January 4, 2017

Why Plant Coffee in Rows?


Every aspect of coffee planting can have a significant impact on the final product. And the decision to plant coffee in rows can affect coffee productivity, quality, and health – not to mention farm efficiency, soil quality, and working conditions.

Planting in rows isn’t a new innovation. The FAO’s Better Farming Series, published in 1970 and 1977, recommends it. But nor is it universal. “Traditional farming doesn’t use rows,” Carlos Pola tells me at PDG Micro Festival El Salvador.

What’s more, Carlos is experimenting with different ways of planting in rows – ones that, he hopes, will help protect crops from fungi and soil from erosion.

Spanish Version: ¿Por qué Sembrar Café en Filas?

coffee rows

Coffee growing in rows on a farm in Colombia. Credit: Katie Fallon/Virginia Tech University via Flickr

The Environmental Case

One of Carlos’ main concerns is soil erosion. When this happens, the soil loses the water and nutrients needed by healthy coffee plants, there are higher rates of runoff water, and animals and insects disappear.

And the steeper the land, the more likely this is to occur.

This means that coffee farms, which tend to be on mountainous land, can be particularly vulnerable to it. And while some plants can hold degraded soil in place, coffee trees need good soil. They have taproots, long, deep roots that rely on good soil structure (FAO).

“I plant in rows to prevent soil erosion,” Carlos tells me. In between each row he leaves a space of 2 to 2.7 metres, and here grass and small plants grow. Those plants with fibrous roots, which are small, numerous, and clustered towards the top of the earth, can help soil to recover from erosion. He also plants shade trees, but in the rows themselves so that workers have unobstructed access to the coffee trees.

Carlos’ rows, while in straight lines, also roughly follow the contours of the mountains. “See how these rows change angles,” he says, pointing from our left to our right. Contour farming decreases runoff, as it creates a barrier that prevents water from escaping downwards, carrying soil and nutrients with it.

With those nutrients still present, coffee plants will grow healthier and stronger. In turn this can lead to higher yields of better quality coffee. There will also be increased biodiversity – something that is good for the environment and good for coffee.

coffee growing in rows

Coffee growing in rows on one of Carlos’ farms. Credit: Carlos Pola

Minimising Labour

Carlos also tells me it will be more efficient. “When it’s time to stump, and to harvest, we can do it row by row. Workers can just go straight along these rows.”

“The older ladies, they can stay on the row at the top of the hill. They can pick just as many cherries without climbing up and down. And the younger pickers, they can go down to the lower rows.”

It’s common for coffee pickers to be paid by the weight of their basket, with specialty producers sometimes offering a premium for cherry ripeness. For older generations, whose joints might ache and who might pick more slowly, this can mean they work just as many hours as other pickers – but with more difficulty and for less money. However, rows, especially ones that follow the contours of the land, can help to make it easier.

“When an agronomist visits, they too can just go straight to the row,” Carlos adds. “They don’t have to check every tree. It will save me money and time, and create better working conditions.”

Experimental Ways to Fight Disease

Carlos has been using these rows to separate healthy plants from unhealthy ones. Coffee leaf rust (la roya) hit Central America hard in 2012. This fungus appears first as yellow-orange spots on the leaves of coffee trees; over time, those leaves fall off, and then the plant cannot create energy from photosynthesis. The result: poor, or non-existent, cherries.

The situation is improving, and farms are developing innovative methods to control la roya. “Einstein said necessity is the mother of all invention,” Carlos tells me. “Crisis is an opportunity to innovate.”

coffee leaf rust

Coffee leaf rust. Credit: Carvalho et al via Wikimedia

On his farm, he is planting rust-resistant varieties – but he also knows la roya is not the only threat to coffee. And so he shows me his experimental method for combating disease and fungi. In one small corner of his farm, he has turned the space between the rows into trenches.

It won’t stop the spread of coffee leaf rust, which can be wind and rain-borne. But he hopes it might prevent some fungal diseases from being spread through the soil or surface runoff water. Digging trenches, sometimes to be filled with stones, is a recommended technique for combatting fungi in crops such as bananas and oak trees.

Will it be effective? Time will tell. “I believe in testing,” Carlos told me the first day I met him. “I take an idea, I try it, and I see what the results are. Then I do what works best.”

growing coffee

A long, thin trench dug to make it harder for infection to spread. Credit: Carlos Pola

SEE ALSO: How Harvest Rains Destroy Coffee Crops

Double Rows, Double the Impact?

He then shows me another of his tests. It’s often recommended that coffee trees have a certain amount of space around them; for example, in 2014 Emma Sage of the SCAA advised 1-3 metres of space per Arabica tree. Limited space increases the fight for nutrients and light, which in turn often decreases yield and quality.

But Carlos is experimenting with double rows. The bottom row starts to the right of the top one, meaning the trees form interlocking triangles.

Double rows of coffee

Double rows of coffee trees growing on Carlos’ farm.

“There is less space, so the yield per tree will probably be less,” he says. “But I’ll have more trees, and there will be more roots.” And roots are important to Carlos, with his strong feelings on soil erosion.

It will take several years for him to see the results of these experimental rows, which he laughingly calls his “double madness”. But his standard rows are growing strong. He’s seeing greater biodiversity between them. And he’s noticing the increased efficiency when he inspects his farm. Whether his innovations pay off or not, the rows already have.

Perfect Daily Grind

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