November 29, 2019

How Coffee Producers Can Benefit From Data


Producing coffee isn’t an easy process. The weather, water quality, soil quality, plant diseases, and technical issues can all impact a producer’s growing, harvesting, and processing efforts. 

While some of these variables might seem beyond anyone’s control, there are ways producers can learn from them, and use this information to their advantage.

Recording and tracking data at each stage of production (from harvesting to processing) could provide them with useful insights. Applying these insights could improve their practices and help them move closer to economic sustainability.

Here’s how producers can track data and use it to benefit their coffee production.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo la Recolección de Datos Beneficia a Los Caficultores

Coffee cherries drying on raised beds at a farm in Brazil. Credit: Nicholas Yamada

Understanding Data’s Role in The Coffee Industry

Data can be a valuable resource for producers, and businesses like Cropster have created software to help coffee industry professionals record and track it. Recently Andreas Idl, (Cropster CEO and Co-Founder) shared his insights on it with the Specialty Coffee Association. In his lecture, he explained what data is and how the coffee industry can use it for its benefit.

According to Andreas, “data…describes our reality…and how we can understand what’s happening in coffee”. He adds that “everything we do in coffee is based on data…[It’s] all based on our perception and that’s all data”. 

A lack of data can impact many aspects of the coffee production process. Currently, insufficient data exists on the best practices for climate-resilient farming, and the different climates, soil types, and farming systems that coffee producers face. Without this kind of information, it’s difficult for producers to determine what actions are best suited to their unique situation.

Access to the right information can help them to improve the above aspects, while also helping them increase the consistency of their output and its quality. It can also act as a warning on future issues they might encounter and enhance their overall planning.

For this reason, producers need to learn how to record and analyse their data at every stage of the production process. In addition, they need to identify what kind of data would be most useful for them to collect.

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View of a coffee farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Credit: Nicholas Yamada

What Kind of Data Are Coffee Producers Tracking?

To find out more about how producers are tracking data, I spoke to Juan Vargas. Juan is the Director of Coffee at Fazendas Klem, a specialty organic coffee estate in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

According to Juan, producers should be recording costs, expenses, crop applications, their pest [and disease] control measures, production times, production processes, and production sales. He also mentions the different stages of production including planting, harvesting, picking, milling, drying, parchment removal, and roasting.

Marcelo Flanzer is Coffee Director at Ecoagricola – a 1 500 hectare specialty coffee farm in Minas Gerais and Cup of Excellence Brazil 2019 winner. He was specific regarding the type of information he believes producers should record, and believes that every coffee lot should have certain information collected on it. 

He mentions that this should include the precise plot location, when each step of the harvesting process was undertaken, how the coffee was processed, its commercial stock lot number, what kind of coffee qualities have been specified, and much more. 

Coffee flowers starting to blossom.Credit: Nicholas Yamada

Benefits of Recording Data

By recording the information Marcelo mentions as well as other details (such as the sizes and colors of the cherries produced and how much time has passed since planting), producers can improve or even change the time, place, and environment of their production. They can also plan their expenses better, or expand to grow different or more appropriate varieties of coffees.

Based on the information acquired from the data, producers can also “Plan next year’s investments [and] outputs, [grow] better quality coffees, prevent problems, [identify new opportunities] for improvement, [better] understand each processing method, and improve [their] techniques on drying coffee lots,” says.

Iris Alvarado is a Cupper and Certification Expert at Cooperativa Capucas, a Honduran organic coffee-producing cooperative that serves the international market. She explains that she “Keep[s] records to evaluate the productivity and management of every farm, as well as to see…how each farm is adapting to climate change depending on environmental practices that producers are applying in their farm”. 

It’s vital that producers are able to understand and interpret the data that’s collected. By grasping its implications they’ll be able to accurately evaluate their own performance and make decisions based on its conclusions. 

Coffee trees at Finca La Fany in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara

Overcoming Common Obstacles to Collecting Data

Many coffee producers have the desire and commitment to start using data collection as a tool, but don’t have the resources or know-how to begin. A lack of knowledge on where to collect or access data, as well as a fear that it will be misinterpreted, misused or cause errors, are common obstacles producers face. 

Producers unsure of where to begin should start by participating in coffee competitions, as this will give them the opportunity to showcase their coffee, while hearing suggestions on how they can improve their offering directly from experts. This will give them a better idea of what roasters and importers are looking for in coffee. By identifying where they need to improve, they’ll also have a better idea of where they should be collecting data. 

Contacting coffee and agricultural institutions may also help producers learn more about their products, best practices that other farmers are adopting, and how they can keep track of data. In addition, there are public and private institutions that offer funding to farmers to help them to develop their farming systems, which includes getting the right tools to track data. 

Unripe coffee cherries on a coffee tree at Finca La Fany in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara

Once they’re ready to begin the physical process of collection, producers can use the following steps as guidelines:

1. Decide what data they want to collect, based on the goals they’ve outlined for themselves or areas they’ve identified are in need of improvement. For example, a producer wanting to farm at higher levels can collect data on the relationship between coffee quality and altitude.

2. Formulate a plan for collecting the data, as well as a time frame for data collection. 

3. Determine the most appropriate data collection method, taking into account the type of information that needs to be collected. Producers can record what they do in every stage using online tracking tools. These tools focus on data and information analysis and can be used to improve coffee production farming practices.

Vargas suggests “Creat[ing] an Excel file to record production daily activities step by step. For example, harvest date, lot number, variety (Catuai, Bourbon, Castillo), [and the] type of transportation [that they use].”

4. Track and record data, checking and updating it regularly as conditions change and new information is added. This can include looking for patterns in how coffee plants behave in specific conditions, or what colors, sizes, or textures thrive at different land altitudes.

Following these steps, producers will be able to gain the insight required to make decisions. This can help them improve their farming practices and economic sustainability.

Coffee farmer walking through coffee trees at Finca La Siberia in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara

What’s Next For Coffee Producers And Data?

Climate change, plant diseases, and poverty are all serious threats to farmers, their families, and their coffee production efforts. Keeping track of and recording data might be exactly what’s needed to help them adopt more sustainable practices, increase their productivity, and get more out of their existing land. Consequently, any effort to address these issues must match the size and scope of the problem.

Not all coffee producers will be in the same position to begin using data to their benefit. Depending on the budget and scope of the producer in question (as well as how far along they are in the data collection process), different steps will be appropriate. For some, simply recognising the importance of data and beginning to collect it will be the first step. 

Technology has a significant role to play here. There’s a good chance that this will involve the Internet of Things, which describes how everyday objects are increasingly becoming connected to the internet, and how they use the internet to communicate with each other. It will also involve the Blockchain. 

Blockchain technology allows parties to distribute, differentiate, and verify trade that takes place between groups. Every step of the transaction is recorded and monitored by third parties. It’s then grouped into blocks of transactions, with related blocks linking together to form a chain, or “blockchain.”

Coffee producers can use this to communicate and authenticate the quality, origin, and pricing of their coffee to buyers. In turn, it can assure producers that the buyer is committed to (and can afford) the purchase. Businesses such as iFinca are already using the technology to connect producers to global markets and ensure they get fair prices for their crops.

Technology will also encourage the development of smart agriculture. This is evident through farmers adopting sensors and using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to monitor and record everything from fruit size to crop health. It’s already being used to help Kenyan farmers record their expenses, revenues, and yields – and in turn use this information in their loan applications.

Farmer picking cherries at the Jiwaka Coffee Limited mill in Jiwaka Province in the Waghi valley. Credit: Tim Bieber

As the usage of such data and data collection tools become more widespread and its costs decrease, this could represent an enormous opportunity for coffee producers to improve their crop quality and overall sustainability. Whether the data is acquired through cutting-edge technology or tried and tested methods, it’s what the producer does with it that will make the biggest difference. 

Enjoyed this? Read How Coffee Producers Can Adapt to Climate Change

All quotes from Juan Vargas and Iris Alvarez translated from Spanish by the writer. Featured photo: Jiwaka Coffee Limited mill in Jiwaka Province in the Waghi valley, photo by Tim Bieber 

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