May 3, 2021

Exploring quality, profitability & crop nutrition for coffee farmers

In recent years, coffee farm profitability has become a key consideration for the global coffee sector as sustainability and social impact rise up the agenda. 

For coffee producers looking to improve profitability, there are two broad options: reduce the cost of production or get a higher price for your crop.

For the latter option, one of the biggest factors to consider is coffee quality. This is typically represented in a coffee’s cup score on a 100-point scale. Commodity coffees, which are lower quality, are inherently tied to the C price, while higher-quality and specialty-grade coffees receive price premiums.

To learn more about how quality influences profitability and the role that crop nutrition plays, I spoke to Victor Hugo Ramirez Builes, a Senior Scientist at Yara, and Tim Wendelboe, the 2004 World Barista Champion and 2005 World Cup Tasting Champion. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article exploring yield and profitability for coffee farmers.

coffee farmers

What influences coffee quality?

As specialty coffee has grown in popularity in recent years, the demand for exotic flavours and higher cup scores has increased, too. As such, consumers are looking for new flavours and experiences and are willing to pay more as a result.

There are a number of factors that influence coffee quality at farm level, ranging from variety to water and nutrient availability, among other factors.

Read on for a few broad examples – and please note that this list is not exhaustive.

Species & variety

Although there are more than 120 known species in the Coffea genus, just two make up more than 99% of global coffee production: arabica and canephora/robusta. 

In comparison to robusta, arabica is more susceptible to pests and diseases, less productive, and requires higher altitudes, but has a much higher potential for quality. Robusta, however, has a broadly less desirable cup profile, and a lower market value as a result.

Within the arabica species, there are also thousands of different varieties, all of which yield a different cup profile.

Arabica varieties such as Geisha, Wush Wush, and Yellow Bourbon are renowned for their complexity and general cup quality, and are thus desirable in the specialty coffee sphere.

In contrast, other varieties such as Mundo Novo and Catimor are more productive, but have less complexity in the cup, and often a lower market value as a result.

While it may seem logical to simply plant higher quality varieties to get a better price, it is unfortunately not as straightforward as that. Each variety behaves differently and has unique crop management requirements, including nutrition. Some may be completely unsuitable for farms in particular countries or regions.

Before making any kind of replanting effort, producers should keep this in mind, and consider a variety’s average productivity as well as its general resistance to pests and diseases.

picking coffee

Processing methods

Coffee processing is another area that influences the cup profile of a coffee. Washed coffees, for example, are known for their bright acidity and cleanliness, while naturals are famous for being sweeter and having a more intense mouthfeel. 

There are also less common processing techniques (such as wet hulling or semi-washed processing, which is common in Indonesia) and experimental techniques that bring out more unusual flavour profiles. The latter have become particularly desirable in recent years, with World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic popularising carbonic maceration in 2015

While processing does not improve the inherent quality of green coffee, it does contribute to a coffee’s final cup profile.

Victor explains that on a molecular level, processing can be linked with specific flavours in the cup. “We know from research that, for example, wet processing (pulped naturals and washed coffees) causes a significant increase in total cell wall polysaccharides and lipids,” he says. This improves sweetness in the cup, which can make a coffee lot score higher.

coffee cherries

Terroir, altitude & growth rates

“Environmental conditions have a direct influence on quality as well as crop growth and productivity,” Victor says. 

These conditions are considered to be part of a coffee’s terroir, which comprises the soil, climate, and any other environmental factors that influence a coffee plant’s growth.

But how, specifically, do they influence quality? 

Victor gives us some examples. “In our research projects, we found that climate variability has a strong influence on the quality of coffee,” he explains. 

“For instance, we found that drought stress reduced the size of green coffee beans, but also that the reduction itself was lower where crops had balanced nutrition.”

Growth rates and altitude are also inherently linked to nutrient management and coffee quality. Victor says that coffees cultivated at lower altitudes grow faster than those at higher altitudes; consequently, there is less time for the cherry and bean to develop. 

“At lower altitudes, the nutrient transport and the demand for nutrients increases,” Victor adds. “When developing a nutrition programme, we have to consider that coffee-growing rates are an indicator of nutrient demand.”

soil

Nutrient availability

Nutrient availability in the soil influences crop growth and affects how efficiently a coffee plant is able to photosynthesise and perform other metabolic processes. The more easily it is able to carry out these processes, the more likely it becomes that this plant will reach its quality potential.

“More photosynthesis means more sugar accumulation and more free amino acids forming in all plant tissues, including cherries,” Victor says. “Some nutrients are essential for the accumulation of sugar, too; these include potassium, magnesium, and calcium.”

To illustrate the importance of balanced crop nutrition, Victor tells me that Yara conducted research into coffee plants that were fertilised with nitrogen (among other nutrients, all balanced proportionally) against those that were not over a three-year period. They then examined cup quality.

“Our research found that coffee plants without nitrogen application after three years had a lower cup score compared to those that received proper nitrogen levels.”

Ultimately, this indicates that adequate nutrient availability supports coffee plants to reach their quality potential. 

“Better and healthy cherries mean more high-quality coffee; better conversion from cherries to dry parchment means more income for the farmer for the same mass or volume of cherries.”

Tim tells me about Elias Roa, a farm owner he works with at Finca Tamana in Colombia. He says: “We agreed that he would let Yara do research on 2 hectares at his farm. As a payment, they would assist with agronomic knowledge and provide him with some fertilisers. 

“From my own observations we have seen that Elias has benefited a lot from this relationship and his farm has been producing really well.

“We have also seen an increase in quality of his coffees over the years, but that is not entirely a result of changing the nutritional programme on the farm as we have also been working hard on improving weed control, picking, processing, drying, storage and many other things on the farm.”

Fundamentally, correct crop nutrition increases nutrient availability in the soil. In turn, this increases coffee quality, which in turn improves market value.

picking coffee cherries

Market access & coffee quality

There is plenty of research out there confirming that the relationship between cup score and price. But profitability and price are two different concepts and implementing measures to improve quality on the farm can be costly.

Tim says that when producers are investing in quality, they should make sure that their investment will pay dividends. “It is important to consider the cost of production against the price you can expect,” he says.

“It is important that the cost of producing higher quality coffee does not exceed the price you are able to get in the market. There are so many steps necessary to take to increase coffee quality, so you have to consider them all to see if it is actually going to be profitable.”

Without a market for these coffees – which are likely to be much more expensive to produce – the producer can put themselves at serious financial risk. 

Without demand, there is a chance producers will end up making a loss on their investment in quality. As Tim says, “there is no guarantee that producing better quality coffee will lead to a better price”.

So, what can producers do to make sure they have access to the right market for high-quality coffees?

coffee farming

Victor’s first recommendation is simply to be aware of the coffee’s quality when speaking to buyers. 

“One of the principal challenges for farmers looking to access markets for high-quality coffee is knowledge,” he says. “The farmer needs to know about the quality of coffee they produce.”

Once they can communicate their crop’s quality with prospective buyers, producers will be better equipped to achieve a better price.

Tim adds that this becomes much easier as access to communication technology brings producers and buyers closer together. Historically, producers have been at the mercy of a “digital divide”, but this is changing.

“I believe it is getting easier because more people have smartphones and access to the internet,” he says. “Communication is key, and it is easier today than ever before to connect with exporters, importers, roasters, and farmers around the world.

“My biggest recommendation would be for a farmer to seek out a local company, organisation, farm, or exporter that works with high-quality coffees. There are so many people and companies around now that want to help farmers improve quality and help them increase the value of their products and help them find a market for these coffees. 

“Teaming up with other farmers is also helpful and can be a great way to learn how to increase the quality of your coffee.”

Finally, Victor also notes that if a producer is confident about the quality of their coffee, competitions are an option. 

Green coffee competitions often have associated auctions (meaning an opportunity to make sales) and can be an effective way to network and boost the profile of your coffee, even if you don’t win.

To this end, Victor tells me that Yara has been developing its Champion Program

Through this platform, he says that Yara works closely with farmers, providing them with technical assistance and the tools they need to improve yields and quality. Progress is evaluated through regular coffee quality competitions. 

“In this programme, Yara, together with other supply chain actors such as traders or cooperatives, pays a differential to the top ten farmers.

“At one of these competitions, we found that the cup scores were between 82.2 and 86.5 points. In addition, for every point that the cup score increased, the sales price increased by 12.8%.” He notes that this relationship reflects the findings of Traore et al in a 2018 research paper on coffee price and cup score; the paper states that an “additional quality score point increases price by 18.68%”.

Victor adds that cup scores have varied according to the location of the competition. In 2017, a Yara Champion competition was held in Colombia, where six of the ten finalists submitted lots that scored above 90 points.

coffee plants

Although there are certainly limitations on what a farmer can produce, investing in nutrition for their coffee plants is a great first step towards improving cup quality and price. 

However, producers also need to make sure that they have a market for their coffees if they are making the decision to invest in improving quality. As always, research and careful consideration is an excellent first step.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on how climate change impacts your coffee plants.

Photo credits: Yara, Tim Wendelboe

Please note: Yara is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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