In order to be certain that your coffee crop produces a good cup, it is essential you are meticulous when cultivating it.
Ensuring conditions are optimum for producing the highest-quality beans is reliant on a range of different factors.
Coffee cultivation takes place all over the world – primarily in developing countries in between the two tropics – and creating great-quality beans is an art that has been perfected over centuries.
While there are certain things that can be done to enhance coffee crops, it is important to note that optimal conditions vary between different varieties of plant.
If the climate in which coffee plantations are established is too hot or too cold, it can have a detrimental effect on the beans that are produced.
Coffee is a tropical plant and tends to favour a warm and humid climate. However, between the two most important species economically – Arabica and Robusta – there are marked differences in optimal conditions. For instance, the former prefers a yearly average temperature of 15-24 degrees C and the latter 24-30 degrees C, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO).
The best soil in which to cultivate coffee crops is fertile and drains well, such as volcanic red earth of sandy loam. Most species prefer soil to be neutral in terms of pH and applications of lime or dolomite can be used to ensure the optimal pH is achieved.
Annual rainfall is an important factor in coffee cultivation, with optimal conditions for Arabica being 1,500-2,000 mm, while the ideal amount for Robusta is 2,000-3,000 mm, the ICO reports.
The weather, while being a factor over which coffee farmers have very little control, is something that can substantially affect crops and should be borne in mind when cultivating coffee.
For instance, the current drought that has affected the Brazilian coffee region has had a devastating effect on yields and is pushing up global prices.
Protecting crops from particularly harsh conditions – one reason for shade growing – can ensure that carefully cultivated trees survive and continue to bear fruit.
Preparing a site for plantation
Areas for coffee farming should be cleared of tall weeds and smaller trees, with some larger trees left to provide sufficient shade for growing berries. Vegetation cut down can be used on the soil or, alternately, a cover crop can be sowed to enrich the soil and protect its structure from erosion, as well as provide any necessary shade for the plants below.
Trees should be planted in rows and holes should be dug for seedlings before planting begins, with soil covered to prevent erosion. Planting is best done during the rainy season and with plants that have been cultivated for several months beforehand in nursery beds.
Coffee cherries need to be regularly harvested and this process often takes place by hand because of the mountainous slopes on which plantations are often located. It can take three or four years before trees bear fruit and each can yield an average of 2-4 kg of green coffee beans.
Ensuring that measures are taken to reduce the risk of pests and diseases, but not to overuse pesticides and herbicides when treating plants, is very important as either can have a detrimental impact on the quality of beans.
Other key factors that can influence the successful cultivation of coffee include altitude, with some varieties favouring higher altitudes than others, precipitation and humidity.
Training and developing the art of coffee cultivation
Technology and the growing body of information about coffee cultivation are being put to good use around the world and can provide valuable resources to farmers with planting areas of all sizes – be it a smallholder lease or a plantation.
New methods of cultivation that enhance productivity, such as high-density planting, can bring substantial improvements – not only for yields, but also the health of workers, as less herbicide may be needed. However, they can also carry risks such as a higher threat from fungal diseases.
The steps to coffee cultivation include tree abatement, soil preparation, planting, treatment and fruit picking, as well as transporting fruit onwards and sun-drying berries. At each of these stages, meticulous planning, attention to detail and informed choices can enhance the quality of the coffee beans that are produced for processing.
By finding out more about the optimal conditions for growing different types of coffee, it is possible to select the right species for a particular location and then to adjust the conditions as much as is possible in order to improve the environment in which plants are growing.