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The Basics of Growing Coffee

While millions of people begin their day with a steaming cup (or cups!) of freshly brewed coffee, the vast majority of us have never given much thought to the long road those beans travel to find their way to our cup. The morning ritual all of us coffee-folk love to perform, whether it be the process of grinding fresh beans in your kitchen and preparing the perfect cup, or quickly stopping into your local coffee shop for “the usual”, ours is just the final phase in a complex scenario that has become a global institution. And at the heart of this scenario are the people who spend their days planting, caring for, and harvesting coffee for the world to enjoy. Every cup of coffee you drink requires 1.4 square feet of land to be cultivated, an area bigger than your average computer screen! In this section we will take a broad look at the process of growing and harvesting the coffee bean.

For the most part, the coffee plant is grown inside the earths’ equatorial zone, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This fact is seemingly due to environmental conditions and not to geographical constraint. The most important conditions necessary for a coffee tree to grow is the presence of a temperate or tropical climate where there is no frost, ample sunshine, and plenty of water. And of course, too much direct sunlight or hydration can have a reverse and detrimental effect upon the trees. Ideally, coffee should be grown in moist, fertile, well-drained soil under a shaded canopy that receives a healthy dose of sunshine each day. The presence of disintegrated volcanic rock with a rich mixture of decomposed mold can have an extremely advantageous affect upon the vitality and prosperity of the tree, though coffee tends to grow well in other types of soils, such as clay or alluvial. Coffee also seems to grow best in high altitudes, though once again this is due to the growing conditions that these altitudes provide and not to a specific altitude preference of the tree itself. Given these rather refined growing qualifications, the equatorial zone is the home to the vast majority of coffee farms in the world, though a few rouge growers are currently attempting to challenge this standard with farms operating outside of the famous “bean belt”.

More than a hundred types of coffee bean exist within the world’s coffee network. The two major species of the botanical genus Coffea, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (known familiarly as robusta), account for most of the coffee consumed around the world. C.arabica and C. robusta, as with all varieties of coffee, vary in terms of bean, roast, and cup.

Arabica beans, which represent around 70% of the worlds coffee market, are typically “washed”, or wet processed, and are generally larger, longer, and flatter than the robustas, with a more delicate, acidic flavor profile. Arabicas contain less caffeine than the robusta variety, and are thought to be more difficult to grow (as they tend to be more susceptible to diseases and the effects of poor soil conditions). Arabicas have a higher production cost (sometimes twice as much as robusta), and command a higher price than robustas. Arabica beans are acknowledged as having an overall better taste than robustas and are generally the variety used exclusively in finer, specialty coffees. They are also used as a flavor compliment to robusta blends. Currently, arabica accounts for about three quarters of the worlds coffee supply.

With a strong resistance to disease, hotter climates, and poor soil conditions, and the ability to withstand heavier tropical rainfalls, unpredictable and scant annual rains; robusta coffee beans tend to be easier to grow. Due to their harsh, bitter flavor profile, however, robusta coffees tend to collect a lower price on the market. These are generally the beans that are used in instant and mass-produced commercial coffees.

Anyone wishing to grow coffee must not only be living in a temperate environment but also be willing to undertake a long-term, labor-intensive commitment to their land and its crops. Coffee is typically grown from seed, and each tree takes on average between 3 to 5 years to bear fruit. Typically, a coffee tree has three main life phases; the growth phase, which lasts about 4 to 7 years: the productivity phase, which can last anywhere from 15 to 25 years, though this may vary widely: and lastly, the final phase in which the tree begins to physiologically decline until its death. Each healthy tree produces approximately 2,000 coffee cherries a year, or about 4,000 coffee beans (a coffee cherry typically contains two coffee beans), which translates to roughly one pound of roasted coffee per healthy tree. These cherries can take from seven to eleven months to ripen, and when ripe will develop into a deep red fruit about the size of a large grape. The impending arrival of the fruit is signaled by the appearance of strikingly beautiful jasmine-scented white flowers, which last only a few days before they die off and give way to clusters of green cherries, which in a few months will be ripe for picking. It is not uncommon to see all the stages of development taking place on a single tree at the same time. This requires the close attention of coffee farmers, as high quality coffee is largely a result of picking the cherry when its at peak ripeness, while allowing other cherries to reach maturity at their own pace.

Picking the cherry is still mostly done by hand, but has seen the encroachment of mechanical harvesters in certain regions which can do the work of 150 field workers, though not nearly as selectively and gently. Harvesting requires a gentle touch as picking the cherries too early or too late can result in off-flavors that come out in the cup, or result in visibly noticeable defects, which may deter a potential customer from buying a crop of green beans. There are generally two main harvests a year, and possibly several secondary harvests depending upon species, location, and growing conditions. Harvesting is such a labor-intensive task that it alone is responsible for roughly one-third of all the manual labor required in coffee production. Once harvested, the coffee beans must be sent to a mill where they can be processed, cleaned, and sorted. Depending on the size of the farm, the coffee may either be taken to a mill on site or may leave the farm entirely to be processed at a different location. Often times with smaller farms, the harvests are bought by intermediaries (commonly working for exporters), who then take the coffee to a mill for processing.

Overall, more than 200 million people grow coffee as a means of economic survival. Most estimates conclude that large coffee plantations make up only 20% of the world supply, with smaller farms (known in the business as smallholdings) accounting for the rest. Typically, a small farm depends solely upon coffee for their economic revenue, and balances this with subsistence farming of a multitude of other crops on the same land.

Due to the overall time, labor, and economic investment of growing coffee for a living, the ever-fluctuating world market, environmental factors that affect crop yields from year to year, and the many other political, social, and economic variables at play within each region and around the world, a commitment to those who grow coffee for a living is needed if we are to assure that the relationship we have with this bean and those who grow it is one that is reciprocal, just, healthy, and sustainable.