Coffee farming involves keeping track of a lot of different factors. It requires that you know your own land, crops, and resources well. When your operations run smoothly and without waste, you can increase yield, quality, and potentially profits. So, it’s important to recognise where processes can be made more efficient.
Read on for some practical tips on how to improve efficiency on your coffee farm and insights from other producers.
Lee este artículo en español Consejos Para Mejorar la Eficiencia en tu Finca de Café
View from the drying patios at Lirios de Belén mill in Guatemala. Credit: Ana Valencia
Why Efficiency on Farms Matters
Perhaps you’ve been a coffee farmer for a long time and have established ways of doing things. Your business runs well, so why should you care about efficiency? Because even if you have a productive farm, there could be room for improvement. By looking at where you can be more efficient, you may be able to improve quality, increase profits, and prevent expensive or unexpected mistakes.
Adriana Villenueva is the CEO of InConexus, which exports specialty coffees from Colombia. “For me, an efficient farm is one that takes advantage of their resources,” she says. ”Efficiency is related to different things: use of energy, use of water resources, how producers are processing the coffee, how they are drying it, and then you compare the efficiency from volume against quality.”
Efficiency shouldn’t mean profit above all else, but instead should balance environmental and economic sustainability with quality. By streamlining processes and being more organised, you can reduce waste and misuse of time.
Evaluate Your Existing Processes
Christian Starry is the co-founder of Truth Trading Company, a coffee producer and exporter in Guatemala. His family also owns two coffee farms. “[Efficiency] is probably the most important thing on a farm. It’s what we are concentrated on doing right now, both in the wet mill and in the actual management of the farm,” he says.
He gives an example of how existing processes can become inefficient over time. “Every year, workers should have been doing the same amount of work, but it takes them two or three times longer now… Usually, each worker has a determined amount of space that they have to finish working every day. What we’ve been seeing is that every year, this space has been reduced,” he says.
“The workers are the ones who set those spaces. Let’s say a normal space is 20 x 20 metres. I’m sure if I take the measurement right now it might be about 15 metres, so they’re doing less work than they should [each day, which means the total job takes longer]. But today, we decided that we’re going to mark specific spaces with a permanent marker each day. But that’s an inefficiency, to have a worker whose job it was to measure these spaces every single day.”
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View from one of Christian’s farms in Guatemala. Credit: Ana Valencia
Don’t assume that just because something has been done in a way for many years, that it’s the best way to do it. Evaluate all of your operations and rethink any practices that are no longer the most efficient for your farm.
You should also consider how you can better use any “waste land” or disused buildings. Perhaps there is an area that is too rocky or difficult to access to grow coffee, but it could work well for other crops or livestock. By introducing some fruit trees or adding beehives or chicken coops, you may be able to diversify your income or provide more food security for your family.
Find out more in How Crop Diversification Can Counter Low Coffee Prices
Young coffee plants in bags, ready to be planted. Credit: Ana Valencia
Keep Records & Evaluate Data
To fully understand your own operations and recognise where you can make efficiencies, keep records.
Christian says, “I think data is the best thing you can do, and that is what we are trying to implement on the farm to make it more efficient. We will be starting, hopefully in about a month, to set up a program online where the workers in the wet mill and in the farm have to plug into the computer what was done… That’s how salaries will be determined, how we will get statistics from the farm.”
This information will help him identify problems and avoid wasting valuable resources on areas that don’t need them. “If you don’t know how much you’re spending and how much it’s producing, I think it is very difficult to get results,” he says.
The more you know about your crops and operations, the easier it will be to build more efficient systems. And because coffee is an annual crop, information from previous years will help you identify patterns and plan for the future.
“Many coffee producers don’t like to write or don’t have the data on their harvest, or have a different way of doing it,” Adriana says. But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Start keeping simple tables of your expenses, fertiliser and pesticide choices, weather conditions, labour costs, and final yield. These can give you a good starting point and provide some insight into your production cost. You can always add more factors as they become relevant or if you become more interested in one particular area.
Keep an Eye on Your Contracts & Cashflow
Chris says that a coffee farm’s biggest expense is labour. So, review how you pay workers and consider if it can be made more efficient. This doesn’t mean paying them less, but can their rate be linked to productivity or the quality of the cherries they pick? Introducing this form of payment could motivate the workers to be more selective and improve the overall quality of your harvest.
Take a look at your contracts with both buyers and suppliers too. Can you renegotiate your payment terms to avoid your cashflow being unstable or to avoid taking out debt? If you’re able to buy farm staples in bulk at a cheaper price per unit or pay for equipment in several installments without a penalty, does that make sense for your cashflow?
You may not want to create a whole new business plan for your farm, but take a look at your existing one or the contracts you have in place and evaluate where there is room for improvement. If you have established business relationships and a good reputation, you may be able to negotiate better terms than you have.
Learn more in Tips to Create a Business Plan For Your Coffee Farm
Coffee beans processed in different ways. Credit: Truth Trading Company
Embrace Technology Where It Is Appropriate
Adriana emphasises that coffee farms are often a combination of traditional methods and new technologies, and for good reason. She says that her company is always looking for ways to increase efficiency without compromising quality, and that it’s key to find a midpoint that suits the coffee farmers as well as the demands of the market. She says that some farmers are not receptive to new technologies at the mills or at the crucial drying stage, and that this can reduce efficiency.
Be open to new technologies and methods. In many cases, they can save you time and improve quality. But don’t invest in new machines or tools without considering whether they’re the best choice for your farm.
For example, Christian tells me that his farm has a truck, but that sometimes it makes more sense for workers to carry sacks of cherries on their backs.
“We have to take the coffee from the large farm to the wet mill, and it’s a few miles away… the closest part, I will call it a mile. Usually, we don’t use the truck. People just take the sacks of coffee on their backs because there are no roads… it would be more work to get the coffee onto the truck,” he says.
Similarly, machine harvesters may seem cheaper and more efficient than hand picking in the long term, but hand picking with experienced pickers may result in better quality with fewer unripe or spoiled cherries in the harvest. In turn, this could mean higher cup scores and better prices for your coffee.
Consider what works best for your farm and budget before purchasing new technologies.
Unripe coffee cherries at Finca La Siberia, in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara
Clean & Maintain Equipment
Whether you’re using traditional methods or have invested in new technologies, it’s important to take care of your equipment. Train your workers to clean tools thoroughly after use. The few extra minutes could save you from spreading pests or diseases.
Set up a maintenance schedule for machinery, which will prolong the life of the equipment and ensure that it runs as efficiently as possible. And don’t just think this means the big pieces of machinery. Small factors such as checking that your irrigation hoses don’t have leaks and that all vehicles have fully inflated tyres will improve overall efficiency and avoid bigger problems such as flooding or flat tyres during harvest.
Lirios de Belén wet mill. Credit: Ana Valencia
Efficient farming practices aren’t simply methods to increase yield. Rather, they are ways of making your individual farm run as smoothly as possible. Increased efficiency should allow you to produce the best quality you can, while still considering your economic and environmental impact. By evaluating your own processes, you may increase your yield, but you may also producer better-quality coffee that brings you better prices and also improves the livelihoods of your family and workers.
So, take a look at how your farm is set up. Can you make any immediate changes to make it more efficient, and can you plan for larger improvements?
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Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise also consulting with a local technical expert, since differences in climate, soil type, varieties, processing methods, and more can affect the best practices for production and processing.
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