Choosing between a centralized or in-farm mill (or beneficio) is a major decision for coffee producers: it affects incomes, productivity, quality, workload, and more. But what actually are the differences between these two types of mills?
I spoke to Melissa Agudelo, Commercial Specialist at delosAndes Cooperativa, Colombia, to find out. In Colombia, most coffee farms are small by Latin American standards – just 5% of them are larger than 5 hectares. This influences producers’ decision to choose in-farm or centralized mills. Yet the points Melissa explains are relevant for mills and farmers everywhere.
Coffee is processed in large quantities at Cuatro M Cafes’ centralized mill. Credit: Cuatro M Cafes.
What Is a Mill?
The mill is where coffee cherries become green coffee beans. The cherries’ pulp is first removed and then the resulting seeds are dried to between 10-12%. This makes milling a critical stage in producing coffee, and can have a strong impact on the final quality and flavor of the beans.
There are many different methods for milling coffee: dry/natural, wet/washed, honey (and all the variations within that), pulped natural… and, of course, more experimental methods also exist. All of these are complex, multi-stage processes.
Centralized mills are independent of the farmers, who can bring their their cherries and be paid immediately. These types of mills may or may not belong to a cooperative. They operate on an industrial scale, with efficiency key to success.
On the other hand, you will also find small mills linked to particular farms. In these, it’s often one family responsible for every stage of processing, from pulping to drying. You could consider these more traditional mills.
But what impact does mill choice have on the producer?
A worker classifies coffee cherries by density and quality. Credit: Cartel Roasters
Why Do We Have 2 Milling Systems?
Traditional mills allow the producer to have more control over their coffee. This can be particularly useful for producers who have certain goals. For example, in 2014, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) gave advice to around 491 coffee farmers on organic farming and processing.
Angie Molina Ospina of Finca el Triunfo in Tolima, Colombia, tells me that “having an-farm wet mill helps producers to better control the quality of their processes, to define which processing method will be most suitable for their coffee, to experiment with processing and make improvements, and deliver traceability to a specific buyer.”
Many specialty buyers care about sustainability and transparency. As of such, they are interested in the work that goes into cultivating, harvesting, and processing the coffee.
Coffee beans drying on raised beds on a producer’s farm. Credit: De La Finca Coffee Importers
Melissa, however, tells me that industrialized mills can provides answers to a shortage of labor force and environmental contamination. She also believes they offer producers several benefits.
Let’s take a look at the different benefits centralized and traditional mills offer in more detail.
Bags of coffee cherries ready for transporting to a centralized mill. Credit: delosAndes Café
Melissa gives me Farallones mill in Antioquia, Colombia as an example of a modern, industrialized mill. It can process 3,750,000 kilos of coffee a year – a total of 62,500 60-kilo bags.
Working at such a large scale requires strong systems. At Farallones, quality control begins as soon as the coffee cherries arrive at the mill, with a sample immediately analyzed. Based on this, the price per kilo is decided and the farmer paid. Next, the coffee coffee is classified by density and quality – something that will help to standardize the final products.
After all this, processing can begin: the pulp is removed through fermentation and washing. Farallones then uses mechanical dryers for a total of 30 hours. At this point in time, the beans are still in parchment. They are then hulled, resulting in green beans ready for bagging, transporting, and roasting.
In-farm mills, on the other hand, work with much smaller quantities. According to Cenicafe, in Colombia they produce on average 300 arroba, or 3,750 kilos, of parchment coffee.
The good thing about these small mills is that they offer great traceability. Centralized mills can offer this as well – providing they have good systems.
A traditional mill: a manual depulper and a processing tank. Credit: Direct Origin Trading
2. The Environmental Impact
Melissa tells me that industrialized mills can result in a more efficient use of water. She tells me that Farallones uses 3–30 liters less per kilogram of parchment coffee – which, when they produce 3,750,000 bags of coffee a year, adds up to a lot. The mill then takes the time to clean the water it’s used so as to avoid contaminating local waterways.
Small mills can also take measures to use less water, of course – with the cost varying along with the efficacy of each option. For example, Cenicafé have developed a system called BECOLSUB, which they claim can reduce water usage by 95%. (Read more tips on how to avoid water pollution here.)
Coffee cherries dry under the sun at Cuatro M Café’s centralized mill. Credit: Cuatro M Cafés
3. Producer Incomes
Centralized or in-farm mills: which is better financially for producers? It really depends on the context.
Farallones works with over 650 farms. From the moment the farmers finish transporting their bags of cherries to the mill, the cash flow begins. “Their cash flow is faster and more convenient,” Melissa says.
Melissa also argues that, due to increased efficiency in industrialized mills, using a centralized mill might actually be more profitable for producers. Farmers can reduce their costs as well as their risks.
Farmers attend a presentation in Farallones Mill. Credit: realtape
On the other hand, in-farm milling can allow farmers to add value to their coffee. By focusing on quality, producers can appeal to buyers looking for direct trade. This will require an investment of time, labor, and money, and the farmer will need to find ways to attract buyers. It can also mean a longer wait for payment. However, farmers who grow other crops should find they have a steadier cashflow as a result.
Natural coffees drying on a farmer-owned mill. Credit: Sorasak, Jaisooksern Coffee farm
4. The Farming Community
Melissa argues that the time saved by using a centralized mill is more than a financial saving: it also allows for an improved quality of life. Farmers will have more free time to spend with their families and on enjoying their life.
“Coffee farmers love the system… they ask for more mills. Farmers say that their lives have enormously improved,” she tells me.
She also argue that it provides a social experience for farmers, bringing them together. When they take their cherries to the mill, they meet other farmers from the area and can talk to them while they wait for payment. At Farallones, she tells me, “There is a little place where they can get something to eat and grab a coffee… It’s the perfect excuse to get together with everyone.”
So what about farmer-owned mills? It’s true that processing coffee as well as producing it is an investment of time and labor. If farmers don’t want to take on the extra workload, they will have to hire staff.
As for meeting other farmers, generally speaking coffee producers make connections among their family and neighbours – many of whom are also farmers. Social media is also another way to meet nearby producers.
Two farmers drink coffee together while waiting at a mill. Credit:Direct Origin Trading
So what’s best: a centralized mill or an in-farm one? Both offer the potential for quality coffee, and both – depending on farm management practices – offer the opportunity for good producer incomes. When choosing between the two systems, it comes down to the producer, the producer’s farm, and what the producer wants.
Written by Alejandra Muñoz. All interviews translated from Spanish to English by Alejandra Muñoz. Feature photo credit: Sicafe Coffee
Please note: delosAndes Cooperativa is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind and was consulted in the creation of this article. They have received a courtesy copy of the article prior to publication but have exerted no editorial control over the final copy.
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