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Smallholder Coffee Tree Management: Part 1 – Tips, Techniques and Challenges

Imagine you have decided to take the plunge and open up a new chapter by buying a small piece of land in a remote and mountainous region of a tropical country. Naturally, you may think about planting coffee, so in a few years you can be enjoying your very own seed-to-cup coffee. Before you can enjoy the final product though there are a number of steps you need to think about concerning coffee tree management in order to look after your land in a sustainable manner, and get the most from your trees in terms of production and quality.

Coffee is an important cash crop for millions of smallholder farmers and forms the backbone of many economies in the tropics. However, combined with the need to grow other cash crops and food crops for self-consumption, lots of small coffee producers can find their resources and time stretched.

I’ve set out a scenario detailing many of the decisions and challenges they are faced with every year. I’ve tried to keep the parameters the same in terms of land area, and access to financial and other resources the same, to demonstrate some of the difficulties.

Coffee Slopes: Rwanda

For the sake of simplicity a few assumptions have been made that will allow us to keep from going down the entire rabbit hole that is agronomy proper.

So here they are:

Arabica Coffee, you have chosen to grow Arabica. While many of the concepts in this article would also apply to Robusta (as well as many other crops) there are some notable differences.

Variety, you have already chosen your variety. As I am sure you are aware there are a number of different Arabica varieties each with their own attributes in terms of cupping characteristics but also yield potential, optimal growing altitude, disease and pest resistance, tolerances, nutritional requirements, and appearance.

Seedlings, rather than starting from seeds you have purchased some seedlings from a local nursery that are one year old to give you a head start. These have developed enough leaves and a substantial root structure meaning they are likely to survive once planted in the field.

Area, your land is one hectare (ha) 100 x 100 metres = 10,000 m2 or 2.47 acres and perfectly square. This size is typical of many small holder coffee growers. All rocks have been removed with a number of established shade trees spaced about 10 metres apart from each other. There is a low lying cover of vegetation present which is easily removed.

Soil and Topography, your parcel of land is located on a mountain side 1500 m.a.s.l that has been well looked after, it has a deep sandy loam soil texture with a high organic matter content (around 4%). It also has a high nutrient content and low pH (around 4.8) – lucky you! However, due to the nature of mountains, it’s set on a 15-degree slope meaning the use of any vehicle to help you in your labours is out of the option – rats!

Organic/ Inorganic, it is your choice of how you would like to run your farm, but I wanted to explain both options.

Yield, you are aiming to maximise your yield without compromising quality. Yield should be measured per unit of area (in this case per ha) rather than per tree.

Tools, you will need a few basic, but very important tools. Spade, secateurs, stumping saw, gloves, a knapsack sprayer, and a full set of personal protective equipment.

Labour, it would just about be possible to manage the farm by yourself but it would be full time job and very hard work. The likelihood is you will require additional help which will come at a cost.

Amongst the staff at DR Wakefield our experiences in coffee range across every area, from the growing, right through to barista level. Our aim is to share our breadth of knowledge with our customers across all aspects of this complex and diverse industry. I have been lucky enough to live and work in Uganda, amongst the coffee slopes of the Rwenzori mountains. This blog focuses primarily on the coffee trees, but it’s worth keeping in mind that a holistic approach must be taken when farming, as every aspect of the natural world will interact. The key stages are as follows: planting and preparation; growth and maintenance; and harvesting and regeneration.

So let’s dive in.

Coffee seedlings under a thin shade cover in a nursury. Myanmar.

Part 1 – Planting and Preparation

Plant Spacing

The first stage when planning your farm is to decide on the spacing between coffee trees. Plant spacing will impact your yield and other management decisions you make later on, such as the stumping cycle and number of new shoots selected. The objective of correct plant spacing is to make the most efficient use of your land by placing as many plants as close together as possible, but without causing inter-plant competition. There are three main factors that need to be considered when choosing your spacing:

  • Distance between plants in a row
  • Distance between rows
  • Square or triangle spacing

Plants placed too far apart do not maximise absorption of nutrients and water from the soil and interception of sunlight. Light Area Index (LAI) is a term given to the measurement of the area of leaves that intercept sunlight per unit of ground area. The values range from 0 to 10. The more bare soil on show to the sun, indicates a lower LAI and the more canopy cover indicates a higher value. Although it is unlikely that you will measure LAI on your farm as it is a time consuming and expensive process, it’s an important concept to keep in mind. Large areas of exposed soil are also more likely to suffer from drought and erosion, enhanced by the steep slopes of the mountain.

Plants placed too close together will compete for nutrients, light and space, causing inefficiencies in your system. It will make tasks like pruning, stumping, the application of Plant Protection Products (herbicides, fungicides and insecticides) and harvesting more difficult later on. Furthermore, a dense leaf cover can aid the humid conditions in which certain diseases and pests thrive.

Square spacing allows rows and columns to be easily identified at eye level, making management tasks easier, however triangle spacing allows for more trees to be planted in the area – the choice is up to you. A typical spacing of coffees trees would be 1.5 metres between plants and 2 metres between rows resulting in a total of (3500) trees per ha. However, this often changes depending on the country of origin in which the coffee is being grown, due to preferred management techniques and tradition.

Below are two diagrams of a birds’ eye view of how a plantation with square and triangle spacing would look. Find the triangle spacing more confusing to look at? The same thing happens in the field.

Square Spacing

Triangle Spacing

Another factor to consider when deciding on spacing and number of coffee trees is the addition of shade trees. The species and amount of shade trees will again affect your overall total of coffees trees. More will be explained about shade trees later on.

Soil Preparation

Once the spacing has been decided and the area marked out, the soil must be prepared for planting. The usual recommendation is as follows; dig a hole 60 x 60 x 60 cm to loosen the soil and ensure no large root structures or stones are in the planting area. The top 20 cm of the soil should be kept separate and can be mixed with synthetic fertiliser or organic manure and placed back into the hole. The excess sub-soil can be placed in a line below the planting row which can act as an anti-erosion barrier. If the land is set on a steeper slope than 15 degrees, it is also advisable to build trenches and use contour terracing. It’s important to place the rows across the mountainside rather than down, to limit the pathways in which rainwater can erode your soil. The planting area should be left for at least two weeks for the soil to settle before planting commences. This new improved planting area creates a nutritious, freely draining space for the root structure of the coffee tree to develop easily.

Newly planted coffee, with a small number of inter-row shade trees next to established trees. Guatemala.
Two-year-old square spaced coffee amongst established banana shade trees. Note the old banana pseudo stems at the base of the tree acting as an improvised ‘slow drip’ irrigation system. Uganda.

Shade Trees

Shade trees as the name suggests, provide shade to the coffee, but they also have a number of other functions. Shade helps to protect the coffee against overexposure to sun which can cause drought stress and can have negative effects on growth and flowering. They should aim to provide dappled shade and ideally provide the most cover throughout the hottest parts of the day. At the same time, they will also protect against frost if you are in an area that is at risk. On a farm they can either be a single variety or a number of different species to help increase biodiversity. A higher level of biodiversity is usually considered a worthy aim as research concludes that an ecosystem has that have a large range of fauna and flora will over time, have a higher output of products whilst minimizing any negative impacts on the environment. Growing different species will allow for different tree heights and therefore a better overall coverage. Care must be taken to grow suitable species. Do not choose trees that grow too low to try to avoid creating a humid environment which can help to create conditions for diseases. Those trees that are heavy nutrient consumers, have a very dense canopy or have a tendency to drop branches or large fruit that damage the coffee trees below are not advisable. Mangos, jack fruit and avocados are amongst this group.

Multiple levels of shade coverage. India

Shade trees can also add organic matter to the soil through their leaf fall as they bring up nutrients and water from deeper soils than the coffee trees can reach with their root structure. If a leguminous species is grown they will add nitrogen to the soil through the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Some species are also known to act as natural pest control, by acting as a host plants for friendly insects or producing a repellent odour that discourages certain problematic insects. If deemed necessary, shade trees can be planted to serve other economic uses, such as providing timber or food sources. To a certain extent your shade trees will compete with your coffee trees, but the benefits outweigh the negatives I promise.

So that’s if for Part 1.

In Part 2 we delve into the maintenance aspect of a coffee farm. Looking at chemical and organic ways to protect against natural enemies alongside methods of soil moisture and organic matter conservation.