The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly pressing for coffee farmers. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, up to 40% of the agricultural area suitable for coffee production could be lost.
In response, more and more farmers are implementing environmentally friendly production systems. These aim to maximise soil fertility and minimise a farm’s carbon footprint.
One such system is biodynamic agriculture, which is gathering speed in the coffee sector. Biodynamic farming is characterised by its “holistic” approach, which balances sustainability with the longevity and health of coffee plants.
To learn more, I spoke to two coffee producers whose farms use biodynamic farming models. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on aguas mieles: from pollutant to organic fertiliser.
What is biodynamic agriculture?
In addition to following the principles of organic agriculture – which excludes the use of inorganic agricultural inputs – biodynamic agriculture focuses on a farm’s connection with nature.
Based on the work of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture connects the science of farming with spirituality and nature. Its main focus is the vitality of the earth; to maximise this, it seeks to “give back more than is taken”.
To this end, Steiner developed several different biodynamic preparations for fertilising crops. These preparations are added to compost to improve fertility; Steiner also claimed that they transfer some kind of “supernatural” energy to the soil.
Because of claims such as this, biodynamic farming has historically faced a range of opponents and detractors. Over the years, it has been criticised for its lack of scientific evidence.
However, it has evolved over the years. Today, it incorporates many effective farming practices, many of which are individually recognised by agronomists.
Gibrán Cervantes is a coffee farmer at Cafetal El Equimite in Coatépec, Veracruz, Mexico. He tells me more about biodynamic agriculture and some areas that differentiate it from organic farming.
“Biodynamic agriculture encompasses a much broader view of organic agriculture,” he explains. “In biodynamics, an agricultural system is understood as an integral living being. This living being has an essence; a body and a life of its own.”
He continues by saying that this model encourages closed systems and a “circular” approach.
“This means that when animals create manure, it should be processed, mixed, and composted with other materials from the coffee plant,” he explains. “So, through composting, you create a digestive process, and you return well-prepared compost to the farm.”
Another distinctive aspect of the system is its use of a “biodynamic calendar”, which was created by Maria Thun in 1962. This calendar is used to schedule agricultural practices, such as pruning, sowing, and harvesting. It also takes astronomy into consideration.
Biodynamics in coffee growing
Henrique Leivas Sloper is a biodynamic coffee farmer at Fazenda Camocim in Espírito Santo, Brazil. He tells me that when it comes to coffee farming, there are some clear benefits to the system.
“The principle of biodynamics is a holistic farm,” he says. “On a holistic farm, there is respect for everything, every animal, every part of nature, and you use it to your advantage. Nature is not an enemy, it is a friend. Biodynamics teaches you to share your space with insects, pests, and animals.
“This holistic system can create a cherry that is much richer in microorganisms, a plant that is much more resistant to pests, and in conjunction with the practice of productive agroforestry, it creates a different situation to traditional coffee farming.”
Henrique tells me that when he compares a biodynamic coffee plant with a conventional one, he can notice differences in the roots and leaves. These include a greater level of consistency and higher sugar retention.
Gibrán, meanwhile, tells me that at his coffee farm, he is experimenting with the productive potential of fourteen coffee varieties, and exploring their resistance to pests and diseases.
“We are diversifying to minimise risks and avoid monocultures,” he says.
In a monoculture system, overproduction can sometimes trigger a phenomenon called genetic erosion. This is where individual genes or alleles are “lost”. As such, Gibrán says biodiversity is important.
“We have high biodiversity on our farms,” he explains. “We have around 150 shade trees per hectare, with approximately 2,500 to 3,500 plants total per hectare, depending on the variety.
“We also plant fruits such as bananas, lemons, oranges, guavas, cherimoya, and tree tomatoes.”
He says that this diversity makes the agricultural setup more resilient in the long run.
How is biodynamic coffee different?
Henrique says that because biodynamic farming incorporates quality farming techniques by default and requires a high level of plant care, the coffee is often higher in quality.
“In the cup, they can have more flavours and aromas, and have less oxidation,” he says. “However, this depends not only on the quality of the coffee, but also on the post-harvest stage.”
He also says that these practices – which are part of biodynamics by default – help to improve productivity and sustainability.
Finally, Henrique points to examples of biodynamic coffees entering the mainstream in recent years. For example, he tells me that Fazenda Camocim grew the first Cup of Excellence-winning biodynamic coffee in 2017 (with a score of 93.7 points).
However, quality is also naturally driven by the coffee variety, climate conditions, soil quality, farm altitude, and post-harvest practices, as well as a range of other factors.
“We have a geographical condition (in terms of temperature and altitude) that allows us to do this more easily,” Henrique explains. “We have a strong winter and a slow ripening period, all of which makes biodynamic agriculture more productive.”
He says that in his experience, biodynamic coffee is also growing in demand.
“At the end of the day we will have an important market share, but it will take time because we are too small,” he says. “There are maybe around 200 biodynamic producers in the world at the moment.
“However, that said, the biodynamic coffee market is growing by 13% to 15% a year.”
Does it help producers and roasters tell stories?
As consumers are increasingly focused on how the food they buy is produced, it’s easy to see how biodynamic farming can boost the story behind a coffee brand.
One example is jacu coffee. Henrique explains that Fazenda Camocim is one of the few farms that produces this unique coffee, and notes that it fetches a premium price. This coffee is processed in the digestive system of the jacu, a protected Brazilian bird that inhabits rainforest areas.
However, unlike the civets that are sometimes battery farmed to process kopi luwak coffee, the jacu freely comes and goes from a nearby national park.
“It is a wild animal,” Henrique explains. “It is the best coffee picker, because it only eats the good fruit; not the bad, green, stale, or fermented fruit.
“For us, the jacu is a ‘harvest alarm’. It indicates where the coffee is ripe. It’s a friend of ours.”
The jacu, as Henrique explains, is recognised through biodynamic agriculture as a component of the farm, which is one living, breathing organic ecosystem. Being able to tell this story not only helps to raise awareness of biodynamic agriculture, but also serves as marketing for the coffee.
“It’s because it comes from the exotic reality of the product,” Henrique says. “In London, they are willing to pay US $1,800 a kilogram for this. It’s not my best coffee, but it’s the most famous.”
Switching to biodynamic coffee production.
Gibrán says that farmers who want to switch to biodynamic coffee farming should first analyse what is already available on their farms.
“I would recommend a gradual transition, where you use integrated farming to first migrate to organic farming, and then on to biodynamics,” he says. “This will give you time to be organised, to be rigorous with your practices and cultural management, and to establish a pace of work that will allow you to implement biodynamics in an orderly way.”
While a few principles of biodynamic agriculture can be implemented through such a transition, there are also certifications out there for biodynamics The main international regulator for biodynamic agriculture is Demeter.
“I think certification is necessary because it identifies the product,” says Henrique. “Demeter is one of the few certifications that is recognised worldwide. It is not like the word ‘organic’, which has several different certifications.”
In order to become certified, Gibrán says that you would need to set aside at least 30 to 40% of your land for conservation. This area then becomes a “reservoir for biodiversity”.
Furthermore, in addition to seeking advice from a biodynamic consultant, he believes that it is always important to have an agronomist who focuses on coffee on hand. Coffee has specific technical aspects that biodynamics cannot deal with on its own, he adds.
It is also important to keep in mind that biodynamics is an agricultural technique intended to enrich the soil where coffee is grown. Therefore, it is still necessary to use traditional post-harvest practices for handling, storing, drying, and other coffee-specific processes.
“It is important to be well-documented and well-informed, to learn about successful projects, and to start with very basic cultural practices and management,” he notes.
“I also don’t suggest starting practices under vulnerable financial conditions or with low soil fertility, because producers can get into trouble.”
While biodynamic coffee production is not a solution for all the problems that farmers face, this sustainable system does certainly represent an alternative, holistic model for coffee production.
Its focus on enriching soil and managing its nutrition will naturally improve results in the long term, while a focus on treating the entire farm one living, breathing organic system is a much more respectful way to cultivate coffee.
Ultimately, while biodynamic farming is still a reasonably novel concept for the coffee sector, it’s clear that there are a few positives that farmers can take from the model.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on minimising the carbon footprint of organic coffee production.
Perfect Daily Grind
Originally posted on PDG Español. Translated by Tati Calderón Cea. Translation edited by Micky Baker.
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