Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Hand-Picked vs Mechanized Coffee: The Pros & Cons

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Delicious specialty coffee requires excellence at every stage of the supply chain. And that means only coffee beans from the ripest of cherries should make it into the final product.

But there is more than one way to pick coffee cherries. Producers can hand pick cherries or mechanize their harvest, and their choice will impact on the coffee quality, cost of production, environmental, social impact, and more.

SEE ALSO: How Ripe is Too Ripe? A VIDEO Guide to Coffee Cherry Picking

coffee cherriesMundo Novo ripe and unripe coffee cherries from Minas Gerais. Credit: Julio Guevara

What Is Hand Picking?

Hand/manual coffee picking requires laborers to pick the coffees, quite literally, by hand. On some farms, the pickers will harvest all the cherries at one time. Often they will just put their hand around the base of a branch and then pull their hand along it, tugging all the cherries off. This is called strip picking. These farms will typically produce commodity-grade coffee.

On other farms, ones which are targeting the specialty market, they will only pick the ripe cherries. This will ensure sweeter, more complex flavours in the cup as the sugars will have had longer to develop. The pickers will have to do multiple harvests so they can pick the cherries as they ripen. This is called selective picking.

Hand/manual coffee picking is common in most countries, including my home country of El Salvador. However, there are exceptions to this.

coffee cherriesMost of these coffee cherries are ripe, but some are still green. Credit: Amec Velasquez

What Is Mechanized Harvesting?

There are two different machines used for mechanized picking.

Derricadeiras are smaller, handheld machines. They are a long stick with two large vibrating “hands” at the end. Laborers will place plastic or canvas underneath the coffee tree to catch falling cherries. They will then turn on the derricadeira and bring it up to the coffee branches, where the vibrations will shake the cherries loose.

coffee handThe “hands” of a derricadeira. Credit: Julio Guevara

The second option is to use stripping machines. These are much bigger, and are often driven around the farm. This means they can harvest much more coffee in the same time. They have rotating and vibrating rods that knock the cherries loose. A system of plates and pipes then catches them and transfers them to a holding bin.

Stripping machines are time-efficient, but they are not always an option because of farm topography. They can only be used where the land is relatively flat.

Mechanized harvesting is common in Brazil, Hawaii, and large farms. It’s also associated mainly with commodity coffee. However, there are some farms that use it when producing specialty-grade coffee as well.

Earlier this year, I went to the Brazil & Sustainable Coffee Conference in Brazil, where I had the chance to visit Cooxupe coffee cooperative. I also reached out to Ricardo Pereira, Director of Specialty Coffee at Ally Coffee. They shared with me some of the pros and cons of using mechanical harvesters.

coffee harvestCoffee Harvest in Carmo Do Paranaíba, Minas Gerais, Brazil  Credit: São Luiz Estate Coffee

Which Picking Method Is… Best For Quality?

The importance of only using ripe coffee cherries cannot be overstated. Under or over-ripe cherries will add unpleasant notes to the cup, and can even be considered defects. Balance, consistency, and complexity will be reduced. And if a coffee sample has too many defects, it will disqualify that coffee from specialty status.

For this reason, the majority of specialty coffee farmers use selective picking. It’s widely recommended by specialty buyers, because strip manual picking and mechanized picking tend to also harvest under-ripe and over-ripe cherries.

Coffee pickers can also gather information about the coffee tree, such as branch health, leaf health, pest-infested cherries, and early indicators of plant disease or fungi. This knowledge is crucial for monitoring plant health and coffee quality, and regular crop inspections should be made.

Yet this doesn’t mean that with other picking methods you can’t lead to quality. For example, a producer can invest more heavily in post-harvesting quality control. They can use water tanks to separate coffee cherries based on their ripeness levels, or do it manually by hand. Any under-ripe cherries would be discarded rather than left on the branch to ripen later.

Ricardo Pereira also tells me, “[With mechanical harvesting], you can adjust the rates of vibration and speed of the arms in the machine to ensure you just collect the ripest cherries.”

And since the fruit at the top of the tree tends to ripen earlier, another method is to harvest the higher branches first. Then, later on in the season, the lower branches can be harvested.

coffee harvestA coffee picker uses a derricadeira to harvest cherries. Credit: Julio Guevara

…More Productive?

Coffee farmers have to consider productivity as well as quality. And after all, quality and productivity cannot be fully separated: the longer it takes for coffee cherries to be picked, the greater the likelihood of them becoming over-ripe and even falling from the branch.

Mechanization could be considered more productive, since the machines pick the coffee quicker and cover more ground. This is particularly relevant on bigger farms.

On the other hand, it can lead to greater investment of time and effort post-processing, lowering efficiency. It could also result in lower crop yields if under-ripe coffee cherries are discarded post-harvesting.

With selective hand picking, under-ripe cherries do not need to be removed from the harvest during processing (although it’s a good idea to still use water tanks/flotation to remove defective cherries). Additionally, the unripe cherries can be left on the branch to mature and be harvested later, increasing the crop yield.

However, labor shortages could lead to coffee being unpicked and, consequently, lost crops and profits.

coffee cherriesCherries collected by derricadeiras. Credit: Julio Guevara

…More Profitable?

Whether it’s commodity or specialty-grade farming, the costs of harvesting have to be considered against the financial benefits offered by higher quality or productivity.

In Minas Gerais, Brazil, the average harvest-time wage of a coffee picker is R$1540, or approximately US $465, a month (Global Living Wage Coalition, 2016). Additionally, transport and other benefits are provided by the farm owner.

What’s more, Ricardo tells me, “Rural labor is scarce. Nowadays, people want to live in the city, go to college, and avoid working in farms.”

This means that, for Brazil, mechanized picking can be cost-effective – especially given the large size of some of the country’s coffee farms. However, it’s important to also consider the initial cost of the machinery and maintenance costs during its lifespan.

On the other hand, in some producing countries, labor is cheaper and there are more rural laborers. In El Salvador, a coffee picker’s wage is around US $120 per month. This makes hiring coffee pickers much more affordable.

coffee cherriesMost of these coffee cherries are ripe – but not all of them. Credit: Angie Molina Ospina

…More Sustainable?

It’s hard to say which method is more sustainable, especially when there are so many aspects to sustainability. In terms of social sustainability, more jobs are provided on the farm by hand picking. Yet we must consider if these are well paid and whether they offer a good quality of life.

Environmental sustainability is crucial for coffee producers. They will have to face the consequences of damaging farming methods in the future. And while all machinery has an environmental impact, some equipment is better than others. Low carbon emission machines, for example, are available.

Carlos Alberto Paulino da Costa, President of Cooxupé in Brazil, tells me that cooperatives can partner with organizations to improve their environmental practices. His cooperative works with BASF Crop Protection to do so.   

“Sustainability integrates the main demand from the market and society,” he adds. It’s important for coffee producers, and it’s also something a growing number of buyers want to see.

coffee cherriesCoffee cherries on a farm belonging to the Cooxupe cooperative in Minas Gerais. Credit: Julio Guevara

Is One Coffee Picking Method “Better”?

In my opinion, if you ask a producer which method is better, you’re asking the wrong question. You need to ask how available mechanization and affordable laborers are, what their goal is, the farm conditions and topography, and more.

You can make generalizations about coffee quality and costs, but farmers need to look at the overall impact for their business.

Better questions would be: Is this coffee picking method right for you? And are you using it most effectively for your goals, your quality, sustainability, or productivity?

Written by Julio Guevara.

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