The first impression as you enter the Alta Mogiana coffee growing region of Brazil is the remarkable difference in the appearance of the farms. Instead of bushy trees 8ft high and 6ft in diameter with long sinewy type branches reaching out to grab the sun, you see neat, tidy hedgerows of coffee trees seemingly jammed up against each other, separated by 10ft wide boulevards called ‘streets’ – looking more like super tall rows of grape vines than the normal more haphazard look of coffee trees.
For Alta Mogiana farmers, this is what a coffee farm looks like.
To my eye, I’m reminded more of the vineyards of Bourgogne rather than the coffee farms of Kenya.
Traditional coffee agronomy teaches us Arabica trees need to be planted 2m (6ft) clear from each other. This clearance helps the trees grow freely while also allowing air to flow around and sun to reach the trees, discouraging predatory insects and other fungal disease, while also leaving enough space for the farmer and pickers to access the trees as and when required. Generally as I walk through coffee farms I am pointing out and recommending pruning to keep the trees open and to encourage health and more coffee cherry growth (farmers hate to prune trees as it results in the loss of yield from the pruned area for a year, even though it increases yield for the years following pruning).
But here in Alta Mogiana I’m shocked by the trees jammed up next to each other.
The reason for this method of ‘tall hedgerow’ style planting is due to the mechanized “strip picking” method the Brazilians use. The same picking method and equipment as used by the viticulturists of Bourgogne, tall tractors with legs that straddle the rows as spinning ‘brushes’ pull the coffee cherries off the trees into a central hopper as the picker moves along. Super efficient and very effective.
However my knowledge of traditional coffee agronomy was still creating conflicts in my mind in relation to yield performance per tree, especially when only two sides of the tree flower to produce cherries, and the amount of nutrients required to feed the roots of these hungry beasts must be substantial. But this is where the beauty of this method becomes apparent.
Increased Yield per acre performance
A traditionally planted Arabica coffee farm houses 800 trees, each tree yields about 1.2lbs of green coffee creating a total yield of 1,000lbs an acre with a value of between $1,200–$1,800 per acre depending on the fluctuating International Commodity Exchange trading prevailing rates.
In Alta Mogiana, an acre possesses up to 3500 trees, yielding around 0.6lb per tree or 2,100lbs of green coffee per acre for a return of $2,500- $3,780 per acre.
Wow. Double the performance. A life changing difference, especially when you multiply the formula to 140,000 trees, an average size farm here, a revenue difference of $50,000 in a bad year, to $75,000 in a good year.
Shade upon shade
Coffee trees are shade trees, and generally much taller complimentary trees like macadamia, avocado, Australian cedar or banana trees etc; are used to shade the coffee, however when the trees are placed so closely together as they do here, the dense foliage created by the coffee tree leaves provide their own shade over the coffee cherries, effectively replacing the need for shade trees. Genius.
Coffee trees burn up nutrients and conventional farming (non organic) requires a substantial amount of compost/fertilizer to keep the coffee at peak health and production. Normally the fertilizer/compost mixture would be spread in a circle around the spreading branches of traditionally planted farms, creating a constant battle between the trees and the grasses for the nutrients in the top soil, plus requiring a 2m (6ft) circle of expensive mixture to adequately fertilize a single tree. In Alta Mogiana the fertilizer/compost mixture can be applied to the bases of the rows, extending only half a meter into the ‘streets’, reducing the volume of mixture required, ensuring the trees get the maximum benefit from the fertilizer, and speeding up the entire process by enabling it to be carried out almost like marking lines on a tennis court.
Efficient, effective, minimal waste.
Traditional coffee farming in extremely labor intensive, with a constant need for labor year around peaking in the hand picking months. Mechanized picking, and the Alta Mogiana method of coffee farming creates dramatic labor efficiencies. As an example, for a traditionally planted farm to produce the same as the average Alta Mogiana farm of 140,000 trees, it would require double the acreage (88 acres vs 40 acres), and would require a permanent staff of around 30 workers, peaking at 200+ during picking season, versus the 2 year around permanent staff and 8 additional staff in harvest here.
Super labor efficiency.
But.. what about quality? Surely this more ‘factory’ type of coffee farming produces a lower quality, less exciting coffee bean?
Wrong! And this was the most surprising finding of this region. The ease of operation of these farms leaves the farmers type to focus on quality improvement and experimentation with different genotypes in their constant search for high scoring, high yielding coffee varieties. Evidence of this is two of the farms Ascension buys from in this region who finished in the Top 20 of Brazil’s yearly Cup of Excellence competition (2015/2016), an international standard of excellence in coffee quality.
High quality, high efficiency and the never ending search for improvement – perhaps in the end not much separates the rolling hills of Alta Mogiana, Brazil and those of Bourgogne, France.