Want a low investment, high return way to improve coffee quality? Consider building raised beds.
Also called African drying beds, they keep the cherries off the ground and allow air to circulate more easily. The end result: clean cherries that dry evenly, creating a more consistent coffee. Now that’s not to say that you can’t get good-quality coffee without doing this – but it will take more work.
There are different ways to build raised beds, but here’s the tried-and-tested method I use on my farm in Panama.
Spanish Version: Procesamiento del Café: Cómo Construir Camas Africanas
Keith, Humberto and Manolo build frames on beds at Damarli Estate. Credit: David Pech
Choosing a Location
Before you can start building, you need to decide where you want your beds to go. This will depend on your land, so you may find that you don’t have much flexibility. However, try to select somewhere with:
- Good sun during the day – a field would be ideal
- Good air movement – a high but gently sloping hillside would be ideal
- Good access, so that it’s easy to move coffee in and out
- No sitting water
- No strong odors, i.e. away from restrooms and livestock
Materials and Tools
First of all, there are several different ways to build a raised bed. Secondly, different materials can be used depending on what’s available. However, the following are a good guideline.
- 2×4 wood (posts)
- 2×2 wood (frame)
- 1×4 wood (side rails)
- Chicken wire
- Metal wire
- Nails or screws
- Fence staples
- Black/dark plastic netting
- Wood sealer
- 5 gallon/22 litre buckets
- Nail hammer/screwdriver
- Spirit level
- Leveling string
- Post hole digger
- Rubber mallet
- Scissors (pruning scissors will do)
- Wood saw
When purchasing the materials, make sure to calculate correctly for each bed. Many items, such as chicken wire and plastic netting, come in specific lengths. Remember to keep these in mind when designing the size of your beds.
First, mark where the posts for the beds will go. On our first beds, we spaced each supporting post 4’/1.22 m apart for a total length of 40’/12.20 m. Each bed was also 4’/1.22 m wide. However, additional support posts can be added in between to strengthen the structure.
2. Digging and Preparing Posts
Once the postholes have been marked, digging can begin. Each hole should be at least 1’6”/46 cm deep.
It’s also important to prepare the posts. They’ll need to be soaked in diesel or another chemical for 24 hours; this will make sure they don’t rot and aren’t eaten by insects. To do this, pour the chemical into 5 gallon/22 litre buckets and putting the pieces into them. In addition, paint all the posts with a wood sealant so that they endure the weather.
SEE ALSO: Exploring Processing Methods on an 8-Times COE-Winning Farm
Now that you have prepared the parts, you’re ready to begin building your raised beds.
1. Post Installation
Posts need to be hammered in with a mallet and leveled using a string and spirit level. The string should be attached to the first and last post with good tension. Then the first and last posts should be adjusted until they are level at a height slightly above waist level. Once this has been done, other posts can be adjusted according to the string, leaving all posts level. Note, however, that if you’re building the beds on a slight slope you’ll likely need to cut the different posts to length or dig deeper holes.
2. Building the Frame
Once all the posts are in and level, it’s time to build the frame. Begin by cutting the 2×2 pieces of wood so that they meet on top of the posts. Once they’re cut to the correct length, they can then be nailed to make the surrounding frame of the drying bed.
Humberto and Manolo from Damarli Estate install side rails on raised beds.
3. Metal Wire and Chicken Wire
Now it’s time to put in the metal wire. This acts as an extra support for the weight of the beds. The wires should be evenly spread, with one every foot or so, and cut to length. Install them by hammering the fence staples in, and make sure they’re taut on each end.
Once the metal wire has been attached, you can install the chicken wire. It should be rolled out and placed on top of the metal wire. Again, use fence staples to make sure it’s held firmly in place: just stretch it taut across the bed and then hammer the fence staples in. Finally, cut the rest of the chicken wire from the sides to keep it all looking clean.
4. Side Rails
The side rails ensure that the coffee doesn’t fall off the bed during the drying process. Use the 1×4 wood and hammer or screw it to along the frame.
Raised beds ready for use at Damarli Estate.
5. Mesh and Tarps
Finally, cut the black or dark plastic mesh to size and lay it on top of the beds to ensure that it fits properly. When the beds aren’t being used, it’s best to fold the mesh and keep it in storage.
Oh, and if there’s a risk of rain while you’re drying the coffee, it’s best to have tarps ready so you can cover the beds in the evenings.
And now you have a series of raised beds, ready to produce specialty-grade coffee in the next harvest season.
The hours spent building raised beds, and the money spent buying the materials, are an investment. What’s more, they’re a small investment for a large return.
These beds will help keep coffee clean while also drying it evenly. They’re associated with higher-quality coffees, which all benefit from – producers and consumers alike.
Written by K. Pech, a Panamanian Producer, Damarli Estate Manager, and Arabica Q-Grader. All photo credit: K. Pech.
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