Organic Coffee Farming - Behind the Scenes

On a recent trip to the Selva Negra Coffee Plantation in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua, we had the opportunity of learning just how much work goes into producing organic coffee. You should have an even greater appreciation for your morning brew after learning along with us.

It all starts with the bean...

Coffee beans are the pit of a cherry and only the best cherries are selected when looking for which beans to use for planting. As the seedling grows, the bean first comes out of the ground and then falls off as the initial leaf emerges. Just as important as the bean is the soil in which it is planted. At Selva Negra, worms are used to compost the cherry pulp and the resulting rich soil is needed to create healthy plants (more on the composting process later).

The best and healthiest seedlings are then transferred to small pots and allowed to grow in the protective environment of a greenhouse. The shape of the pot is very important to allow the roots to develop in the proper direction that later allows them to thrive when planted in the fields.

When roots begin to emerge out the bottom of these conical pots, the seedlings are ready to be transplanted. Each year, 10% of Selva Negra's plants are removed and replaced to ensure a healthy crop long into the future.

In the field, a producing plant will be between 5 and 6 feet high and is pruned regularly to encourage healthy growth and optimal yields. It takes young seedlings 2 years to reach this height and to produce fruit. Mature plants at Selva Negra can be used for 20-30 years, but are cut down to a stump every 5 years and allowed to regrow from the bottom up.

These cut plants also take a full two years to produce again. Many smaller farmers do not do a complete pruning like this as the size of their crops is too small to take plants out of commission for such a long time.

 

Pest management is an extremely important part of any coffee farm, but is especially challenging on an organic one. Here, a pop bottle is re-purposed to deal with the pesky Broca bug that eats holes in the leaves and when cherries are present, bores in and lays its eggs in the developing bean. The bottle is painted red to mimic the cherry colour, filled with water and coffee matter and a squeeze bottle of alcohol carries the scent to attract the bugs which drown before damaging the plants.

 

 

The more familiar stages of growth continue until harvest time...

 

 

 

 

 

Harvest Season...

During harvest, many workers (at Selva Negra, 700+ come from throughout Nicaragua to stay for the 4 month season) go over every plant multiple times in order to pick only the red cherries as they ripen. Organic growing means that the fruit will ripen in its own time and is not forced chemically to be ready all at the same time. As a result, only manual picking will do.

These workers are given full room and board and the money they make for picking goes directly to support their families. Workers at Selva Negra get the equivalent of $1.25 USD for each of the wooden boxes they fill (see picture to right). On average, they can fill 4-5 in a day. This $6-7 may seem like peanuts to us but makes a tremendous difference for their families.

 

Wet Processing...

Once a full truckload of cherries has been harvested, it is taken to the on-site wet processing facility. Water is used to convey the red cherries from the holding tank through tracks into the de-pulping machine. This is a complicated piece of machinery that removes the red cherry from the bean and then uses a rotating drum to remove any beans that do not meet size standards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The coffee beans are then placed into vats of water where they are allowed to ferment for 15-18 hours (more for some other coffee origins). Any beans that are floating (probably due to a hollow inside caused by the Broca beetle) are removed from the vat. After that time, workers manually agitate the beans with shovels to remove a sticky sweet mucilage that still coats the bean. They are then released into one last passageway for a high intensity washing to remove any remaining impurities.

Dry Processing...

Washed beans (called parchment coffee for the hard skin that still surrounds the bean) are then manually loaded into sacks and driven down the mountain where the dryer and warmer climate allows the beans to dry. They are spread out on large concrete patios and turned over several times a day to allow the sun to do its work. The optimal humidity level is 12% and it can take as much as three weeks of drying to achieve it. Beans are taken in each night and put back out for day.

 

Waste Management...

Finally, the parchment coffee is de-hulled by a machine that removes the hard outer skin. Substandard beans are removed and it is then ready to be graded, bagged and prepared for export.There are many by-products of coffee processing and the beauty of using organic methods is that there are extremely effective methods of putting that so-called 'waste' to good use. Selva Negra employs many of these methods.

The organic laboratory at Selva Negra is used to test and produce organic products that will be used in the processing of the coffee and usage of the waste products. One such product is an organic substance that uses fermented plant matter to partially decompose the red cherry pulp. This increases the pH level so that the worms which turn the pulp back into soil are not harmed by the acidity of the coffee. The worm castings are combined with ground egg shells and bone meal to produce the calcium rich soil needed to grow new seedlings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The water used in the washing can also be a problem as it becomes very acidic and full of particulate matter through the cleaning process. However, even that is put to good use.

At Selva Negra, large underground holding tanks receive the dirtied water and are combined with organic matter that reacts with the waste creating methane gas. This gas is captured and used to power the stoves in the worker's quarters during coffee harvest season. The resulting filtered water is sent to holding ponds where it provides habitat for many creatures and plants. Off season, a similar, but adapted process is employed with animal waste and provides an ongoing fuel source for the farm.

Roya Coffee Fungus...

Even at a farm where so many methods are employed to maximize plant health, sometimes something comes along that, as yet, cannot be beaten. Throughout Central America, coffee plants are being attacked by a fungus called Roya (seen in picture to left). So far, nothing has been discovered to combat this problem and the only solution is to completely remove affected plants and plant new ones. For a farm like Selva Negra where much forethought and preparation is applied to long term sustainability, this can relatively easily be done with only short-term lower yields. For smaller farmers, this can be devastating. Perhaps, the organic laboratory on this very farm will be the one to discover a solution.

Advice to live by...

Eddy Kühl, the passionate Nicaraguan who has devoted his lifetime to developing the farm and methods used at Selva Negra, asked us to pass on the following advice to the other coffee farmers we meet in our travels: look after your plants, don't cut down your trees and take care of your wives and children - sounds like advice we should all follow.