July 12, 2022

Understanding wild coffee farming


Around the world, coffee has been cultivated on farms and estates for hundreds of years. Careful and well-planned farm management means that coffee can be grown at scale so that farms can stay profitable.

However, alongside agricultural cultivation, coffee has also grown wild for centuries, if not millennia. The most well-known country where coffee grows wild is Ethiopia, which is largely known as the birthplace of arabica.

Coffee still grows wild in Ethiopia today (as well as some other countries in Africa, albeit in much smaller quantities). But the question remains: how valuable is this to the wider coffee industry?

Although wild-grown coffee is currently of little commercial value, it does pose a unique prospect for researchers. By understanding the genetic composition of wild coffee plants, we may be able to improve the resilience of the wider coffee supply chain.

To find out more about wild coffee farming, I spoke with two researchers. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on tasting “forgotten” wild coffee species.

wild coffee cherries at various stages of ripeness

What is wild coffee farming?

Today, wild coffee plants grow naturally in a number of countries along the Bean Belt – including in African countries near the equator, Madagascar, and parts of Asia. 

Wild coffee is defined by the lack of human intervention in its cultivation. Wild coffee farming, meanwhile, is the practice of letting the cherries grow on these plants before harvesting them at a suitable time.

Although much of the coffee growing wild today is arabica and robusta, there are more than 120 other coffee species, many of which are not intentionally cultivated.

Charles Denison is a coffee geneticist from Cultivar in South Africa.

“We have a small farm at sea level where we grow coffee; that sits around 160 m.a.s.l.,” he tells me. “We call our farm Shamba Nati after the Swahili word for ‘farm’.

“We grow Coffea racemosa, which grows along the coast of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe,” he adds.

Racemosa is a coffee species that grows in the wild, albeit at negligible volumes. Currently, researchers are growing small amounts of this species along the coast near the border with Mozambique.

“We retrieved the racemosa seedlings from the indigenous forests and we planted them,” Charles explains. “It is very different from arabica: the seeds are small and they grow much slower.

“In November, the racemosa plant flowers, and the whole tree is white,” he adds.

Charles tells me that his team harvests racemosa cherries in January after a short ripening period. They have fewer plants, so the harvest period usually lasts between five and six weeks.

It’s difficult to consistently assess the cup quality and characteristics of racemosa year-on-year, as production is of such a small scale. Charles says that each year, he and his team are learning something new about the coffee species.

Generally speaking, racemosa has a lot of spice notes, such as clove, cinnamon, and liquorice. Researchers have also noted flavours such as mint and grape.

This year, Charles tells me he and his team tried using anaerobic fermentation as a processing technique, which helped to create a different flavour profile.

“We have also been doing some genetic testing and research with Kew Gardens in the UK,” he says. “This year, we were invited to the Re:co Symposium to present on racemosa.”

wild coffee blossoms on a tree

Issues with growing wild coffee at scale

Charles tells me that because of the smaller production levels, racemosa is considerably more expensive than arabica. 

“Racemosa requires between 500 and 600ml of rain per year, and a hotter climate than arabica,” Charles explains.

Even though rising global temperatures can benefit racemosa production, the trees only yield around 200g of cherry each. What’s more, the cherry is small and grows at a much slower rate.

“We need to consider how this could all change if we started to produce 100ha of racemosa plants,” Charles says. “We have an obligation to the future of a sustainable coffee industry security to scale up production, but we have to do it the right way.”

In addition, he tells me that he and his team are collecting Coffea zanguebariae seeds. Zanguebariae is a species which grows wild in southern Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Charles says the team has sent some samples to Kew Gardens for genetic testing to hopefully initiate small-scale cultivation in the near future.

“We need support to send the seeds to nurseries all over the world,” he says. “We need seedling stocks and seeds because we are currently one of the only research teams trying to grow this species commercially.”

Jorge Castro is the Production and Sales Director at Café Inmaculada in Colombia.

“We grow rare specialty coffees, including Sudan Rume, eugenioides, Gesha, and Laurina,” he tells me.

“Eugenioides typically scores 90 points, sometimes 92, but it used to score between 82 and 85 points,” he says. “It’s a competition coffee, but the yield is very low.”

According to Jorge, Laurina also tends to score lower because it has less caffeine than other arabica varieties – usually around 86 or 87 points. Although Laurina has many high-quality attributes, such as a light body and pronounced acidity, its low caffeine levels can inhibit its growth, for a number of reasons.

There is also liberica, which is mostly grown and consumed in Southeast Asia, and is yet to be grown at scale internationally. This is generally because it does not have a classically desirable cup profile when compared to arabica.

coffee farmer in a field of wild coffee

Wild coffee farming and climate change

Climate change continues to pose a significant threat to the future of a viable coffee industry. By 2050, it’s predicted that four of the top five coffee-producing countries (Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia) will see much of the land that is currently suitable for coffee production shrink, as well as decreasing in its suitability for growing coffee.

This presents a number of concerns, especially as global coffee consumption continues to grow while production faces a number of difficulties.

What’s more, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List states that around 60% of all identified coffee species are at risk of becoming extinct. This includes 13 species that are already classified as “critically endangered”.

By studying wild coffee plants, researchers can create rootstocks that can be grafted onto other species. This is largely because wild coffee plants generally have innate characteristics that allow them to adapt more to changes in the environment, thereby potentially making them more climate-resilient.

Researchers are currently working on a climate suitability map for racemosa to consider where production can be scaled to potentially bolster future coffee production. To add to this, there is growing interest in how stenophylla (which is believed to originate from West Africa) can improve the genetic diversity of new arabica varieties.

wild coffee cherries on tree

Overcoming challenges in the future

While some are resilient, Jorge does tell me that many wild coffee plants are susceptible to disease. This is because they have not been intentionally bred for disease resistance over the years. Laurina, a variety which has grown wild for some time, is one such example.

“Laurina is very susceptible to coffee leaf rust (also known as la roja), which is difficult to control,” he says. He also tells me that Sudan Rume and Gesha can be heavily affected by coffee.

Eugenioides is somewhat more tolerant of the disease, but its cherries can easily fall off branches, especially in high winds – meaning farmers could lose significant amounts of coffee and their profitability could suffer as a result.

Another challenge that producers face with wild coffee farming is yields. As wild coffee plants typically have lower yields, cultivating them is generally much less economically sustainable. 

“For most farmers, this is not viable,” Jorge says. “[If a farmer tries to sell these coffees on local markets, they will make no money].

“What’s more, customers are used to the flavour profiles of commercial species like arabica and robusta,” he adds.

And despite advances in research, there is still a significant knowledge gap around the full scope of issues that wild coffee species face. For instance, species such as Coffea carrisoi, Coffea kapakata, and Coffea melanocarpa all now grow wild in conflict zones, making the trees difficult to impossible to access.

“The main problem is that we don’t know how commercially viable these species could be,” Charles says. “We are not yet sure of the possible production levels per hectare.”

Furthermore, it’s also difficult to assess the potential cup quality and flavour profiles of these wild-grown coffees without adequate research.

But according to Jorge, there is some promise for the future.

“People are starting to show more interest in wild-grown coffees, so demand is increasing and the market could grow,” he says.

Ultimately, improving education for producers who want to harvest wild coffees is essential for production to scale. As more research is gathered on these species and varieties, producers will be better equipped to implement best farming practices, including harvesting techniques and processing methods.

coffee producer harvesting wild coffee

As climate change continues to threaten the future of coffee production, the industry needs to explore a range of ways to improve the longevity and resilience of coffee plants.

It’s clear that wild coffee could be an avenue to turn to, but this will require no shortage of research from geneticists, agronomists, and other researchers.

However, as the coffee sector shifts through climate change, we could theoretically see more producers turn to more resilient species – for better or worse.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on Coffea stenophylla.

Photo credits: Café Inmaculada

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