October 29, 2018

How Field Mapping Can Increase Profitability For Coffee Producers


How can you achieve both higher productivity and improved quality on your coffee farm? By using field mapping. The method can help you better understand your land, improve yield and quality, and create an opportunity to match both your specialty and commodity coffee to its correct market.

Take a look at what field mapping is, how it works, and what is preventing it from being more widely used.

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farmer picking coffee cherries from tree

A farmer picks ripe cherries in El Salvador. Credit: Maren Barbee via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

What Is Field Mapping?

Field mapping is agricultural data analysis. By gathering and analysing data about your coffee crops, you can introduce more precise management plans, monitor quality, and potentially increase yield. The coffee can then be sold as either commodity or specialty grade to the relevant market.

In simple terms, field mapping allows you to match the right coffee to the right part of your land and understand what it needs to thrive.

Through data analysis, you can mark lots with high potential for additional investment of resources. Lots with lower potential may receive lower investment, in line with their predicted profitability. After harvesting and processing, each lot is sold to its appropriate market.

By using methods such as soil analysis and visual data, field mapping can save producers time, effort, and money.

Group of farmers learning about field mapping at the farm

Smallholders learn about fieldmapping in Guatemala. Credit: One by One/Grupo Agrocoban

Why Use Field Mapping?

In 2016, the global coffee yield average was 17 bags per hectare. This varied wildly from 42 bags per hectare in Vietnam, 23 bags per hectare in Brazil, to 8 bags per hectare in Ethiopia. The ICO attributed this variation to poor farming practices. It stated that “less than 10% of smallholders in Africa use crop protection or fertilisers, and most tend not to utilise basic agronomic techniques”.

At the fourth World Coffee Conference, in 2016, Geraldine Joselyn Fraser-Moleketi, presenting as the Special Envoy on Gender of the African Development Bank, stated “we must support farmers to achieve higher coffee productivity and improved quality through better farm management practices”.

These better farm management practices include field mapping. Let’s look at the practical benefits, some real-life examples, and what field mapping involves.

Mechanically harvested coffee. Credit: Fazenda Santa Jucy

Field Mapping Means Better Quality

Fazenda Santa Jucy is a farm in São Paulo state, Brazil that produces Arabica. The director, Alexandre Provencio, tells me that he introduced field mapping four years ago. He says that before doing so, the farm management plans on Santa Jucy were limited, with up to 20 hectares of land used to grow one variety of coffee.

After analysing the soil and cupping and classifying each crop, he found that “a field of about 20 hectares [had] about four different types of characteristics”. Each of these characteristics changed the way the same variety of coffee grew.

Armed with his new knowledge about the land, Alexandre split this 20 hectares into smaller lots based on the different characteristics. He has since been able to better direct his resources. Rather than applying fertiliser to all 20 hectares, he can use it only on the specific lots that need it. This reduces costs and allows each lot of coffee to thrive.

Take a look at What Is a Coffee Cooperative & How Does It Support Producers?

A mixture of ripe and unripe cherries. Credit: Fazenda Santa Jucy

Matching Coffee to Its Correct Market

Alexandre tells me that the same site has the potential to produce exceptional specialty coffee, specialty coffee, and commodity coffee. The challenge at Santa Jucy, he says, is to keep the specialty percentages high. To achieve this, lots with potential to produce specialty grade coffee are treated differently to those predicted to produce commodity grade coffee.

It’s a skilful way to manage a farm. Rather than investing time and money into trying to get specialty grade coffee from all of a large lot, why not determine where it makes sense to focus on specialty and where lends itself to commodity grade coffee? And then treat each lot according to its final market.

Through soil testing, you can determine the best variety of coffee for each area of your farm and pinpoint where to use fertilisers. Rather than viewing commodity and specialty as better or worse than one another, think of it as matching the land to its best coffee and then that coffee to the right market. Ideally, the two crops should support one another. Alexandre even says that you that “you cannot have specialty without commodity”.

Without field mapping, the coffee from all 20 hectares of Alexandre’s field might have been sold as commodity grade, despite having areas of specialty grade coffee. Field mapping can help you to better understand your land and coffee, and to more accurately predict profits.

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farmers learning about field mapping in coffee farm

Smallholder farmers learn about field mapping. Credit: One by One/Grupo Agrocoban

How Field Mapping Works

Field mapping can be split into two areas of data analysis: agronomic and visual. The most common form of agronomic field mapping is soil analysis.

Let’s look at a concrete example. Nitrogen is necessary for healthy crop growth, but too much nitrogen in the later stages of growth can reduce the final size of the cherry. With soil analysis, you can check the nitrogen levels in your land and treat the soil accordingly. The final cherries will be larger, and the crop more profitable. Field mapping takes soil analysis a step further – rather than looking at soil quality in one area, it is the idea of looking at how soil varies across your farm and identifying how to best use each lot.

Manuel Ramos is the coordinator of the One by One sustainability programme in Guatemala. The initiative teaches smallholder farmers how to field map. He tells me that One by One teaches farmers to measure pH levels and nutrients in the soil, and then group their crops according to their deficiencies. Producers can then apply the right type and amount of fertiliser to the right lot.

Drying coffee in a patio.

For larger farms, visual field mapping through GIS technology can be more effective. Jarvis Technologies uses GIS and drone technology to analyse crops on large coffee farms. The company’s CEO, Luis Gomez, tells me that this technology is able to produce high-resolution images, GIS-interactive maps, and 3D models of farms.

Luis says that it can take one or two months to manually map a farm, but that with GIS and drone technology, 100 hectares can be captured within 30 minutes. Results can be delivered to producers within a day or two.

This quick turnaround is essential for preventing the spread of visible diseases. Leaf rust, for example, can spread across a farm in as little as 15 days. With GIS mapping, you can see the exact coordinates of affected areas and know precisely where to apply fungicides.

Learn more in A Coffee Producer’s Guide to Soil Management & Farm Conditions

Coffee trees at a farm in Guatemala. Credit: Julio Guevara

The Costs and Practicalities of Field Mapping

Although field mapping is useful for both smallholders and large-scale farmers, and can be applied to both commodity and specialty crops, its use is limited by expense. At present, there is a lack of affordable technology designed for smallholder farmers and access to technology is limited.

But there are affordable ways to start introducing the principles to your farm. Consider which crops grow best in which area and look into basic soil testing. By identifying nutritional deficiencies, you can choose which variety of coffee will best fit each lot of your land and where to invest more resources. You can also cup coffees from each lot and evaluate the quality to give you insight into which area suits which variety.

Field mapping can enable you to better understand your land, direct resources, and market the final coffee – whether it is commodity, specialty, or both.

Enjoyed this? Check out A Producer’s Guide to Preparing Coffees For Export

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