Coffee Planting

The Process of Coffee Farming: From Seed to Cup

by Lana

Coffee Holli Top Pick

Now:

For most coffee lovers, getting coffee is as simple as ordering coffee beans from the local roaster or ordering a takeaway coffee from the corner coffee shop. But behind the scenes and miles away, there are countless people and processes involved.

Think of the farmer, picker, quality grader, importer, and roaster. But one of the most important people in this chain is the farmer. Depending on where your beans are sourced from, your coffee might have been grown thousands of miles away.

If you are in the US and you love Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee, your coffee was grown 8000 miles away. If you want to develop a connection with your coffee and appreciate your cup of coffee, it’s great to understand how coffee is grown.

And that’s what this article is about. Here is what I will cover. 

  • A brief history of coffee
  • Coffee farming stats
  • Types of coffee
  • Optimal weather conditions for coffee farming
  • The process of coffee farming 
  • Types of coffee farming
  • Cost of farming coffee 
  • Where coffee grows
  • Coffee farming challenges

With that out of the way, let’s start by the interesting coffee history.

A Brief History Of Coffee

Now:

While coffee is grown in more than 70 countries, Ethiopia is regarded as the birthplace of coffee.

While no one knows whether it’s accurate, the coffee plant is said to have been discovered by a herder named Kaldi.

When grazing his goat in the wild, he noticed something interesting. The goats seemed to suddenly get active after consuming some specific red berries. Kaldi was so intrigued that he took the berries to the monastery.

However, the monk termed them evil and threw them into the fire to burn. But something interesting happened. The burning berries produced a unique aroma that filled the place and the monk had to further investigate the strange berries.

The burning berries were scooped from the fire and put into water to put off the fire. And that’s how the first cup of coffee was brewed. However, this account is probably apocryphal.

Years later coffee was introduced into different countries like Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. 

To make it easy below is a table with all the key details about the coffee plant. This information will form the backbone of this article. 

About Coffee

Origin Ethiopia
Kingdom Plantae
Family Rubiaceae – Tree, shrubs, and herbs (coffee and madder plants)
TribeCoffee ae (a tribe of about 335 species of flowering plants.
CladeAngiosperms (Flowering plants)
CladeEudicots ( Flowering plant with two leaves after germination)
Clade Asterids (a argest subgroup of flowering plants)
Plant type Perennial ( A plant that lives for more than one year)
Plant type Tropica plant (A plant that is native to the tropical regions of the world)
Plant type A small tree (not shrub)
Flower colors White 
Berries color Raw – Green
Ripe – Red
Number of coffee species124 species 
Popular species Arabica and Robusta.
Plant sizeHeight – 6 – 15 feetWide – 4 to 6 feet
Time to yield the first beans3-4 years
Planting density 1000 to 1500 plants per hectare
Number of seeds in a cherry 2 and sometimes one (peaberry 
Tree lifespanUp to 100 years.
Most productive between 7 and 20 years. 
Number of harvest/yearOne major harvest a year
Yield per plant Up to 30 kgs per year depending on age and farming conditions. 
Common Diseases Coffee Leaf Rust
Coffee Wilt
Pink Disease
Common Pests Coffee Berry Borer
Coffee Leaf Miner
Mealybugs
Cold and freezing temperaturesNo
EvergreenYes
Shed leaves (deciduous)No
Mode of harvesting Manual or machine
Harvesting method Strip picking
Selective picking 
Ideal lighting partial shade, Indirect sunlight
ElevationArabica – 1,800 to 2,500 feet
Robusta 600 to 2,400 feet
Rainfall Arabica 1,500-2,500 mm
Robusta 1800 mm
Temperature Arabica 20 – 24°C
Robusta 20 – 30°C 
Ideal Soil typeFertile, volcanic
Soil PHpH of 5 to 6

About The Coffee Plant

The coffee plant is a type of flowering plant that belongs in the Rubiaceae family and Coffeeae tribe. 

The Rubiaceae family is one of the largest groups of flowering plants comprising 6500 species of trees, shrubs, and herbs. This group of plants grows throughout the world but thrives in warm areas. 

When you narrow it down, the coffee plant belongs to the Coffeeae tribe, a smaller group of flowering plants comprising 11 genera and over 300 species. One of the genera in the Coffeeae tribe is Coffea, which is where the coffee we drink belongs. 

Now:

There are over 124 known species of coffee, however, only Coffea arabica (Arabica) and  Coffea canephora (Robusta) are farmed for commercial application. 

Arabica makes between 60% and 80% of the total coffee produced in the world, while robusta makes between 20% and 40%. 

Because arabica and robusta are two different coffee species, their beans have different properties and taste profiles.

First, arabica coffee has less caffeine than robusta but contains almost twice the amount of sugar. Secondly, arabica is more acidic than robusta. In terms of quality, arabica coffee is of higher quality.

Better quality means arabica is more valuable than robusta. That’s why most countries and farmers grow more arabica than robusta. For instance, Costa Rica banned robusta farming for 30 years but lifted the ban in 2018.

Some of the top coffee-producing nations produce 100% arabica, including Colombia, Honduras, Ethiopia, Ethiopia, and Peru. 

While arabica is the most preferred coffee variety, it is more expensive to farm, takes longer to mature, and has a lower yield per plant than robusta. Arabica is also very sensitive to weather changes 

Fun Fact

The reason why we drink coffee is because of the caffeine content. But did you know that a coffee tree produces caffeine as a toxin for defense against herbivory? 

Also, not all coffee species produce caffeine. Then caffeine is contained in both the seeds and leaves of a coffee tree. 

Coffee Farming Statistics

As I indicated above, coffee is grown in over 70 countries. However, only about 58 countries of these countries produce enough for export. Combined, coffee is grown by more than 12.5 million farmers and supports more than 125 million people. 80% of the farmers are small-scale farmers. 

All the coffee-growing nations are located in the coffee belt region. This is a region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. All these countries have very similar weather conditions and soil to Ethiopia, which is the birthplace of coffee. 

So, for you to grow coffee you must be in one of these countries. 

Growing RegionCoffee Belt
Continents North and South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania
Number of countries 58+ countries
Number of farmers25 million farmers
Farming acreage 27 million acres 
Total amount of coffee produced 170 million bags 
Top producing countries BrazilColombiaVietnam 

Conditions for Growing Coffee

Temperature

As I mentioned above, the coffee plant is a tropical plant. The tropics (areas along the equator) have the perfect temperatures for growing coffee and it’s why coffee grows naturally in these areas. 

The perfect temperature range for arabica species is between 15°C and 24°C (59ºF – 75ºF) When temperatures are within this range, the rate of photosynthesis is at its peak. Since coffee is a tropical plant it cannot survive in freezing temperatures.

Unlike arabica, robusta coffee thrives when temperatures are between 20°C – 30°C (68°F – 86°F).

When temperatures are below or above the range it can cause defective beans, faster ripening resulting in lower quality beans, stunted growth, and increased pests. 

Rainfall and Humidity

Just like with temperatures, arabica and robusta require different amounts of rainfall. 

The perfect rainfall for arabica ranges between  1,200 and 2,200mm per year, with the optimum being around 1600mm per year. On the other hand, robusta requires between 1500 to 3000mm. The rain should be reliable and regular for at least 9 months.

Too much rainfall destroys the flowers and also increases the risk of pests. Low rainfall stresses the plant producing low-quality and defective beans

Soil

While the coffee plant can grow and thrive on different types of soil, the best soil for this tree is well-drained sandy loam soil. The soil should be fertile, well-drained, and well aerated. The soil should also have a significant amount of organic matter. The ideal soil PH is slightly acidic between 5.5 and 6.5. 

Altitude

Altitude refers to the distance above sea level of an area. Areas beyond 2400m above sea level are regarded as high altitude areas.

When it comes to coffee farming, arabica coffee does well between 1200 meters and 2500 meters above sea levels. 

As the altitude increases the weather tends to get cooler, which slows down cherry ripening, resulting in higher quality beans. Beans from high-altitude areas are denser and have a complex flavor

Coffee producing countries altitude 

1500 m1200 m900 m760 m
Ethiopia
Kenya
Colombia
Guatemala
Papua New Guinea
Mexico
Nicaragua
Costarica
Brazil Vietnam

Coffee Farming Step by Step

Land preparation

The process of coffee farming starts with creating a layout of the coffee farm. This involves specifying the growing area, processing area, drying area, road network, and irrigation layout. 

Of course, you can only grow coffee if you are in a coffee-growing region. The next step is land preparation, which is done a year before planting. The time gap allows for time to add organic matter to the soil, prepare the soil, and plant the windbreaks.

The amount of land preparation depends on the status of the land. If the area has trees then it will involve clearing the area and removing stamps. 

There is no limit on the size of the land. The farm size depends on how much land the farmer owns and their capital. In most countries farming is done by small-scale farmers whose farms average between 0.5 hectares and 5 hectares. 

Planting windbreaks

Windbreaks are trees or shrubs that are planted along the farm boundaries to slow down wind speeds. Windbreaks also help in reducing soil erosion, regulate temperatures, and protect coffee seedlings

Some great windbreaker trees for a coffee farm include Grevillea robusta, mango trees, avocado,  and jackfruit trees. 

Mark and prepare the planting rows

The next step is to mark the holes where the coffee seedlings shall be planted. Coffee trees get tall and wide so careful measuring must be done to prevent crowding the field. 

The right spacing depends on whether it’s the monocropping or intercropping farming system. For monocropping, the ideal spacing for arabica is 3m by 2m and 3m by 3m for intercropping.

The ideal spacing for robusta is 2m by 3m for monocropping and 3m by 3m for intercropping. 

Plant shade crops

Just like windbreakers, shade crops protect coffee seedlings and also help in regulating temperatures. Shade trees should be planted a year before coffee seedlings are introduced to give them time to grow tall.

Shade crops should be planted between 20 to 40 meters apart. This leaves enough space for coffee trees and also avoids nutrient competition with the coffee plants

Since the number of shade trees will be less than coffee plants, the shade tree species should be a species that grows tall and wide to provide coverage to as many coffee plants as possible. Ideally, shade trees should be planted in rows. Also, the warmer the area the closer the shade trees should be. 

Shade plants to avoid

  • Poisonous trees
  • Thorn-producing trees
  • Plants with leaves that are hard to decompose, such as avocado and jackfruit trees.
  • Tree with a conical shape such as eucalyptus
  • Slow-growing trees

Installing the irrigation system

While this does not apply to farmers in areas that receive adequate and reliable rainfall, irrigation is key when there is rainfall shortage and in hot areas. Irrigation helps to provide consistent water to the trees, especially during the planting and flowering stages. 

The irrigation system depends on the water source, which can be a  river, dam, piped water, underground borehole, or water tank. The pumping method is usually electric and drip is the most common irrigation method. 

Digging the holes

The next step is digging holes where the markings were made. The holes can be square or circular with a diameter of about 2 feet and 2 feet in depth. The holes are then filled with organic matter and then mixed with the fertile topsoil from the hole. If there is no organic matter, fertilizer can be added.

Note:

The holes should be dug 1 to 2 months prior to planting. 

Getting the seedlings

Sourcing the seedlings is one of the most important steps in coffee farming. Before buying the seedlings consult widely to understand the best type of coffee for your area

The best way to know is to consider the elevation, rainfall, and temperature levels of your farm and then research the right type of coffee. Also

  • The type of coffee that your neighbors are growing
  • Consult your local coffee development authority
  • Consult the services of a coffee consultant 

First, decide on whether to grow arabica or robusta, then narrow down the specific variety to grow. Here is a list of the popular varieties grown in different countries. 

Kenya 🇰🇪 VarietiesColombia 🇨🇴 VarietiesMexico 🇲🇽 VarietiesIndonesia 🇮🇩 VarietiesUganda 🇺🇬 Varieties
SL28
SL34
K7
Ruiru 11
Batian
Caturra
Typica
Colombian
Cenicafe 1
Castillo
Tabi
Bourbon
Maragogype
Typica
Bourbon
Caturra
Mundo Novo
Maragogype Catimor
Catuai
Garnica
Marsellesa
Typica
Caturra
Bourbon
Catimor
Tim Tim
S-Hybrids
Kent
Typica
SL-14
SL-28

After you have narrowed down the best variety for your farm, it’s time to buy the seedlings. 

Look for seedlings with at least ten leaves. These seedlings should be about 5 months old. Carefully inspect each seedling for signs of a disease or pest. Most importantly, inspect the roots, the tap root should be straight and not protruding from the bag. 

After planting, water the seedlings immediately, cover the bases and provide a temporary overhead shade. In the coming few weeks, Inspect for any dead seedlings and replace them immediately. 

If it’s rainfed farming, the seedlings should be planted 2 to 3 weeks after the rains have started. Unless there is reliable and consistent rainfall for at least 9 months, irrigation is the best form of watering the trees.

Young seedlings of less than 6 months should get about 2 liters of water every day. 3 liters for 1-year-old trees and 5 liters for 2-year-old plants.  When the trees start flowering and producing cherries each tree should get about 7 liters of water daily for at least 3 days a week. 

Field Management Activities

Here there are a lot of things that the farmer does to facilitate the growth of the coffee trees.

Field management activities take place until the trees are mature, which takes between 3-4 years. So, for the next 4 years, the farmer will be tending the trees without getting anything in return, hoping the production will be hefty to pay back the expenses and remain with profits. 

The different farm management practices include

  • Daily irrigation
  • Weeding
  • Mulching
  • Cover cropping 
  • Soil management
  • Detopping or capping
  • Pruning and de-suckering

Weeding

Immediately after the field is prepared and seedlings are planted, different types of weeds will start growing. The type of weed depends on the previous crop and the organic matter introduced on the farm. 

Weeds compete with seedlings for water and nutrients and can negatively impact production, hence the field should be kept free from weeds.

There are several ways of weeding including, hand weeding, mechanical weeding, and chemical weeding.

Hand weeding is plucking the weeds by hand. Mechanical weeding involves using simple hand tools or power weeding machines.

Mechanical weeding should be done carefully to avoid disturbing the tree’s root system or making the soil susceptible to erosion.

Chemical weed control involves the use of herbicides. The specific herbicide depends on the type, size, and nature of the weed

Mulching

Mulching is about covering the soil with plant residues such as coffee husks, grass, maize stalks, Napier grass, and banana trash.

Apart from the mulch decomposing and becoming organic matter, the layer also protects the soil from direct sunlight and direct raindrops. Other benefits of mulching include

  • Regulating the soil temperatures
  • Controlling and suppressing weed growth
  • Preserving fertilizer
  • Keeping the soil moist

To prevent infecting the coffee seedlings or trees, the mulch should not touch the stem of the tree. Apart from introducing pests, mulching is also a fire hazard. 

Nipping/capping

Nipping or capping involves training and shaping the coffee tree. The two major nipping methods are the single stem system and the multiple stem system. 

The single stem system relies on the original stem, while the multiple stem system involves clipping the tip of the seedling at half a meter length so that another stem can develop. 

It can also involve bending the seedling so that suckers can grow that are then trained into stems. 

The idea behind nipping is to develop a second or third stem to increase the surface area for berries to grow. 

While it may sound like a good idea to have multiple stems from a single seedling, it makes it harder and more expensive to maintain the coffee tree. A tree with multiple stems requires more fertilizer and pesticides in case of infestation. 

Multiple stems also result in competition for the little nutrients coming from the soil leading to low-quality beans. 

Irrigation

Water is one of the most important elements in farming coffee. Except in areas that have consistent and adequate rainfall, irrigation is needed to supplement the rainfall. 

Benefits of constant water supply.

  • Bigger beans
  • Higher quality beans
  • Water improves the absorption of fertilizers and nutrients
  • A healthy coffee tree
  • Healthy leaves and improved flowering
  • Increased production 

Irrigation is key during planting, flowering, and ripening stages. This is where shade crops and mulching comes in to help reduce the rate of evaporation and conserve soil moisture. The common types of irrigation for coffee farms include

  • Manual irrigation
  • Drip irrigation
  • Overhead irrigation
  •  Sprinkler irrigation

The choice of irrigation depends on the source of water, cost, and nature of the farm

Controlling erosion

This area includes a wide range of activities aimed at preventing and reducing soil erosion to prevent the loss of key nutrients. The different ways of managing erosion in coffee farms include

  • Planting windbreaks
  • Mulching the soil 
  • Planting shade crops
  • Construction of terraces on sloping coffee farms
  • Construction of water pits or troughs
  • Planting a cover crop

A cover crop is planted to cover the soil, providing the same benefits as mulching. The best cover plant for coffee farms is legume crops. 

Pruning

Just like nipping, pruning is another way to maintain the coffee tree but now on the branch level. Pruning involves cutting off dead, diseased, unproductive, and crowded branches. 

Healthy branches and suckers are also sometimes pruned to reduce competition for nutrients and to improve the quality of beans. When a crowded coffee tree is pruned, fewer farming inputs and pesticides end up being used.

Pruning also improves aeration, and sunlight penetration, and reduces damp conditions, which can encourage the development of pests and diseases. 

Pruning is also done after harvesting to encourage the development of healthier branches the next season. 

The most common coffee pruning tools include a pruning saw, secateurs and bow saw. The pruning tool should be sterilized using spirit or ethanol to prevent infecting and spreading diseases. 

Soil management

Another key coffee farming practice is soil consistent management. This involves testing soil for all the crucial nutrients. If there are deficits, then the soil should be supplemented with the right fertilizer. 

Soil analysis is should be done once a year by testing at least three samples from one hectare before fertilizers are applied

Another way to diagnose nutrient deficiency is by testing the leaves. Leaves are plucked from healthy branches, dried, and sent to the lab for testing. 

Key Nutrients

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium 
  • Zinc
  • Boron
  • Iron
  • Sulphur
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium Copper
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum

Each of these nutrients has specific roles in the growth and development of a coffee tree. For experienced farmers, one can easily diagnose nutrient deficiency by just looking at the tree. 

For instance, nitrogen is responsible for photosynthesis, while phosphorus is responsible for flowering and cherry ripening. 

The different types of fertilizers used in coffee farming include

  • Organic fertilizers such as compost and farmyard manure 
  • Inorganic fertilizers such as NPK, Urea, Phosphate, DAP, and Kali. 

Pest Management

Like with most other cash crops, coffee farmers have to deal with pests and diseases. While some coffee varieties are more susceptible to diseases than others, there is no single variety that is 100% pest-resistant. 

Factors that determine pests and diseases in coffee farms include

  • Genetics
  • Environmental conditions
  • Farming methods

Major coffee pests

1. Coffee Berry Borer 

These are beetles that are found in most coffee-producing countries. They are very hard to manage and control since they hide inside the cherries. These pests affect the quality and production.

2. Coffee Leaf Miner

These are types of moths found in Latin American and African coffee-producing countries that eat coffee leaves.

3. Mealybugs

Mealybugs are insects that attack almost all parts of a coffee tree including roots, leaves, and flowers. 

4. Nematodes

Nematodes are parasites that attack the roots of a coffee tree affecting the absorption of water and nutrients. 

Other common coffee pests include

  • Antesia bugs
  • Lacebugs
  • Leaf skeletonizer
  • Tailed caterpillar 

Major coffee diseases

1. Leaf lust 

Leaf lust is one of the most destructive coffee diseases. The disease is spread by humans, insects, wind, and rain. The disease’s first signs are yellow spots on the underside of leaves. Since this disease affects the leaves, there is lower production and low-quality beans. 

2. Berry disease

The coffee berry disease is common in high-altitude countries such as Uganda and other African countries. This fungus attacks both green and ripening berries. The affected berries become black and cannot be sold. 

Other coffee diseases include

  • Coffee wilt
  • Pink disease
  • Collar crack disease
  • Red blister disease

Harvesting

When cherries start maturing, it’s time to start harvesting the red ripe cherries for processing. To get the best value, only ripe cherries should be harvested. Green cherries should be left to get ripe.  

Harvesting green cherries results in a grassy or woody flavor while over-ripe cherries result in a fruity flavor. For the best quality of beans, beans should be harvested as soon as they are ripe. 

In large coffee farms, strip picking is commonly done. While this harvesting method is faster, unripe and overripe beans end up being picked resulting in poor quality beans. Strip picking also breaks branches and plucks leaves destroying the coffee plant. 

Activities that lead to low-quality beans during harvesting and processing include

  • Harvesting unripe and over-ripe cherries
  • Taking long before pulping the harvested beans
  • Poor pulping method
  • Overfarmeting the beans
  • Poor fermentation method
  • Poor hygiene during processing 
  • Leaving mucilage on the beans
  • Poor hygiene during drying 
  • Poor drying conditions such as too high or uneven temperatures
  • Over-drying or under-drying the beans 
  • Poor storage conditions for the dried beans

Poor processing methods destroy beans, encourage the growth of mold and development of odors, which leads to low-quality beans. 

Beans processing

After harvesting, cherries are processed, dried, graded, and then packaged for sale. Processing involves removing the cherry’s skin, mucilage layer, and pulping.

The mucilage layer is a jelly-like protective layer underneath the skin that contains pectin, cellulose, and starch. The layer is removed because beans with this layer take longer to dry. 

Also, the mucilage layer encourages the development of mold. Care should be taken to make sure the water used in removing the mucilage layer does not end up in water bodies to avoid contamination.

The most common coffee processing methods are wet processing and dry processing. 

Wet processing

Wet wash processing method involves using water to process coffee cherries. There are two wet washing methods, full wash, and semi-washed processing methods.

In the full wash processing method, a pulping machine is used to remove the cherry skin. The pulped beans are then put in water to ferment for one to two days, to remove the mucilage layer. 

The fermented beans are then washed to remove any remaining mucilage layer and then dried for 7 to 10 days under shade. The drying surface should be raised and most importantly clean.  

In semi-wash wet processing, the beans are pulped then the mucilage layer is removed using a mucilage remover. The parchment coffee is then washed and dried. The major difference between this method and full wash is that there is no fermentation.

Semi-wash processing uses less water and there is no risk of over-fermentation. While the farmer has to buy the pulper and demucilager machines, there is no need for a washing system, fermentation tank, and wastewater collection system.

When fermentation, washing, and drying are done correctly, wet processing produces some of the best-tasting coffee beans.

Dry processing

Dry processing involves drying cherries without pulping. Because the cherries have the skin and the mucilage layer, they take longer to dry, between 14 and 30 days. 

After drying the dry beans are then de-pulped. Dry processing or natural processing is common in areas with little or no water for wet processing.

Honey Pulped Natural Processing

Honey processing method is a recent method that is popular in El Salvador and Costa Rica. For this method, the cherries are de-pulped and then spread on beds to dry. During de-pulping, not all of the mucilage layer is removed. 

The appearance of the beans after drying depends on how much mucilage layer was left. The more mucilage layer, the darker and sweeter the beans will be.  

Other coffee processing methods include

  • Carbonic Maceration
  • Giling Basah
  • Anaerobic

The last step after processing and before storage is value addition. Beans are sorted manually or mechanically according to physical attributes such as color, density, and size and grading is done by cupping.  

Storage

After processing and drying, the beans must be stored properly to maintain their quality. Here are a few storage tips

  • Before the beans are bagged they should be cool to avoid introducing moisture as a result of condensation.
  • Beans should be packed in sisal bags.
  • The storage area should be well aerated. 
  • The storage area should have humidity levels of less than 65%. 
  • The bags should be placed on wooden pallets
  • The beans should be kept away from strong-smelling products. 
  • The beans should be stored separately from other farm produce. 
  • The area should be free from pests 

From here, the coffee beans are bought by different exporters and are shipped to different countries. 

Now:

None of the major coffee importers grows coffee. On the other side, coffee-producing nations consume the least amount of coffee. This is probably because coffee is a source of livelihood for most farmers and selling the majority is the only way to get a decent income.

Top 10 coffee importers according to ICO

Country (60-kilo bags)
United States of America 🇺🇸28,371,674
Germany 🇩🇪21,997,537
Italy 🇮🇹10,096,829
France 🇮🇹7,505,512
Japan 🇯🇵7,299,162
Belgium 🇧🇪6,237,492
Spain 🇪🇸6,123,385
Russia 🇷🇺6,750,649
Netherlands 🇳🇱5,117,237
UK 🇬🇧5,116,272
Poland 🇵🇱4,602,904
Switzerland 🇨🇭3,490,858

Do big coffee chains grow coffee?

No, big coffee chains don’t have coffee farms. These companies source their beans from coffee-producing nations. This is probably because they are able to buy coffee at a very low price. 

Starbucks indicates they buy beans from over 30 countries. Starbucks buys about 3% of the total world production.

Starbucks and other major coffee chains have set standards on how their coffee beans should be grown. For instance, Mcdonald’s buys beans from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. Some coffee chains also have farmer’s support programs in regions where they source their beans from.

However, these companies are in the business of making profits and not supporting farmers.

Challenges in coffee farming

The people who have it hard in the coffee chain are the farmers. Here are several challenges facing coffee farming. 

  • Pest and diseases such as the leaf rust and coffee berry borer beetle
  • Climate change leading to lower rainfall and higher temperatures
  • Low coffee prices
  • High labor costs
  • Price fluctuations
  • Lack of financing and technical support 
  • Farmer lacking knowledge and skill
  • Poor infrastructure in coffee growing regions
  • High cost of farming inputs 
  • Because of the low prices some coffee farmers are abandoning coffee

How to support coffee farmers

Here is the thing:

While the coffee industry is estimated to be worth $500 billion dollars, most coffee farmers are still languishing in poverty. Despite the industry being on an upward trend, coffee earnings per farmer have remained constant for the last two decades. 

So how can you support coffee farmers?

  • Support the push for coffee chains to pay farmers more
  • Donate to credible coffee charities that support farmers
  • Buy coffee from local coffee shops that support farmers. 
  • Support small coffee roasters who buy directly from farmers.
  • Visit coffee-producing countries.
  • Buy fair trade coffee

Cost of farming coffee

Now:

Putting a specific figure on how much it costs to grow coffee is hard. This is because there are a lot of variables that change from one location to another and from one farmer to another. 

For instance

  • A farmer who is preparing a previously forested area to farm coffee will spend more on farm preparation. 
  • In a situation where there is an outbreak of a disease the farmer will incur more than other farmers. 
  • An experienced farmer who has the know-how on the best coffee farm management practices will have the advantage of diagnosing pest infestation earlier and controlling them before it’s too late.
  • A farmer who plants the right cover crop and does mulching correctly will incur less in irrigation. 
  • A farmer who has the help of family members in farming may incur less in labor costs
  • Farmers in areas where the government provides subsidized farming inputs will incur less.

In coffee farming, most of the cost is incurred during the first three years before the trees mature. According to Caravela Coffee, this is how much it costs to produce 1lb of coffee in different countries

  • Colombia 🇨🇴 – $1.19
  • Ecuador 🇪🇨 – $1.91
  • Nicaragua 🇳🇮 –$1.05
  • Peru 🇵🇪 – $1.28 
  • Guatemala 🇬🇹 – $1.4
  • El Salvador 🇸🇻 – $1.28

In each of these countries, about 30% of the cost per lb is administrative cost. The dark side is that the cost of producing 1 lb is almost equal to or higher than the price of 1 lb of coffee in some countries. 

According to Fairtrade, they pay their farmers a minimum of $1.4 per pound, which is slightly higher than the market price. 

Starbucks at one time indicated it pays its farmers $1.20 per lb of coffee. However, this is not the amount that the farmer gets since the company does not buy coffee directly from the farmers. 

If $1.20 per lb is what they pay their importing, processing, or exporting partners, then the farmers get even less. That’s why most coffee farmers are barely earning anything.

According to Carto, 33% of coffee farmers worldwide earn less than $100 a year from coffee. Also, out of the 12.5 million coffee farmers, more than 5.5 million farmers live below the poverty line. 

To earn more, farmers are starting to get into specialty coffee farming, which fetches better prices. 

What is Specialty Coffee?

Now:

Specialty coffee refers to coffee that scores the highest grade. It’s a combined effort of all the parties involved in the coffee industry. Specialty coffee is a result of excellent farming, correct processing, grinding, and spot-on brewing.

The journey of achieving specialty coffee starts with the farmer. A farmer can only grow specialty coffee if they understand coffee in and out. Not just how to grow coffee but how their actions impact beans’ quality. The results are perfect-looking beans that earn the highest score of above 80. 

The best areas for growing specialty arabica coffee are areas that have the perfect weather conditions and soil for growing coffee such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, and Panama.

Because of the utmost care and perfection in every stage, specialty coffee cannot be grown commercially or machine harvested. It’s best suited to small-scale farmers who can carefully tend the coffee tree, monitoring every stage to achieve the best beans. 

That’s why specialty coffee is single-sourced from a specific estate or farmer.  

Conclusion

According to the ICO, the coffee market has a deficit of more than 3 million bags, and the figure is expected to go up in the coming years. 

So, if you are planning to get into coffee farming, there is no better time than now. However, coffee farming is a challenging endeavor. First, coffee trees take up to 4 years to mature. 

Secondly, coffee prices are very low yet the cost of production keeps on going up. Luckily, when done properly, there is money to be made. If you are a coffee consumer wanting to understand how your favorite drink is grown, I hope this article has helped appreciate coffee farmers.

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Lana

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