There’s far more to producing coffee than just planting the trees and picking the cherries. Even though the harvest period might be just a few months long, producers are busy all year round managing their fields, preparing the soil, experimenting with new strategies, and more.
I reached out to Marlon Del Valle of AGROCAF farm in Huehuetenango, Guatemala and Aiddé Pérez of Finca Alta Luz, also in Huehuetenango, to learn more about their work. Here’s what I discovered.
Coffee plants on AGROCAF farm in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Credit: Marlon del Valle
The Seedbed & Nursery
A producer’s first step is always the preparation of the seedbed and nursery. The seedbed is where seed germination occurs and, in Guatemala, it’s advisable to prepare it between March and April. This is because it’s the dry season, when the risk of plant sickness will be minimal.
You should bear in mind, however, that the best season can also vary depending on altitude (85% of Guatemala’s coffee is high-altitude, according to Anacafé).
1. The Seedbed
At this stage, Marlon and Aiddé tell me that they work on the following:
- The seedbed’s environmental features: moisture, air, and temperature.
- The substrate: it will ideally be washed river sand or soil rich in organic matter, and between 10 and 15 cm deep.
They will then:
- Sow the seeds about 2 cm deep and cover them with plant material.
- After 40 days, begin gradually removing the cover (making sure there is shade between 70 cm and 1 m above the ground).
- After approximately 70 days, the seedling’s first two leaves (the cotyledon leaves or chapolas) will be open, meaning it’s ready to move to the nursery.
The nursery on Farm la Vega in San Pablo, San Marcos, Guatemala. Credit: Ana Villatoro
2. The Nursery
In the nursery, the seedlings can grow strong and healthy until they are ready for planting on the farm. Since this is 70 days after sowing in the seedbed, you can expect this to occur between May and June on high-altitude Guatemalan farms.
According to Marlon and Aiddé, producers should do the following:
- Make sure the nursery has good access to water and is away from potential sources of contamination.
- Use a substrate of 50% black soil and 50% organic fertilizer.
- Leave the substrate exposed to the sun for several days, turning it periodically to reduce the risk of pests and diseases.
- Use polyethylene bags or reusable plastic trays approximately 7 by 10 cm for the seedlings.
- Periodically apply weed control and fertilization methods (organic farming will, of course, require different methods from non-organic farming).
- After 20 days, replant any seedlings that show signs of wilting.
The coffee nursery on Farm Alta Luz in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Credit: Aiddé Pérez
Preparing for The Final Transplanting
After about 6–9 months in the nursery – in Guatemala, this will normally be during the rainy season – the coffee plants can be transplanted to the field. Producers will recognize that they’re ready by the number of leaves: there should be a minimum of six pairs.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for the producers to do in the meantime! They need to prepare the soil (and also manage, harvest, and process their current crop).
When preparing the soil, producers need to pay attention to:
- Location: they need to decide where to plant the seedlings, taking into account the amount of shade, access to the crops, plant layout (rows, triangles, curves…), distance between plants, and more. The coffee variety, terrain, and local climate will determine the exact layout. However, my interviewees emphasise that they want at least 1 m² between trees.
- Shade trees: these can regulate environmental conditions, retain moisture, protect plants against the wind, prevent the development of weeds, and more. Producers need to carefully consider the amount of shade based on the variety, temperature, and hours of sunshine on their farm. They also need to consider which type of shade system they want to use.
- Two to three months in advance of planting, farmers should begin preparing the holes. My interviewees tell me that they usually dig holes that are 30 cm wide, 30 cm long, and 30 cm deep. It’s important that these aren’t dug too far in advance or too late: you want to protect them from erosion.
When it’s time for the transplantation, producers should:
- Select the strongest plants.
- Carefully transport them from the nursery and remove the seedling bag.
- Check that the roots are healthy.
- Make sure that the earth around the trees is well packed and well watered.
Coffee is planted under shade trees on AGROCAF Farm. Credit: Marlon del Valle
Nutrition & Management
A month after farming, producers should begin fertilizing the soil. Before they start, however, they need to prepare the fertilizer and also do a soil test.
Some farmers choose to use organic fertilizer made from compost and coffee pulp; others opt for chemical fertilizers. My interviewees suggest that, with organic fertilizer, producers should use around 12 kg of decomposed pulp per tree.
After the first planting, my interviewees recommend that producers fertilize roughly every four months, depending on their soil condition and local factors. What’s more, they should also make sure to fertilize four months before the harvest.
In addition to soil management, producers should regularly their check trees for signs of illness or pest damage. They should also prune them to keep production levels high and, every few years, stump them.
Chicharros Farm in El Palmar, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Credit: Ana Villatoro
For most producers, the harvest is one of the busiest parts of the crop cycle. The first one will usually take place three to four years after planting. In Guatemala, at high altitudes, this will be between December and March. At lower altitudes, it may start as early as October. (Don’t forget that seedbed preparation also begins in March, which can make this a busy season for producers.)
First of all, producers need to collect the cherries. Many specialty producers pick them by hand using a system called “strip-picking,” in which only the ripe cherries are collected. This ensures better flavors in the final cup. Some producers, however, use mechanical harvesters. Specialty producers who use machinery will normally sort the ripe and unripe cherries after harvesting.
Even if the cherries were hand-picked, they will normally still be sorted for defects after picking. This involves putting the cherries in water and removing any floaters.
Coffee ripens on Finca Alta Luz, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Credit: Aiddé Pérez
Processing, Drying, & Storage
Next, it’s time for processing. There are many processing methods, but the most common ones are wet/washed, dry/natural, honey, and pulped natural. The choice of method will determine the processing and drying time, coffee flavor profile, labor and quality control methods, infrastructure, and more.
According to Anacafé’s Green Book, 98% of Guatemala’s coffee is washed processed. In countries like Brazil, however, naturals and pulped naturals are common. And Costa Rica has become famous for its honeys.
No matter the processing method, the coffee should be dried slowly until it reaches 10–12% moisture content. It can be done in mechanical dryers, but most specialty producers try to do it under the sun, either on patios or raised beds.
After the coffee has been dried, it’s packed in 60–70-kilo bags (or, in large mills in countries like Brazil, in even bigger bags) and left to rest before exporting. During this time, it should be stored in a warehouse with a stable humidity, temperature, and light level.
Female workers cross the patio on Finca Alta Luz. Credit Aiddé Pérez
And while the beans are drying, resting, and being stored, producers have plenty to keep them busy: they’re also tending to their seedlings, pruning their trees, fertilizing the soil, and checking for signs of pests.
Then there’s all the business decisions, marketing choices, sales negotiations, and staff management. Marlon tells me, “When I start a new year, the first thing I think about is improving the production quality and achieving better prices in foreign markets.”
A producer’s year is non-stop. There is always something more to do on the farm. But it’s worth it: as Aiddé’s parents tell me, “What [our job] gives is a treasure.”
Written by Ana Villatoro. All interviews conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.
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