We all love coffee, but there's always more to know, and we have a hunch you might not be on this page if you didn’t want to know more! Maybe you’re new to third wave coffee and want to just start learning about it, or maybe you’re an expert! We don’t really know what reason you have for reading this, but here you are and we’re glad you’re here! We want to focus here on coffee at origin. What are the efforts that go into growing it, planting it and harvesting it?
First, coffee is a seed not a bean. They’re like cherry pits, but far more useful. At origin, a portion of the seeds go unprocessed to be cultivated as new trees, which can take between 3 and 4 years to start producing new cherries. It takes a new coffee plant about 2 years to start producing useful cherries.
Cross section of a coffee cherry.
In Central America, which is where we will be focusing for this article, planting season starts in July. Older coffee trees are uprooted after about 5 years of production because they are no longer profitable, so planting seedlings is an annual process.
Freshly sprouted coffee seedling
Once a seedling has been transplanted to a lot on a farm, shade is incredibly important to its development. About 50% of coffee labs coffee is shade grown. Finca Orellana, a farm we work with regularly, is a perfect example of this practice. Growing methods may vary greatly from farm to farm, but the Orellanas grow their coffee near other tropical plants that provide ample shade both close to and well above the level of the coffee tree. These tropical plants allow for cross-pollination and therefore better flavor to the coffee plants. This is where some of the notes in coffee we get come from. Local plants cross pollinate with the coffee, and impart some of their flavor into the beans. On Finca Orellana, plantains are the main source of this shade and cross-pollination, but this practice is not unique to Finca Orellana.
Coffee trees growing in the shade
The actual growing and cultivation of specialty grade coffee is a very labor intensive, high-risk process. Farmers invest lots of money in their farms and workers, but the coffee market is notoriously volatile and prices can drop without warning. Farmers can lose a lot.
This is why competitions like Cup of Excellence (C.O.E) are so important. If farmers win these competitions, their coffees can be sold well above market value, allowing farmers to invest more in their families, farms and workers. Farmers who win C.O.E can implement new and exciting ideas to improve their lives or the sustainability of their farms.
Finca Orellana won C.O.E a few years ago, and they are using the extra money generated by the win to install hydroelectric generators in their wet processing coffee mill. This will create energy necessary to help to power that mill. Water processing uses a lot of water, capturing the energy it produces is a fantastic way to increase sustainability and is a perfect example of what can be possible when farmers win quality awards like C.O.E.
Lastly, we want to touch on harvesting practices at origin. Kim Orellana, a former Coffee Labs employee and sister of Bryan the owner of Finca Orellana wrote a great article earlier this year detailing the difficulties producers face at origin when harvest time comes.
Coffee cherries rotting on the branch, due to labor shortages. Photo Credit Stephen Orellana
The biggest issue they face is, surprisingly, labor. There is a serious labor shortage in Honduras due to the fact that the industry is growing. This is obviously a great thing, but for smaller farmers like the Orellanas, getting laborers to sign on to work their farm is difficult because they are so small. Local workers prefer to sign on to larger plantations where they are guaranteed work for the whole season. This leads to the need to hire foreign workers, which can raise the cost of production by as much as 20%. That’s a very large margin for coffee! This issue can lead to coffee being left on trees to rot. You can read the full article Kim wrote here.
Coffee is a very complex and wonderful crop, and there is always more to know about it. These were just some of the few points we wanted to bring up here in this article. We hope you were able to learn something new!