Farm productivity is something we often discuss in the coffee sector. Price fluctuations and difficulties with pests and diseases mean that low productivity levels are a major issue for coffee farmers all around the world.
However, by investing in certain areas across their farms, producers can take steps towards improving productivity.
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Productivity And Profitability
Before we talk about how to increase productivity, let’s look at how it’s linked to profitability on coffee farms.
João Moraes is the Director of Global Accounts at Yara, a world-leading crop nutrition company with offices in more than 60 countries around the world. He tells me that as coffee is a perennial crop, it takes time after planting for the field to start being productive.
In most cases, this means that the farmer’s investment starts to pay off after three years or so. Fundamentally, this means it takes years for coffee production to become profitable.
Sebastião Brinate is an agronomic engineer who works for LSW Consultoria, an agronomic consultancy based in Brazil. He says that the relationship between productivity and profitability “is one of the main relationships that we have to analyse [in regards to the economic viability of coffee production]”.
He says: “Profitability is directly linked to productivity; if I have high productivity [as a producer], I will have a lower cost [per bag].”
João says: “The world produces about 170 million bags [of coffee per year]. This production takes place on about 10.5 million hectares, according to the latest surveys by the FAO. [On average], we are looking at a global average of 16 bags per hectare (bags/ha).”
However, according to him, this is an issue. “In the vast majority of the world, this level of productivity for smallholder farmers is not economically sustainable. Even with the premium [prices] that some markets pay for unique coffees from known origins, we know that this is a very challenging income for the producer [to live on].”
Because productivity levels are so low, many coffee farmers don’t have the income to both feed their families and invest in their farms. This makes things more difficult as coffee trees age and naturally become less productive.
What Influences Productivity?
A coffee plant’s productivity varies in response to a number of factors. These range from the production environment (soil, precipitation, altitude, latitude, shade, and so on) to genetics, the ever-increasing effects of climate change, farm practices, and soil management.
Perhaps the simplest point is the species of plant being cultivated. Of more than 140 different species in the Coffea genus, arabica and robusta make up more than 99% of global production.
In comparison to arabica, robusta plants have higher yields, greater pest and disease resistance, and grow well at a greater range of altitudes, with an optimum average annual temperature range of 24 to 30ºC. Conversely, the arabica plant generally has lower yields, is more sensitive to pests and diseases, and grows best at higher altitudes (800 m.a.s.l. and above). Arabica plants also thrive at cooler temperatures (generally between 18 and 21ºC).
However, despite being more challenging to grow, arabica plants are produce more desirable and sought-after flavours. As a result, they have a higher market value.
Within each species, there are also hundreds of varieties (or cultivars) that each have unique characteristics linked to productivity and adaptability. These include fruit size and bean density, the height and width of the plant, growth speed, and nutritional requirements, all of which can affect yield.
Soil fertility is directly linked to soil health. Just like other plants, coffee trees uptake nutrients from the soil to carry out metabolic processes throughout their growth cycle. Different nutrients are responsible for different processes, such as root development, leaf growth, flowering, bean development, and ripening.
However, unlike cereal crops which have a shorter lifespan (such as soy or maize) coffee plants remain in the soil after being harvested. As time passes, without proper intervention the nutrients in the soil will become imbalanced, negatively affecting productivity.
João says: “Soil fertility is a major [part of] plant development (especially in the early stages) and consistency in productivity.” He adds that soil analysis is a powerful tool that helps to quantify the chemical and physical attributes of the soil. These include its pH, cation exchange capacity (CEC), and nutrient levels, which are all critical for the performance of the plant.
João adds that Yara reviews partners’ soil analyses in coffee producing regions to allow them to develop a balanced crop nutrition programme to optimise productivity.
Farm practices are the decisions that coffee producers make to manage their crops. João says that there are a number of farm practices that can influence productivity.
- Choice of species and variety. For farmers, it’s important to observe different varieties to learn about their characteristics (especially productivity) and choose between them.
- Crop density. There is an optimal number of trees per hectare which varies depending on variety, local conditions (climate and soil water retention, for instance), and the production system. Finding the right crop density level is critical for improving yield.
- Harvesting method. Plant management changes according to how trees are harvested. Mechanical harvesters can’t strip cherries from taller coffee plants, for instance, so producers who pick manually can let their trees grow taller and subsequently improve yield.
- Plant position. This will determine how much sunlight the coffee tree receives, which directly affects photosynthesis (and consequently growth and yield).
- Deep soil preparation and irrigation. These are practices which can make areas more resilient during periods of drought or high temperatures. Producers can even undertake “fertigation”, where soluble fertilisers are added to the water used to irrigate the plants.
- Pruning and stumping. Regular pruning allows plants to recover after being harvested by producing new branches.
- Crop age. Productivity levels decrease over time, and fields should be renewed when productivity gets particularly low.
However, it’s important to note that what works on one farm may not be suited to another.
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Coffee plants need sufficient sunlight and rainfall as well as a certain optimum temperature range to maximise productivity.
Extreme temperatures will compromise plant yield, which makes it even more important to grow crops (especially arabica) at altitudes with appropriate temperatures.
However, the impact of climate change means that the amount of land suitable for arabica production is shrinking. As a result, producers are being forced to climb higher or look further away from the Equator to “chase” the best temperatures for their crops.
Pests And Diseases
Pests and diseases are a persistent issue for coffee producers, and if not properly managed, they can be devastating. A pest infestation or fungus outbreak can cause producers to sacrifice a significant proportion of their crop and suffer financial losses as a result.
Despite the fact that there are hundreds of pests and diseases that can affect coffee plants, some are more prevalent than others.
The coffee berry borer, the coffee leaf miner, and coffee mealybugs are three of the most common insects that damage plants. In terms of diseases, coffee leaf rust, coffee wilt disease, and pink disease are some of the most prevalent.
João notes that good plant health starts with good nutrition. While this doesn’t mean that well-nourished plants will be immune to pests and diseases, he says they will certainly be better-placed to tolerate them and recover in comparison to those that don’t.
He also adds that supplementing nutrition with foliar nutrient application (i.e. directly to the leaves) can fine-tune plant nutrition for higher performance and even support plant resilience.
Crop Nutrition And Profitability
For coffee producers, profit is influenced by four main factors: the price they are paid, the cost of production, and the yield and quality of their crop. As minimising costs is difficult, and because coffee producers are mostly “price takers”, the only two internal factors which producers can influence are the yield and quality of their plants.
Improving the yield of their coffee plants will directly improve farmers’ total revenue per hectare, and increase profitability as a result.
In many cases, this increase in yield (and therefore profitability) is not driven by increasing fertiliser usage, but rather a balanced crop nutrition programme in line with the potential of the cultivated area.
This means replenishing the nutrients missing in soil through the right fertiliser sources and the right balance of nutrients, applied at the right time, in the right dose.
Sebastião says: “We conducted an experiment in partnership with Yara, at Sítio Recanto da Pedra Caparaó, Minas Gerais. In this study, we analysed nitrate-based fertilisers from Yara (as a source of nitrogen) against two other commercial fertilisers available in the region.”
He tells me that to measure the success of each fertiliser, they calculated the yield from lots that used each type. They then compared the net value of product sales in Brazilian reals (R$) from each lot.
The Yara lot, Sebastião says, resulted in an average of 47.87 bags/ha, which was an increase of 25.5% and 38.1% on the other two lots (respectively). As a result, profits increased, with the Yara lot netting the producer R$7,163.53 more than the second lot (a 23.5% increase), and R$10,237.55 more than the third (a 37.4% increase).
Vietnam And Brazil: What Can We Learn?
João says: “Today, Vietnam has the highest average productivity for robusta coffee in the world, producing around 40 bags of coffee per hectare.” For arabica, however, he says that Brazil leads the way. “[Brazil has very good productivity] in high production years… above 30 bags/ha on average.”
As a result, we can conclude that average production between these two countries is somewhere between 30 and 40 bags/ha. This is more than double the global average of approximately 16 bags/ha.
So, what are Vietnam and Brazil doing that other countries aren’t?
Research & Development
This is something that both Brazil and Vietnam have both invested in over the past few decades. Sebastião says: “Research and development in Brazil is one of the main differentiating factors. We already have varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases, which helps productivity.”
Plant Density & Pruning
João tells me that crop density is a key factor that affects productivity. He says: “It is still common to see farms with very low plant density… maybe 1,000 or 2,000 plants per hectare, when, for example, modern farms have above 5,000 plants per hectare.”
However, while density should be optimised, more is not always the best option. Spacing is important, as plants compete for light, water and nutrients; farmers should look for local references to try and meet the needs of their cultivation practices and the resources they have available.
João says: “[For mechanised harvesting of arabica plants] I would [space coffee trees] every 320-400cm by 50-70cm, allowing for at least 4,464 plants per hectare. And I could put that same number on a farm that uses manual picking if I [space coffee trees] 280cm by 80cm while always observing variety characteristics and environmental conditions.”
Sebastião also notes that pruning is important. “When a coffee plant is around eight years old or so, you can prune it.” This, as previously mentioned, will stimulate plant regeneration, and help to renew productivity for the years ahead. The age for the first pruning may vary, however, as different spacing patterns and environmental conditions may promote faster or slower development.
Fertiliser & Crop Nutrition
We know that coffee plants perform at their best when they are adequately nourished and fertilisers are used. However, coffee producers sometimes underapply, overapply, or even incorrectly apply agricultural inputs. In both Vietnam and Brazil, producers have effectively incorporated the use of new technologies and crop nutrition programmes to increase yields.
To explain the difference between fertiliser and crop nutrition, João discusses what he calls “hidden hunger” in coffee plants.
“‘Hidden hunger’ is the situation where a coffee crop doesn’t [reach optimal productivity] despite receiving good doses of NPK fertilisers (a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). [This is because the lack of] balanced micronutrients and/or macronutrients prohibit it from reaching its production potential, without even showing nutrient deficiencies in the leaves.
“Nutrition isn’t just [about] adding more fertiliser. Instead, it’s creating a balanced nutrient plan by consulting a soil analysis report, the history of the area, and its potential production,” he says. “I can fertilise my plant six times a year. But if I haven’t been adding the correct fertiliser, if I haven’t been looking at the nutrient balance [in the soil and the plant], I could just be wasting money.”
He tells me that Yara offers tools and assistance to coffee producers to help them understand their crops’ needs. He explains that through a number of agronomists working with Yara and their distributors, the company can craft tailored crop nutrition programmes and solutions to meet producers’ specific individual needs, and improve productivity and profitability.
To start, João strongly recommends carrying out soil and leaf analysis to determine which inputs a crop will benefit from. However, he does add that producers might not have access to this type of technology. This, he says, is where Yara can help, as they have agents or offices in more than 160 countries around the world.
Altogether, he tells me that Yara’s solutions can improve yields and profitability for coffee farmers. This, he says, helps to address many limiting factors in producing regions. It also continues to be a key focus of Yara’s long-term analysis in collaboration with key laboratories and coffee research centres around the world.
Improving productivity levels on a coffee farm isn’t easy. However, by following best practices at farm level, producers can increase their plants’ productivity levels.
This includes good research, appropriate genetics, plant density and pruning, solid plant management, and above all else, a balanced crop nutrition programme. By following these practices, producers will be able to increase productivity, leading to a lower cost per bag and improved profitability as a result.
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Photo credits: Yara, Wikimedia Commons
All quotes have been translated from Portuguese.
Please note: Yara is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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