: the producer. Here are 4 things you need to know about what makes speciality coffee taste so damn good.   

coffee plants

1. Where to Plant

This is perhaps the single most important (but most commonly misunderstood) principle of successful coffee farming.

The decision about where to farm is going to determine how successful a farmer they will become. Not many people realise this, but there is a deep and logical connection between the altitude and latitude of location (where the coffee grows), what the plant needs to accommodate its proper growth, and you getting the product you want.

And even if the farmer chooses to produce a varietal they have experience of, and grows it in familiar conditions – similar soil, altitude, levels of rainfall, but perhaps at different latitude, the final result could be drastically, disastrously different.

It involves a little physics and a lot of plant physiology (i.e. photosynthesis). Both CO2 concentrations and the variable intensity of the sun’s rays directly affect a plant’s performance. Both variables behave differently depending on the altitude and latitude of the farmers chosen location of their lot.

Basically, bad choice of location = bad coffee and a failing farm. For farmers, this key principle cannot be forgotten.

2. What to Plant

Catuai, Rume Sudan, an Heirloom, or a Geisha?

The second decision is what to plant. Ultimately, this may determine where they are situated within the coffee world in terms of production quality and reputability.  

And there are really only two options: volume or quality.

Ideally, a producer will have already given careful thought to which varietals or cultivars are appropriate for the chosen crop. Before the producer has considered how the performance of the plant will achieve the desired flavour profiles, they must also consider how equipped the land, location and agricultural practices are for doing so.

Once they know that, it’s up to the producer to define the game. And it all starts with imagining the final result.

Yet it can’t just be about the final result – it also has to be about the journey there. It’s normally the case that the fancier the varietal, the higher the maintenance. Just planting an authentic Geisha will not magically raise the cup quality of the production. The reality is that obtaining the cup you’ve dreamed of producing can mean 365 days of intensive labour, care, and attention.

SEE ALSO: 3 Factors Which Impact A Farmer’s Decision On Which Coffee Variety To Plant

3. How to Prepare

Preparation and patience are the keys to so many levels of speciality coffee production.

Once the plantation is established through the careful selection of location and desired product, a producer must still wait eighteen months for the plants to start blooming and for practice productions to begin.

This initial period is by no means one without care and observation. In fact, it’s a critical period that will define and set the foundations for years to come. This is the time for preparation and, above all, practise patience.

Soil is, of course, the prime material for any plantation. It’s a mix of mineral, organic components, and a bunch of living microorganisms that will work hard to assimilate the nutrients the plants need.

preparing coffee plantation

Preparing the place for the future plants.

It’s an important opportunity to implement good, sustainability oriented agricultural practices. A good producer should understand that sustainability is a commitment to producing high quality, complex and delicious coffees – for years to come.

It must also be a matter of profitability and good economics. Using a living soil, which is rich in organic matter and microorganisms, means that a plantation will react faster to nutrients and be more resilient to disease. Without using good soil today, there won’t be any good coffee tomorrow.

Fortunately, there are some qualitative methods that producers can perform in situ. One of the most commonly used methods in permaculture for soil quality is soil chromatography. This indicates, through the use of a soil extraction and a solution with some reactants, what shape the soil is in – i.e. whether it’s alive or dead. By reading the pattern formed in a paper filter, the producer can determine the condition of the soil.

As a producer, any kind of investment you can undertake to preserve healthy soil will be a sensible one.

geisha variety

Organic fertiliser and microelements (the bigger plants) vs only chemical fertilizer on Geisha plants. Credit: Pecora 19º09´

4. How to Harvest

So far, the producer has decided on the location, the varietal, and the soil. Now skip forward two years…

…It’s time to harvest.

The coffee grower is now responsible for the first transformative step in the chain of production. In Latin countries, this is often called beneficio. The selection of which method to use here is sometimes a decision shared with the roaster, but that being said, the farmer should have an inclination about what will be most appropriate.

This is a good point to assess whether we’re on track to hit the desired results. And here come many more possibilities for what to do next, each with their own restrictions and potential. For example, we need now to think about the future stages: which method of processing is the best to use for this varietal? Should it be washed or natural, a variation, like perhaps a honey process? Does this require some extra experimentation?

pulped honey process

An experimental pulped (honey) process.

Which ever it’s going to be, the consideration that must be on top of the list is about your resources. For example, are there sufficient supplies of water? And more importantly, do you have the materials for properly – and ecologically – disposing of it afterwards? If, on the other hand, a natural process is more appropriate, is the intensity of the sun sufficient for properly drying the harvest?

5. What to Create

Remember that all the time, care, work and attention you have given to your crop has happened so that the roaster – the next step in the chain – can unleash the awesome potential of your beans. If the correct conditions aren’t first cultivated at origin by the producer, a roaster can only do so much.

Importantly, the roaster must be aware of the flavours they are attempting to unlock. So, one of the first things you need to know as an established producer is what your coffee tastes like. An obvious point, maybe, but not to be taken for granted.

Taste lots of coffee, learn, and be disciplined about knowing why certain coffees taste they way they do. It will help you set the bar for the coffee you are trying to create.

The coffees you produce should reflect the unique characteristics of their origins. As their producer, they should also exhibit the skills, ideas and philosophy you have used to make this happen.

Finally, you must have given thought to what kind of coffee experience you want to provide for the consumers. And remember that, in the coffee world, it’s all about diversity. Herein lies the richness of the coffee community – a richness that starts right back at the farm.

To be a standout producer, follow these fundamental principles but also question all the established rules. Take the ones that work best for you, your location, and your coffee to get the best from your beans – and your business.

Sometimes the best, most radical, and most useful ways to create exciting coffee might be right there in front of your eyes, so we just need to learn how to be patient, observe and understand nature’s processes with keener eyes.

Agriculture is composed of 99 lessons, so the old saying goes, and a new one is learned every year.

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Edited by S. McCusker

Perfect Daily Grind.