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harvesting coffee

Are you informed as to what it takes for a coffee farmer to be sustainable?

Sustainability is a “hot” word right now.  It is used in many different contexts, from development work in the third world all the way to marketing plans for companies who are trying to reach a conscious and informed market.  Have you ever wondered what the phrase “to be sustainable” actually means?  One of the three definitions that the Merriam Webster dictionary gives for sustainable is the ability "to last or continue for a long time”. When we use that word in the context of coffee, essentially we are asking -"does the coffee farm make a profit?"  If the answer is yes, then the farm can remain on the same level or improve but if we answer no, then the farm will not be able to carry on. They would eventually have to stop growing coffee in order to survive.  Coffee farmers grow coffee to feed themselves and their children, to provide medical care for them and provide an education for their children.  Whilst many coffee farmers love coffee, it is not a choice of convenience or taste but rather of survival.

So what actually enables a coffee farm to make a profit and be sustainable?  

The simple equation is...

The price the farmer receives for their beans/cherries minus all the time, energy and capital they spend growing and harvesting the coffee = their profit. 

But then you need to answer the following equation...

Is the profit the needs of the farmer and their family over the period of time in which they took to produce the coffee.  

What makes coffee and other perennial crops (a plant having a life cycle that is more than two years long) unique is they can easily grow it without maintenance and it can continue to be harvested even if the plant or crop is not achieving a healthy and optimum harvest.  In other words, coffee can be grown with very little expense but will produce a fraction of its potential quantity and quality.  

What does this for mean sustainability? What can you do?

    1.    As a farmer: The jump in progress needed for a farmer to become sustainable requires farmers make a conscious effort to develop their farming practices and give coffee the same effort that is usually given an annual cash crop such as corn or other vegetables.

    2.    As an influencer: Companies and organizations focused on improving sustainability will need to address the farmers needs for coffee agronomy knowledge and skills.  New machinery and equipment is helpful but may only aid the farmer improve the quality of their coffee until the machinery is broken or needs to be replaced.

As the coffee quality improves, so should the price.  Reward for hard work is a integral part of any development plan.  Regions in the world where development is hindered usually have strong influences preventing reward for hard work. Such as, conflict zones where hard work is destroyed by war or neglect, secluded rural areas where middle men take advantage, the farmers distance to the market, or knowledge of the market.

And if you're not directly connected to the coffee industry, be a storyteller and advocate for farmers by supporting other coffee companies that sustainably source.

  3.    As a consumer of coffee: It starts by being informed, but the bottom line is you have to be willing to pay a little bit more money for your cup of joe.  Do it as a thank you, to help those that keep you going and add joy to your day.



Harvesting and Understanding SCAA Defects

Coffee....  is a fruit. 

It's easy to forget that when we strip the flesh from it, roast it, grind it and extract liquor from it.  Have you ever tasted the difference between a perfectly ripened peach and one picked too early in order to export it overseas?  The difference is astounding!  The sweet, juicy, crisp peach satisfies your tastebuds like nothing else.   Why would we expect differently from coffee?  Harvesting cherries at the wrong time could be what makes your coffee amazing or what gives you the same indistinct coffee as everyone else.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) “Arabica Green Coffee Defect Handbook,” improper harvesting of coffee cherries influences seven potential defects.

Picking an unripe cherry could potentially give you an immature, broken, chipped, cut, or quaker bean. Picking an overripe cherry could give you either a full or partially sour bean, as well as a full or partially black bean.

Two of the defects listed in the handbook, both “Cherry Pod” and fungus, are potentially created by harvesting cherries from the ground. The remaining five defects potentially develop from picking the cherries from the tree at the wrong time.

Because there is a direct correlation between bean quality and cup quality, it is safe to say that each one of these listed defects above impacts the quality and flavor of the cupped coffee in a negative way. Easily stated, properly picked cherries produce a better quality of coffee as compared to improperly picked cherries.

The SCAA Arabica “Green Coffee Defect Handbook” states the following about cup quality of each of the defects:

  • Immature/Quaker beans generally impart grassy, straw-like or greenish flavors and is the main source of astringency in coffee. (Like eating any other unripe fruit, you will taste more of the structural material of the fruit and not the perfectly developed sugars and acids that people love)

  • Broken/Chipped/Cut beans can cause earthy, dirty, sour, or fermented beans. (This is due to the bacteria growth that takes place in and on the cracks and chips)

  • Dried Cherry/Pods/Fungus bean imperfections can cause fermented, moldy, or phenolic taste. (What a harvester might see as a opportunity not to waste, the barista see's as a road block to a clean cup)

  • Full/Partial Sour and Full/Partial Black bean imperfections can produce sour, fermented, or even a stinker taste. (Allowing coffee cherries, aka the fruit, to over-ripen on the tree has dire consequences to flavor of the cup)

  • Immature beans can be filtered out systematically during the washed method of processing coffee by removing the floaters when the coffee is submersed in water. While this is an effective method, it is not necessarily efficient due to the large amounts of beans that are removed. It is also not extensive in removing all defects. In order to produce a washed coffee efficiently or a high value natural coffee, proper picking remains imperative.

While improving harvesting may be as simple as declaring each bean as either ripe or not ripe, implementing high harvest standards can be very complex due to the fact that all specialty coffee is harvested by manual labor. Thus, improving harvesting requires a highly compensated and well trained work force in order to achieve higher standards. 

Having a good understanding and enough knowledge about the particular variety that is being harvested is crucial for harvesting ripe cherries. Each and every variety has its own color profile at full maturity. Below is a photo that clearly shows the differing colors of different coffee varieties from immaturity to full maturity. 

Additional ways to consider for improving coffee harvesting are:

  • Compensating harvesters based on the quality of cherries that they deliver to the mill. The quality can be measured with a cherry ripeness board in order to establish a sample percentage of their delivery, grading how much is ripe versus unripe.

  • Display color charts in several locations around the coffee farm or receiving bay of the mill, in order to clearly show the color of your coffee varieties ripeness color.

  • Do not mix or interplant different varieties of coffee in the same field.

  • Harvest a particular tree/field more often in order to pick the cherries as they ripen.

  • When harvesting, double check the color of the cherry closest to the stem as it is the last section of the branch to change color.

  • Twist cherries off the stem with ease. If they will not twist off easily, they are not ready to be harvested.

Article written by Zachary Price, Torch Farmer Network Director