Coffee is grown worldwide, and we can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau, and the well-known story of Kaldi, a shepherd who discovered coffee. Coffee cherries and blossoms grow on small evergreen trees or shrubs. A coffee tree can grow up to 16 feet tall, but most farmers prune them back annually to between 5 and 7 feet, which makes it easier to access and pick the fruit during the coffee cultivation process.
How Is Coffee Grown?
Coffee trees are fairly delicate plants. As they cannot withstand direct sunlight, a natural/artificial canopy is almost always necessary, because even 4 hours of sunlight over a small period can spell doom for the trees. The sunlight causes the trees to dry out. Coffee is mostly planted in the rainy season, as the moist soil allows for holes to be dug easier and roots to spread faster. How to grow coffee from seeds? Coffee saplings are normally grown in greenhouses and are then planted in fields because this method has a higher success rate than sprouting the seeds directly in the field.
The coffee cherries are harvested in two methods, “Strip picking” which is picking all the cherries available without discrimination. While “Selective picking” is the method where red cherries are picked while green ones are left to ripen.
Coffee plants generally start fruiting after year 3 or year 5. They produce flowers that fall off after a small period, which can be as little as a single day. On the petal-less buds are left green cherries which slowly mature over a long period of 9-10 months, until they finally ripen to a crimson or purple color.
The brown coffee beans we see are the processed and roast version of the harvested cherries in these farms, the cherries are picked when ripe and allowed to dry completely around the seed before being husked or hulled off. The 2 most famous species that are farmed are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora. There are other types of coffee beans too. You can read about them here- What Are the 4 Different Types of Coffee Beans?
Advantages and Disadvantages of Growing Coffee
Growing coffee provides other benefits than just capital gain. Coffee farming helps reduce soil erosion, allows for more biodiversity, and is a useful carbon sink while also aiding in watershed management.
The conditions necessary for a coffee tree to grow are the presence of a tropical climate where there is no frost, ample sunshine, and plenty of water. Of course, a certain amount of direct sunlight or hydration can have a reverse and detrimental effect on the trees. Countries with tropical climates are generally the ones cultivating coffee in large amounts, while others use a greenhouse or artificial conditions, however, this method is impractical on a grand scale.
The Coffee cultivation process is arguably a good choice yet most of the time it is unfair to the workers. Trees take a long time to flower and fruit, and even the cherries take almost a year to ripen. During all this, the owner has to make a steady investment in the trees, which gives no profit in return. Workers on these farms make anywhere from 1-3$ daily after working the whole day.
Such small wages do not promote a strong sense of purpose. What it does is show the significance of quantity, which in turn results in most workers bringing their children to work. This is a means of increasing the daily income and yet results in child labor.
Need of Fertilizers in Coffee Production
While coffee trees take many years to fully mature, sprout flower and produce coffee beans, they should grow a few inches within a few months and almost 2 feet after the first year. Unlike the widely used fast-growing crops, coffee grows slowly and takes a long time, which naturally makes people try to speed up the process. What better to do than fertilizers?
While chemical fertilizers indeed promote fast growth, the deforestation, soil erosion, and habitat loss combined with agricultural chemical pollution that follows leaves behind an environment that is lifeless and polluted. In contrast, the use of organic fertilizers encourages sustainability. Farmers using organic fertilizers mimic the natural cycle of growth, death, and decay. These fertilizers promote beneficial insects and a healthier, more resistant crop.
Requirements of Coffee Plants
Coffee plants have a low tolerance for sunlight, and it can prove to be lethal to them if proper precautions aren’t taken. During the coffee cultivation process, there are 3 common ways to deal with this issue. The first is building a slim net/canopy to filter the sunlight. The second is to plant coffee trees in an area where the sun shines for the smallest period and lastly, plant trees that reach a length taller than coffee trees, so they filter the sunlight through their leaves for coffee trees.
The first two options are as basic as they get, while the third seemingly follows the same genre, but that is not true! Planting other species of taller trees, not only filters the sunlight but also provides biodiversity and an unending cost-free organic fertilizer from the fallen leaves.
In general, coffee plants thrive with 60 – 90 inches of annual rainfall. Below 30 inches of rainfall is very problematic and likely to cause low yields of small beans, in addition to compromising the plants’ overall health. When growing coffee trees, the soil needs to stay moist but not soaking wet. Slight humidity is a factor that prevents the plants from drying out due to sunlight. Other than a warm and wet climate, the ph of the soil should be slightly acidic.
Coffee can be grown indoors and both outdoors, in your house, in a greenhouse (under a larger tree, e.g orange tree), and even in a field granted the environment and seasons of that area allow for it. The climatic conditions to grow coffee are related to temperature and rainfall. The plant requires temperatures in the range of 73 °F (23 °C) and 82 °F (28 °C) with rainfall incidence in the range of 60–80 inches (1.5–2.0 m).
A healthy coffee tree produces approximately 2,000 coffee cherries a year, or about 4,000 coffee beans (a coffee cherry typically contains two coffee beans). This allows a rough estimate of 1 pound of roasted coffee for each healthy tree.
Coffee can be grown on many different soil types, but the ideal is fertile red earth.
Problems With Coffee Farming
When growing coffee plants, you should stay away from yellow-brown soil. Avoid heavy clay and other poor-draining soils too, as standing water can cause the roots to rot. Pests are another big problem, as they not only affect the trees but also the taste of the coffee made from the cherries on that tree. In the coffee cultivation process, disease management, water, and nutrient management, labor availability are other major issues with coffee farming.
Should You Grow Coffee Beans at Home?
The coffee harvest procedure is fairly simple at home, just avoid sunlight and give decent water, but it’s during the farming the real problems occur. When it is time for harvest or plucking the seeds from your house plant, the biggest disappointment is working so hard to get such a small amount of beans in return.
From a business point of view, coffee can be a huge risk on a grand scale, the wait is long for trees to grow. The tree takes about 3 years to mature before it can produce fruits. A single crop of coffee beans takes about 9 months to be ready to harvest. After three years of wait, if even one coffee plant wilts, or dies, the farmer loses not only the potential yield but also the time and capital they have invested in the plant for the past 3 years.