Three years have passed since I was last in Brazil and a lot has changed. Some of it, no doubt, on my side as we have dealt with the issues across many countries and deepened my understanding of our roles and responsibilities as an importer. Some of it too though has happened in the country, and whilst there are still challenges to be faced together over the next few years, it feels important to recognise that there is change.
This year the trip was backwards to our usual route, starting in Sao Lourenco with the impeccable hosting from Cocarive and moving up through Guaxupe, Tres Pontas, and Nova Resende with SMC to Daterra, including both the original Franca farm as well as the main farms near Patrocinio.
Sao Lourenco was hosting the Brazilian Latte Art and Coffee in Good Spirit Championships when we arrived, so we popped our heads in to take a look and see what the local scene had to offer. For those familiar with Brazil, you will understand our interest at spotting both an Ethiopian and Colombian coffee on offer alongside Brazil. Whilst importing green coffee from other countries is regulated, roasted coffee is not, and so roasting in Paraguay in bringing in that roasted coffee was the best choice for one of the speciality roasters there.
Being in the midst of coffee producers’ coffee events here are very much a focal point. A large tent was set for the comps in the main square, bands played on a nearby stage and there was a selection of street food too. We met a couple of producers, exporters and general coffee folk milling around that we would see more of later, but as it was an arrival day for us, the time difference was making itself known. Whilst we tried to stay awake with a local beer or two at one of my favourite places, Circuito das Cervejas it wasn’t long before we scheduled the morning pick up and headed off to get some sleep fresh for the trip ahead.
Cocarive, Ascarive in Mantiqueira de Minas
Aroma Real, Carmo De Minas
There were two new farms we were visiting that first day, both on request and both run by female farmers. The first of these is in the midst of a name change, from Bota Fora to Aroma Real. Maria De Fatima Silva Marques da Fonseca, more commonly known as Fatima, works as a doctor in the north of the country, but heads back for the harvest each year to take part and oversee things. The joke amongst the workers is that she cares for her patients and then comes to care for her coffee in the same manner.
The farm has been in the family a long time, but it has only grown coffee since 1984, and true to the regions’ name (Mantiqueira means mountains that cry), there are seven springs on the farm. 60 hectares here is given over to protected forest, out of 150 hectares total. 27 hectares is dedicated to coffee, with the rest given over to the farm buildings, drying patios, and a few hectares for cows that Fatima likes to keep.
Management on the farm was a new one for me. It’s common practice to have a good stumping or renewal plan, pruning back the trees every few years to maintain health and keep the yield up. On Aroma Real though, they ‘skeleton’ 50% of the farm at a time.
Once cherries are harvested, the tree is pruned back to just the stem, with the result that the next year there will be no production from the plant at all. The tree will spend all its energy growing new branches only. However, as coffee cherries grow on the previous years’ branches, the second year will see a bumper growth, both in yield and health.
The other aspect to this management style is effective use of labour. Costs are constantly rising, and this includes pickers, so having an area of the farm you know not to send pickers to concentrates the attention on the area that does need it, and helps to manage your costs. It feels like a drastic step but works well, and with microlots from the farm reaching 87 points it is not harming quality at all.
Boa Vista Do Anil, Dom Vicoso
Neighbouring Rancho Sao Benedito, which I visited back in 2019 in the Dom Vicoso municipality, is another farm belonging to the extended family.
It comes down from an estate that has been split over multiple generations to the children and this is a common issue facing longer-term farmers. Originally a 1000 hectare farm at the end of the 19 century, it is now a 50 hectare business run by Emilia Ferraz Cruz who has just taken over from her father, Fernando Cruz Neto, who has now retired after 52 years as an agronomist. He was on hand with her brother, Cicero to show us around.
In an industry where scale really does make a difference to the profitability, there is only so much splitting of a farm you can do before the sums no longer add up. This is not the case here, but as we were to see repeatedly through the trip this is not without pressures from elsewhere.
Harvests this year were late, and that’s ok, it happens, but they also finished early, meaning yields are smaller than was expected when taking the low temperatures into account too. Many trees were fully stumped when frosts hit last year and have not started producing again yet, and the inconsistent weather is also more troublesome. Rains during the harvest period means no picking for 2 days to manage patio space and protect the plant from moulds and diseases that in the wet are more likely to infect the branches where the cherries are removed.
Cicero Ferraz Cruz explained the family preference for patios, with cement, then brick, then raised beds being the selection. Cement will absorb the heat during the day and hold it longer giving better drying results for where they are. The brick does a similar job, just less efficiently, but raised beds they find are more inconsistent. The lack of heat retention increases the drying time required, and so is not for them. There is a benefit for the areas that suffer from fog, as the air allows it to blow through quickly, but at 1200 metres above sea level and above, they do not have this issue.
The height and the aspect give rise to the name, Boa Vista. This is not an unusual name in Brazil, so the suffix Do Anil was added to differentiate them. Anil is indigo and makes reference to the slopes around where plant Suffruticosa Indigofera is indigenous. This plant is used in making Indigo pigmentation and the area produced much before the industry waned in later years.
Sitio Da Torre, Carmo De Minas
Alvaro Antônio Pereira Coli is both the manager for the warehouse at Cocarive and the owner of this family farm that we regularly visit. One of the benefits of relationship sourcing is watching the growth and evolution of the farms over time, and Sitio Da Torre is no different. In the 3 years since we were last there, he has bought some neighbouring land that was abandoned and expanded the farm on the results of the varietal experiments he started back in 2018.
Cover crops had been introduced to this area and provided nitrogen fixing or soil breaking roots, as well as mulch to maintain moisture when they were cut. Non-Organic chemicals were not being used. There is recognition that more and more roasters are asking for it, and that need cannot be ignored, but also a willingness to do what is right for the environment that comes from the farmers.
The Geisha (no longer called ‘Bourbon G’), Obata and Catucai that had been planted there lined the slopes overlooking the farm, along with a giant 2-seater swing that shows an additional direction for the farm and perhaps is a more tangible sign of change in Brazil Coffee Tourism.
Investment in farms is a positive sign more commonly found when the prices are high, but it was interesting that in a city where internal tourism is a big draw, there were enough people becoming interested in coffee to warrant that investment going towards them.
In partnership with a local café that booked and organised the tours, hundreds of people (at least in July) had come to visit the farm. We watched a group ourselves as we visited, whilst Alvaro talked of the additional revenue this brought and what that meant to the farm.
There was a photographer and tourism board representatives trialling the chalet that had recently been built and it had made the news too, so the marketing machine was in full stride. We had lunch all together and discovered that Cocarive were investing in films being made for a number of their farms in the area that will be available over the coming year.
Ascarive is the fairtrade certified sister company of Cocarive. We’ve been buying from them for years; they supply most of our FT Brazil offerings, and we, in turn, are their largest customer.
This year, we went to visit what they refer to as the Fairtrade Village, Sertaozinho. Between 80 and 100 producers each year collate their coffee, and this goes to what we sell as their main lot; like a number of the producers in the area, they are split across specialty lots through Cocarive and the certified lots through Ascarive.
The village itself is super colourful, and a very different feel to other parts of Brazil we were visiting. Farmers here are smallholders, most with 1-2 hectares each, but all certified as fair trade.
It’s higher than a lot of other Brazil farms and mainly yellow Catuai stretches up Colombian-steep mountainsides surrounding the village. Even at the higher altitudes though, where you’d expect the harvest to be behind, they had already nearly finished picking.
Coffee here is harvested and dried on patios out the front or sides of houses. It’s mainly women producers throughout the village and this is not uncommon with Fairtrade farmers. Paola is the lead in the village, and liaises with Ascarive during the yearly meeting, helping to decide where the premium gets spent. It’s used on a village level rather than the individual producer.
Even with small producers, the 20% minimum forest reserve rule still applies. Although this percentage seems to change on where you are in the country, it’s interesting to note that there is no minimum level to it.
Moving on to our third farm of the day we headed up to the immaculate Baixadao and Sao Sebastiao. Many family farms in Brazil have dealt with the splitting of farmland through the years in different ways. The story behind the farm is not one such here, being one of the farms being built up, but the family approach is. Sao Sebastiao houses the family processing facilities, and brothers and sisters bring their coffee from neighbouring farms here to process.
It’s not hard to see why though, as everything here is considered, neat and designed. Similar to Sitio Da Torre, cover crops were also plainly apparent. Owner Sebastiao’s son Helisson took great pride in digging up the worms and was vocal about the benefits to the soil they had seen since changing their approach to farming. Soon the entire farm was going to be converted to this method as they had trialled on a larger scale this year and were very happy with the results.
We watched the sun go down as parrots flocked over the trees before heading back to Sao Lourenco and our last night in Mantiqueira.
The side you don’t see in trip reports is the travelling, and in origins like Brazil it plays a major part. The drive to Guaxupe is quite long, and as the hills flatten out more of the fire-blackened roadsides become visible. Fires in Brazil are quite frequent, but the increased dryness this year had made it worse.
Arriving in the town in time for lunch it was great to reconnect with SMC and visit their very crowded offices in the last two weeks before they moved to new premises. The cupping table had become 4 desks, and the meeting room the new cupping room. We cupped some samples of newer farms as a lot of our regular suppliers are low on volumes this year.
Sitting down we went through the changes over the last few years. The impact of the Donas do Café programme and how they are building quite an exciting aspirational programme for the future together with Especialissimo as the competition they hold to recognise and reward the high-scoring microlots amongst their farmers.
Time came to check in to a new hotel in Guaxupe, and then finally relax for the evening with dinner nearby, newly solar-powered Monte Alto. Plans were made for Felipe and Pedro two newer employees at SMC to take us to farms in the morning which would be a great time to get to know them. The expansions of SMC involved more staff and with both from an agronomist background, I was sure more insights were to follow.
Paraiso, Cabo Verde
We often talk about Palmital and Paraiso being neighbours, and whilst they are close, it had been too long since we had been to Paraiso so I was keen to visit. I’d already been warned Guy Carvalho, the owner, had a keen interest in birds and I was not disappointed.
The farm itself is bisected by the main road, with the processing facilities one side and the farm itself the other. During the lockdowns and pandemic, Guy had kept himself busy with daily walks around the farm and found himself getting into photography, particularly of the birds that visited the farm.
He had taken pictures in all spots and produced placards with an image of the birds on, their name, common name and facts about them. This was more than a lockdown hobby though as I was to learn.
Guy is also an agronomist and does a lot of work in this capacity for SMC. However, many years ago he found himself getting frustrated at not being able to reach as many people as he wanted and had the idea to set up a youtube channel in conjunction with the local tourist board. This was very hard, particularly when the first post was about a disease as the tourism board wanted something lighter and more cheerful. Guy stuck to his guns though.
The engagement from that piece though showed that there was a huge interest and today he still posts once a week on his website with an audience across south and central America. His YouTube channel has nearly 34 thousand subscribers, and he has a WhatsApp network for farmers to ask him direct questions that reaches as far as Costa Rica.
As a nice parallel with us here at DRW, Guy was one of the founder members of the Brazilian Speciality Coffee Association. His further involvement with the larger industry comes as no surprise and extends to advising governments officials on issues facing farms and farmers too.
Coffee farming is not immune to the fake news either though, so he and his team have to spend time combating this. The changes he has seen over the thirty years are many, but the biggest he thought was that he was now able to instill confidence in farmers to make good business decisions with the advance and implementation of mechanical technology and irrigation.
Guy is a man who is very engaged with the coffee industry at large, as well as on a personal level with his farm. Guy believes in teaching people to understand first, and this is the reasoning behind the signs for the birds. Once people appreciate the value of things, they are much more likely to then work to preserve them, and so are much more effective.
The signs dotted around the farm then are pictures (by Guy) of the birds in the location where they frequent or nest and go to explain more about the bird so that the habitat is not damaged. This has helped the protection of the forested areas which Guy has kept around the numerous springs and streams on his farm, as helps nature to feel safe when accessing water. He’d even piped a spring to maintain it’s purity and created an area for bees to drink from it, as they are particularly susceptible to any impurities in the water.
The trees are supplied from native species from a reforestation project run by Monte Alto. They harvest the seeds of trees from their forested land and share these out for free amongst other farmers in SMC. According to Guy, once the land is populated properly with native flora it will pretty much look after itself as that is what it has evolved to do. This may not have created the neatest farm, but it is full of wildlife from birds to wolves and is truly sustainable like this.
After a morning full of learning about agronomy, forestry and ecosystems, it might have been nice to have a familiar tour of a familiar farm, but this was not to be the case. As the farm belonging to the head of the Cooxupe cooperative, you’d expect things to be exemplary here. They are. But harvest had finished already, and a quick discussion on the cleaning schedule required for a wet mill aside, there was not loads of action to distract us.
The conversation quickly turned to the more detailed side of things, from studies on the wood conditioning silos common to Brazil to app controlled drying machines, fertilizer temperature limits, and the complexity of carbon projects within a large co-op and on farms. The issue that came up in response to discussions around climate change, and in particular the unseasonal rain of the previous week that had triggered a flowering, was irrigation.
Following an extended dry period that happens to be perfect for harvesting and drying the cherry, coffee trees will exhibit leaves slumping from their branches in their thirst. Once that is satiated through rain, flowering is triggered which is the start of next year’s crop. If this is not followed by more rain though, the plant will abort the flower buds, and no cherries follow.
If there is sporadic rain, this means that there may be multiple flowerings and maturation will be uneven. In a country that tends to pick first and separate after this can have a diminishing effect. If there are periods of long, consistent rain, then the plant gets to flower (two flowerings are often seen as the best option), the flowers have enough resources to develop, and next year’s crop is on the way.
As has been reflected in pricing though and we know all too well, weather has been much less predictable over the last few years. There is very little we can do about that in the short term, so one way they can help to even out the inconsistencies is to look at irrigation.
Anyone who has flown over Brazil will have seen the giant circles that populate the landscape as crops flourish under big irrigation booms. This requires a certain amount of compatibility with the landscape, so for areas that can’t do this, or are hard to reach, there is the option of hoses, either on the ground or in the soil. But how do we know what is the best option? This is what Palmital are studying.
Burying the hose means you can be incredibly precise in applying hydration and fertilizer, but of course needs to be installed at the time of planting. They did not notice a huge variation in rooting systems (yet, investigations are still underway) and impressions were that both in and on were pretty good.
One difference between boom and hose irrigation though was in leaf drop after harvesting/during stressful periods. The boom system kept the leaves on the tree so is better for photosynthesis whilst the hoses both meant leaves would drop as usual. However, the growth of the tree was better with the leaf drop as the nutrients and water was controlled through the roots and the regrowth much healthier.
A quick (in Brazilian terms) trip to their area under research and the second in-depth lesson of the day was to begin. Boom arms are working on one area, and the air was moist and humidity high. Here the plants were full of healthy leaves, flower buds were plenty and the area had a very different feel from the rest of the farms we had so far seen. Overhead water booms will suffer more from evaporation but benefit the plant through a better absorption through the leaves as well as roots. It has the side effect in Brazil too of washing the red dust that gets everywhere off the leaves, allowing for better photosynthesis.
Hoses on or in the groundwork in a different way. Lying across the ground is easier to retrofit, but also when in place allows more focused watering directly to the plants roots. This also means a better absorption of any liquid fertiliser as is not spread so widely, but is susceptible to breakages, blockages, and movements.
The learnings were that there was no easy, outright winner. Terrain and circumstances will differ, so a thorough understanding of the pros and cons of each would yield the best results to then be shared with the agronomists throughout the cooperative, as well as for their own personal use.
Of course, any irrigation system requires water in the first place. In this area of Minas Gerais, natural springs are less common than Mantiqueira, but what is here are a number of reservoirs along the Sapucai river created by the power industry in order to generate electricity. Water was available for use but is strictly controlled and so cannot be relied upon fully. Pumping requires power, and filtration systems too, but this is being supplied by a bank of solar panels installed near the buildings.
Vinte, Nova Resende
Moving from the larger estates to the smaller, we ventured to Nova Resende. This is the area that provides two of our new blends, Donas do Café, a blend promoting the network of women farmers within SMC, and Vinte, a traceable blend from 20 named farmers from the region.
Nova Resende’s previous reputation was for motorcycles, as both the main industry and very common method of getting around. With the influx of coffee over the years though, it has changed to the city of Hilux! It’s actually the largest contributing area in terms of numbers of farmers for the Cooxupe cooperative, and for SMC too as the speciality cooperative. 2000 farmers belong to Cooxupe, 300 to SMC. With its altitude and soil, it also contributes the most winners to SMC’s Especialissimo programme with around 20% of the total crop for SMC from being 86 and above.
Marcelo Miguel Madeira is a farmer from the second of these coffees, Vinte. His family welcomed us with a great farmers breakfast in their home on a quiet town street where we discussed the impact this would have on his family, their future security, and opportunities. His daughter had expressed an interest in learning English so was nervous but all ears as we talked. Marcelo was heartened to see that the young were returning to the farms, bringing with them new ideas and innovations. He has introduced cover cropping on his farm, which his neighbours thought was crazy but he believes in, preparing for the future and that of his children.
Marcelo, his brother, and his father all have farms of their own, and with other members of the family, they clubbed together to create their own milling facility. This is a huge benefit. The area mainly produces naturals, and most if not all farms have patios for drying but the milling is often done via mobile milling stations which drive around the area offering their services.
Prices have risen the last couple of years and there were tales of false bottoms to these stations to syphon off the coffee so removing this possibility helps a lot. They can also control the quality here too. The farms themselves can be reasonably remote; we were under no illusions as to the tough conditions Marcelo’s father went through when he created the farm, but even now they have to make sure crops are not stolen from the fields or patios as the increase in prices has made this a more attractive option.
Principally this is prevented by activity, and the general idea here is to get coffee to the cooperative warehouse as quickly as possible where it can at least be quantified and secured. There is a separate SMC/Cooxupe facility in Nova Resende for convenience and given the large number of members too. It holds financial facilities and market advice for the farmers that are fixing it. It has agronomical equipment for sale and provides a meeting place for all the farmers and technical staff. We met several agronomists that were based there when we popped in. This is where the relationship between Cooxupe and SMC becomes clear.
When coffee is delivered to Cooxupe in Nova Resende. It is cupped and graded. If it scores high enough, then SMC are notified, and the farmer is offered the choice between selling to SMC or Cooxupe. This may seem like an obvious choice but is not so clear cut.
Traditionally, the security of having your coffee in a warehouse offers is very attractive. There is no requirement to sell it in order for it to be there. Famers have, over the years, used this as a form of savings. Knowing the price they can get for their coffee when they need to sell means they have a secure asset for moving when they need to. Selling the whole lot in one go created the issue of what to do with the cash and where to store it – a significant risk when you are living in a remote farmhouse.
With SMC and the world of speciality, the offer is dependent on age and score and so this saving mechanism doesn’t work. This creates a risk for the farmers and so SMC have to work explaining the benefits but also finding a way to offset that risk that they are comfortable with too. Some still see the initial offer and don’t fully understand why this reduces over time as the score becomes lower, so clarity is key, but the rewards are being felt and the area is becoming more attractive for business as a result. Land prices here have now climbed considerably.
Donas Do Café, Nova Resende
With this in mind we headed over to meet Helena Bachiao D’Olivo, matriarch of Sitio Sao Joao, multiple winner of Especialissimo, and contributor to Donas Do Café.
The family is the third generation in coffee. Both Helena’s husband Lenny and her son, Lenny Junior are independent agronomists working in the fertilizer sector so have a good skill set to bring, but they all admit that Helena’s attention to detail in direction of resources across the farm is the reason for its success. Men are often the most involved in harvesting, which is interesting as up until that point I had heard women were the better pickers in Brazil. Helena governs the processing steps and after with a watchful eye so that standards are kept up as this has the biggest impact on the final quality and pricing.
A true family business, Lenny Jr’s sister-in-law and Juliana, Fernanda, Helena’s daughter, are also involved in the quality process, with 4 women in total heading up the process. The farm over the years has developed a real reputation for consistency, producing bags very often in the 85-86 SCA score range, and upwards from their for their competition lots.
Catucai and Catuai are the main varietals grown, but like many we visited, Arara is being planted. The frosts from last year have meant lots are being replaced, and this was not the first farm we encountered doing so. Ironically, it has a reputation for being a bit needy with water, but yield is good and quality is great.
Aracacau, Tres Pontas
There are few highlights on an origin trip like going to visit Ucha, at Caxambu & Aracacu. Famed for playing music to the coffee as it rests (new age and classical are the favourite styles), this is by no means the only string to her bow. The pandemic saw an increase in tourism to her farm and presented the opportunity to become more of a destination. In light of this, there is now a small roastery and a café, alongside the cupping lab and outdoor seating area.
A lot of the seats and tables have been made from fallen trees on the farm. One fell over this year and Ucha has employed an artist to clean and reveal something of the soul of the tree. Once that has ben done, they will decide how and where to place it on the farm.
Ucha’s nephew Rafael was then introduced to us and joined us for the day. He is lining up to take over the farm and has trained at university level with a large skillset to equip him for this, so now has to soak up the rest of the knowledge from the family.
Staff changes are not the only things to have taken place. The farm is now supplied by solar energy and produces excess enough to offset the family’s needs in Tres Pontas and still leave them with a surplus to sell to the system.
Amongst the 1500 trees that they plant each year are 2,000,000 bees, introduced in partnership with a specialist apiary company to study and understand the impact on the crops. This was very interesting given the work of Capucas and our Abeja project, and will provide a brilliant comparison. As we know from Omar’s talk at Full Circle a few years back, bees come in many different sizes and so results are not always as easily transferrable.
The flip side to this of course is honey, and Minas Gerais being Minas Gerais (with a huge reputation for hospitality) we had to sit and try the honey on some cheese. This was delicious, as was the home made Jabuticaba jam, which neatly afforded us the flower to see some of the local bees by being in full flower while we were there.
With the promise of more surprise products to try later on, we started to walk the farm a bit more, making our way towards the garden of coffee. This is a small plot of land laid out as mandala that grow different varietals of coffee. Some were unique to Ucha’s farms, some from other producers such as Guy Carvalho. Maragogipe Amarelo was more familiar though alternatively coloured, and actual Hybrid de Timor was nice to see as more than just a name in another varietal’s parentage. Guantenano, Goiaba and Anao de Guatemala were all new to me though, sitting alongside some Ethiopian heirlooms and Geisha.
Once these have spent a few years in the garden, if they grow well they may make it out to the larger fields alongside, where more realistic field trials are run with long rows of each varietal. If plants are successful here, they will eventually make it out to full production.
The field next to the garden stood empty. Crowned by solar panels at the top, its destiny is set to become a vineyard, with vines on order and planting due to start shortly. Wine is a long way off but it’s a growing industry in Brazil and the area is already developing a bit of a reputation.
Time for a short cupping of some of the microlots from this year, with one, a natural bourbon tasting exceptional. Ucha explained that not only did they work to understand the natural process, but they then used agronomists to select plants that grew the precursors needed to best allow that fermentation to happen. This was the result.
Not resting here, we made it back to the café to try the coffee-flower tea Ucha brews, and followed up with a coffee flower beer brewed in collaboration with a local craft brewer. It’s so common to think about the interconnectedness and cross passions of baristas and roasters, and too easy to think that farmers share this too. Conveniently, this led to an invitation to a new Cachaca launch that evening, followed by a rock festival that Ucha’s new tourist venture, Café Paiol, was sponsoring.
All good fun, but we’re not finished yet. Planning for the future of course requires a good understanding of the present. Aracacu are working with SOSA, an international innovation company who have agreements with the National Confederation of Industry Brazil for collaboration.
This project is using university students to assist and dissect trees to try to understand the effects of practices at various points from roots to leaves to better be able to measure the true carbon footprint on the farm, and across farms in general.
They are also working with Guy Carvalho to help understand their ecological balance on the farm. They are varying cover crops between Brachiaria grass or a mix of seed, as well as measuring the microbiome important for the health of the farm and environment.
The biggest challenge to all of this is to be profitable, have an environmental impact AND a social impact too. They are building for the next generation for both family and workers and all parts need to function. It’s important to equip all staff and family with the right skills and knowledge, but also to care for them too. They need to know the soul of the bean and to share that in the cup, as each bean has an identity, but that identity absolutely involves humans too.
Daterra, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais
We often talk about Daterra as a farm, and it is easiest to think of it that way, but not quite true. Whilst they may run as one, they are in fact three plots of land, and Franca, a municipality on the edges of Sao Paolo state is their first farm.
I’d not visited here before, so was excited to see the place even though we got there fairly late, after a full day driving. It’s loosely encircled by the city, which brings other issues that you do not normally expect on a coffee farm. Mainly, this farm houses ‘Our Plot’ projects, of which we have one, as well as Red Bank who we were visiting with. We were here to see the progress on these.
Plots are split and controlled in each area by their own agronomist. Not hard to do in itself and is the standard way Daterra operate the rest of the farm, but understanding the precise position of the trees and the roles the precise terroir plays (for instance, being full of nematodes) adds nuance.
As mentioned earlier, fires are not uncommon to see in Brazil, but this one at the edge of the farm was a touch more concerning, as the blackened grassland crept towards us. Juliana, who was showing us around with Diulie, agronomist for Our Plot, showed little concern. “Fire services get involved if they feel they need to, but otherwise they let them burn themselves out.”
The juxtaposition of literally watching the planet burn whilst being on one of the farms that spends so much of it’s time trying to fight climate change and show another route was not lost. We were looking at mycelium, and their ability to naturally control nematodes through soil health an idea brought to Daterra through Red Bank Coffee roasters, whom I was travelling with.
We’d go on to see the rootstock varietal trials we at DRW are doing in the background with Daterra and Instituto Agronômico de Campinas whilst we continue investigating the role of colour on fermentation in coffee. With large parts of the Cerrado predicted to be unsuitable for growing coffee by 2050 (according to World Coffee Research), finding more drought tolerant growing systems will be a plus, and reducing the 30% die off that Laurina can suffer from would be a bonus. I’m sure we’ll share more in the coming years though, as for now, the plants are just going in the ground.
Touring the rest of the farm, it struck me how many ‘plots’ there are, how much research is going on, and just how much work that must entail.
Parts of the farm under large pine trees reminded me very much of Sussex and sounds of car stereos drifting on the wind reinforced the feeling of not being on a farm. Originally it was a dairy farm, had a good yield and made commercial sense, but something wasn’t right. This was the farm that saw that transition to coffee, and the creation of a number of programs that would morph into sustainability programs (in Brazil) practises and methodologies as we know them now.
The old shade-grown coffee area was due for renovation, as the trees had changed under the climate to no longer be suitable for growing. The yellow varietals common to Brazil I have often heard mutated to deal with the glare of the full sun.
We also saw research being done on the native trees, as well as plans for better integration with the city as it grows over the years. This involved routes for connectivity across the farm and showed the need to be forward thinking if we are to preserve what we have for the future.
The next day was the drive to the main Daterra farm, between Patrocinio and Coromandel. The large trees lining the driveway now fully replaced, (on one side providing the beans for our colour experiments) we rounded the corner to be met with the familiar view of the guesthouse, and 2 minutes later joined by the toucan, as if to welcome us back.
Visiting every year, we often wonder if we will have enough to write about them, but if you have made it this far, you are probably aware that when it comes to it, I am not short of a word or two.
Unsurprisingly, Daterra had been busy over the three years since we were last here. The last two years had underlined the need to adapt for climate change, and the farm had converted all their offices to solar already. The aim is to be 80% solar by 2030, but they feel they will never be able to reach 100% as the red dust is a problem, or cable leakage from other areas further away. The areas of the farm that are suitable for wind turbines are too far away and in protected areas for forest so is not an option there.
First up was looking at the nursery. Daterra have always produced their own seedlings, and their research on netting colour and seedling health was in part what lead to the colour fermentation experiments. This had not been changed over just yet though as the current netting was still very useable and they saw no need to create additional waste, but what had changed was the conversion to coir and vegetable matter for their seedlings.
The beans were now sown in giant sand beds, where it is easier to maintain the moisture levels and extract the seedlings when ready to check on the roots. These are then sown in the coir mix, and placed in reusable tubes, with a hole in the bottom so the tap roots don’t bend (they will stop growing on contract with air but continue when planted out), and a healthier set of secondary roots can develop.
This reduces waste from the single-use black plastic the seedlings are often found in but has also meant that the weight of each seedling, along with the height they are worked at has changed. More can be transported in one go, and they weigh less so is easier on the nursery staff to do so. The height means less kneeling down and is easier on the back, so a win-win situation here.
The nursery has also expanded. As part of the Tree_llion project, where Daterra have committed to grow 20 million new trees by 2030, they now have a nursery for native trees to the Cerrado that they are growing from seed to plant up. One of the most interesting quirks to this is that actually, a lot of science is centred around commercial plants, and as non-commercial species, things like best growing practises are just not known. This has meant that they have needed to engage and create this for other growers, which they are doing in unison with the university of Zurich. Importantly, they have also had listen to the local knowledge of people that have grown up with the land. This folk knowledge often holds a lot of answers that can unlock solutions, such as dunking a seed in vinegar in order to make it sprout!
The Tree_llion project itself is ambitious, but the side effects are vital. Not just for CO2 sequestration, as perhaps is the more commonly referenced, but also for its effect on the water table. In partnership with Consórcio Cerrado das Águas (Cerrado Waters Consortium) they are monitoring the phenomenon known as ‘flying rivers’, a term coined by Dr Jose Marengo to describe what meteorologists call low-level jets. These are essentially streams of air that carry moisture down from the Amazon and across Brazil, as far as the tip of Northern Argentina. Under certain conditions, they then transform into rain, and Daterra are looking at the effect the trees have in generating those conditions and attracting rain.
The change of climate and creation of more rain will of course bring an effect to the whole area, not just Daterra, and whilst some neighbours were sceptical and ridiculed the efforts, it was interesting to note they were now also planting native trees of their own.
Flying rivers is just one of the water related projects Daterra have ongoing. Irrigation has long been seen as a requirement here (they prefer the boom/pivot system) but as with Palmital, there are constraints around getting that water, and these become more likely at the time when the plants are most in need.
To this end, a huge reservoir is under construction to ‘farm’ water. To contain the rains when they come, and to build a system that will be able to manage the supply of water across the year. 5 hectares of coffee had to be removed, and the banks built up with red soil, but this time next year, it should be full.
Every year there is more irrigation on the farm. The aim is to be 100%, and with 10 pivot booms, covering up to 125 hectares at a time they are well on the way, but with around 2800 hectares of coffee they still have a lot more to do. Areas that cannot be reached by booms utilise hoses, but this entails a lot of work and is not favoured by the team.
Another side we got to see this year was the experimental field. This differs from the usual plot which has all the different varietals in it. This might be a few seeds planted or 12-15 plants, depending on what they have to begin with. It’s a good size area and likely the largest private collection (most being held in public bodies or national research centres). Some here were planted by universities years ago, and whilst others may find their tree has been ripped up after 10 years or less, Daterra have made the commitment to study the long term results of the trees here so they keep them.
Once a tree has shown interest though, perhaps with good tasting beans, particular vigour or disease resistance, it is singled out for more structured testing. 4 years of production is first evaluated to get to this point, encompassing two on cycle years and two off. This normally starts after 2.5-3.5 years of initial growth, so already here we are at 7 years after planting.
The Repetition field is step 2. Here 45 trees exactly are planted, in three groups of 15 with their position randomised in the field. The middle 5 only are evaluated, to avoid outside influences from being next to other varietals, that may be caused by susceptibility to disease, or resistance to bugs etc. Again, this waits for 4 years of full production to be fully evaluated, but if good, it makes it to the ‘real life’ field, or the field for microlots.
Real life means it is likely to become a regular on the farm, and so a full hectare is dedicated to growing it. This allows for large-scale evaluation and is the final step before full release. However, if the cup is judged to be really good, then full production might occur, but in an area dedicated to producing microlots only. This could be (for example) the difference between Catigua and Laurina. Both are great varietals but one is best suited (currently) for microlot production whilst the other more beneficial to the entire area.
Although 70% of the beans performance is attributed to the Genotype (DNA) 30% is Phenotype, or how it reacts to its environment. Linking back to our visit to Aracacu, it may well be that one varietal is suitable for Daterra, but not for the land around Tres Pontas, 400km away.