Whether you are a coffee novice or a coffee enthusiast – or maybe you’re even someone wanting to get into the coffee business – there is a lot that goes into coffee farming. But, before we dive into that, let’s start with the basics.
First, there are actually two main types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. These two types of beans are used to create an almost endless amount of coffee blends, specialty coffees, and espresso.
Additionally, there are several different types of coffee bean farms. Each coffee farm has different methods of planting and harvesting. Though using big machines is the typical go-to for planting and harvesting different crops around the world, they are not widely used for farming coffee.
Needless to say, there is quite a bit that goes into farming coffee. We are here to give you some more detail about coffee farming and production, so that the next time you’re enjoying your favorite cup of java, you can have a better understanding of how it came to be in your cup! Let’s dive into some of the specifics that go into planting, harvesting, and distributing the over 400 billion cups of coffee that are consumed each year.
The Two Main Species of The Coffee Plant
As I’m sure you can tell by visiting your local grocery store or market, there are an endless amount of coffee blends. However, you may be surprised to find out that the wide variety of options all come from only two different species of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta.
Out of an estimated 100 unique species of coffee plants, these two are the only ones that are relevant as far as the commercial coffee industry is concerned.
Arabica Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Varieties: Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Mundo Novo, Tico, San Ramon, Jamaican Blue Mountain
First, let’s cover Arabica coffee. Arabica coffee is also known as the “Arabian coffee”, “coffee shrub of Arabia”, “mountain coffee” or “arabica coffee”. This plant, which originated in Ethiopia, is the most popular across the world. It actually accounts for as much as 75% to 80% of the world’s coffee production and consumption. The majority of the coffees found in grocery stores and coffee shops is from the coffea arabica species.
The beans of Coffea arabica are flatter, longer, and lower in caffeine compared to the beans of Coffea canephora (which we will cover next). This plant was originally cultivated to be eaten and was not brewed until it started arriving in Arabia. This is where the coffee gets its name!
Arabica tends to be more expensive than Robusta, mainly because it is more costly to grow. This species is very picky when it comes to its environment and where it thrives. For example, the temperature has to be just right… between 59 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Optimal altitude for the trees to grow changes depending on how close they are to the equator, but generally the higher quality Arabicas are grown between 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.
The trees of Coffea arabica result in a fine, mild, and fragrant cup of coffee. It is commonly known for having a subtly sweet taste, due to having hints of nuts, chocolate, or caramel flavors. Some varieties even have a fruity taste to them!
Robusta Coffee (Coffea canephora)
So, now onto Robusta… the second most popular species of coffee. These coffee beans come from the Coffea canephora plant. Unlike Arabica, Robusta is the only main variety of this species of coffee. Robusta is mainly grown in Central and Western Africa, but is also found in parts of Southeast Asia and Brazil.
The Robusta tree is easier and cheaper to cultivate, due to its resistance to disease and parasites. Robusta coffee is also able to withstand warmer temperatures, and it is able to grow at far lower altitudes compared to Arabica coffee.
Compared to arabica, robusta beans are generally rounder and smaller, and are known to have a much more earthy flavor. Robusta can sometimes be described as bitter, as opposed to the sweeter notes of the arabica plant. The trade-off here, however, is that Robusta produces a coffee that has about 50-60% more caffeine!
Although production has increased, Robusta only amounts to around 20-25% of the world’s market. This is probably because it is primarily used for instant coffee, which has a poor reputation in the U.S. Instant coffee accounts for barely 10% of all retail brewed coffee by volume in North America.
Robusta is sometimes also found in espresso coffee blends. In our opinion, espresso is the best way to experience this species of coffee at home. Unless you enjoy instant coffee, that is!
Types of Coffee Bean Farms
The majority of the world’s population drinks coffee in some way, shape, or form everyday. In fact, a recent study reported that in the U.S. alone, as much as 83% of all adults are consumers of coffee. From your cup made at home with your drip coffee maker, to the fancy drinks found at your local coffee shop… we drink a lot of coffee!
With this kind of popularity, some of you have to be wondering, where does coffee come from? So, let’s get into our notes about coffee farming and the potential impacts of coffee production on the world.
Organic Coffee Bean Farms
Organic coffee farms are exactly that what they sound like. They grow coffee without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or other chemicals that are intended to boost farming yields. They can, however, use organic fertilizers such as coffee pulp, chicken manure, or compost.
Most organic coffee is also shade-grown. This is because the shade-trees filter out carbon dioxide and help with soil moisture retention, eradicating the need for most synthetic fertilizers.
Not only does this result in cleaner beans, but also decreases the environmental impact.
In order for a coffee farm to be considered organic, it must satisfy a few requirements:
- Most importantly, the soil has been chemical-free for a minimum of three years before the harvest of the crop.
- There also must be a buffer between the organic farm and the nearest conventional crop, seeing as their use of synthetic fertilizers may contaminate the organic crop.
- Farms should have natural applications or rotate the crop, to control for erosion, pests, and weeds.
So, what are the benefits of organic farming? Besides the aforementioned fact about decreasing environmental impact, the fertile soil allows the coffee cherries to ripen more quickly. Not to mention, they ripen naturally — no help from synthetic fertilizers!
Organic coffee farming practices also result in healthier plants. Coffee from organic farms tends to be richer in antioxidants (due to the high organic content in the soil) compared to conventional farms, making it the healthier choice.
As far as the chemicals, however, most experts say that they are removed during the roasting process. Therefore, the main benefit of choosing organic coffee is supporting the health of the environment.
Small Family Owned Coffee Bean Farms
Although they might be referred to as “small farms”, this is where the majority of coffee comes from! An estimated 25 million independent coffee bean farmers produce about 80 percent of all coffee grown.
Small farms are most often owned by one family, but occasionally can be owned by a group of people. They can either operate independently, or be a part of a co-operative formed by local farmers, pickers, and mill operators.
Cooperatively grown coffee is hand-picked and combines the output of all farmers involved. All beans are processed at the same processing facility, managed by a single overseer.
Small farms operating independently, generally do not have their own processing facilities, and sell single origin coffee (meaning that the beans originate and reflect characteristics from a single region within a country).
Consider these farmers a necessity for you, and everybody else, if you want to keep drinking your cup of joe every morning!
High Production Coffee Bean Farms
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the farms that are considered commercial farms due to their high production rates.
Most commonly found in Mexico and Vietnam, these farms make up the other ~20 percent of coffee production.
Ideal Coffee Growing Climate
Like any crop, the coffee plant has its preferences as far as climate and environment goes. Let’s cover what conditions the coffee plant best thrives in.
The coffee plant prefers its soil to have a specific texture and acidity level.
When it comes to texture – the tree best thrives in a loamy soil, meaning a soil that has a balance of sand, silt, and clay.
The acidity of the soil can also have an impact on the plant. Why? Well, the pH of the soil determines how well the plant can absorb the surrounding nutrients – nutrients that are essential to the tree’s survival.
Nutrients + Minerals
There are a total of 16 elements and minerals that are needed in order for coffee plants to get the proper nutrition. We split them into four categories based on their importance to the plant’s survival.
Essentials: Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen are found in the water and air around the plant, the rest of the elements are delivered to the plant from its roots.
Macronutrients: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium are known as macronutrients. Plants need an adequate amount of each in order to thrive.
Secondary Elements: Calcium, Magnesium, and Sulphur are considered secondary elements because plants do not need quite as much compared to macronutrients.
Microelements: Zinc, Boron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Iron, Copper, and Chlorine are the least impactful elements when it comes to the plant’s survival, though, they are still necessary for a healthy and fruitful plant.
Traditionally, coffee plants are not grown in direct sunlight, but rather, under a canopy of trees. As mentioned under Organic Coffee Bean Farms, this is because shade grown coffee does not need synthetic fertilizers or pesticides to thrive. The shade-trees filter out carbon dioxide and help with moisture retention in the soil.
Coffee farmers are able to sun-grown coffee as well, however. This obviously removes the natural barrier the shade-trees provide, and increases the need for chemical pesticides to prevent pests and disease.
Sun-grown coffee is able to be planted at a much higher densities, which is commonly the reason coffee farmers default to this production method.
Coffee Production Process
The coffee you enjoy each day has a long journey before it ends up in your cup. What actually goes on between the time they are planted, harvested, and sent off for purchase? Let’s dive in.
Planting the Coffee Trees
When it comes to finding land for coffee farms, it usually involves clearing a plot of forest. This, however, will differ depending on whether the coffee is going to be sun-grown or shade-grown.
Once ready, the plants are placed in rows with each acre having anywhere between 500 and 700 plants.
Young plants, such as seedlings or cuttings, are raised in nurseries until they are ready for planting, which happens at the start of rainy seasons.
How Long Does it Take Coffee Plants to Mature?
Once a coffee plant is placed in the soil, it takes a while for it to actually start producing fruit. This occurs anywhere between 3 and 4 years.
The most care they require is trimming, which balances their framework and stimulates their fruiting.
When it comes to the amount of time between blooming and maturing, it varies with the type of plant and the climate they are being grown in.
Arabica usually takes about 7 months to mature after blooming, while Robusta often takes 9 months.
Harvesting the Coffee Cherries
When it comes time to harvest, how it is done depends on where it is grown.
In the mountainous areas, which is where the plants are often grown, the farmers are restricted to picking the cherries by hand. This is common for shade-grown coffee.
In flatter lands where the fields are large enough, farmers can use machines to pick the coffee cherries. This is common for sun-grown coffee.
There are also two different ways to pick the cherries: strip picking and selective picking.
Cherries are considered strip picked when they are all picked off a tree at once. This can be done either by machine or manually by hand.
Selectively picking cherries means that someone goes out and only picks the ripened cherries rather than all of them. This can only be done by hand.
Selective picking requires that the plants are checked about every 10 days. This method is more expensive and difficult to do. You will find this method most commonly practiced for higher end Arabica plants.
How Are Coffee Beans Dried?
Once the beans are harvested, they are laid out to dry. This is done by spreading the beans out and letting them sit in the sun. The beans remain at this stage in the process for about 2 weeks, while being intermittently turned and repositioned.
How Much Coffee is Produced Per Acre?
On average, a coffee tree will produce about 1 ½ pounds of coffee in a year, with 1 acre usually holding between 500 and 700 plants. This means that an acre can produce between 750 and 1,050 pounds of coffee.
Keep in mind, this estimate depends on where they are grown and the method in which they are harvested.
Top 5 Countries That Produce The Most Coffee
Coffee is grown in 80 countries throughout the world. But, which countries are most responsible for supplying the world’s most loved drink? Here are the top 5 coffee producing countries in the world.
Brazil is the largest exporter of coffee in the world. In fact, the coffee market has become very important to the development of the country.
It was originally brought to Brazil by the French in the 18th century. By the 1840s, Brazil became the largest producer and since then, has maintained the top seat. There are close to 300,000 coffee farms throughout the country.
Between 2019 and 2020, Brazil was expected to produce 58 million bags of coffee beans, each weighing 60 kilograms. Talk about a lot of coffee!
Though Vietnam did not enter the coffee market until the 1980s, it holds the spot as the second largest coffee-producing nation.
Much of Vietnam’s success in the market is due to the fact that their production increased by 20% – 30% between 1995 and 1999. They started focusing more on the inexpensive Robusta species.
By marketing it internationally, Vietnam became the top producer in the world of Robusta. For the 2019 and 2020 year, Vietnam was expected to farm 32 million bags of coffee.
Though Colombia may be the most famous nation for producing coffee, it actually holds third place.
In 2008, a disease known as coffee rust, plagued the coffee crops of Colombia. Coffee rust is caused by a fungus, Hemileia Vastatrix, that results in the de-coloration and loss of leaves, and the loss of a tree’s ability to produce beans.
However, Columbia has since been able to bounce back production by replacing the plants with a rust-resistant Arabica hybrid species.
With millions of people preferring the more balanced flavor of Arabica, the country is actually the second largest in production for this species of plant. Columbia is expected to produce 14 million bags of coffee for the year.
Mostly due to its climate, Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coffee-producing country.
Small, independent farms account for the vast majority of coffee output in Indonesia. They were projected to export 10.7 million, 60-kilogram bags in the 2019-2020 year.
Indonesia is the third largest exporter of Robusta, though they do grow Arabica as well. They are also known for producing certain specialty coffees.
One example is Kopi Luwak, which is known for having a distinctive and unique taste. The harvesting process of the beans is more labor intensive, making the coffee one of the most expensive in the world.
In 2018 and 2019, Ethiopia became the fifth largest coffee producer and exporter. They lost the position to Honduras in 2016 and 2017.
The country is the largest producer in Africa and they are projected to produce a record 7 million+ bags of coffee for the 2019 and 2020 year.
What is Fair Trade Certified Coffee?
Fair trade is a network of producers, companies, organizations, and others that helps farmers, workers, and others by making sure they get the best deal for their crops and materials. They also make sure that the workers involved with cooperatively grown farms are paid and treated fairly.
By choosing a Fair Trade Certified product, you can be sure that you are helping farmers and workers earn their living. You are also helping to protect the environment.
Fair Trade is the only model that guarantees coffees are priced at a specific minimum. This in turn helps producers stay in the market.
As we warned you earlier, there is quite a bit that goes into getting coffee beans from the farm to your cup. But, we hope that our notes on coffee farming gave you everything you need to understand where your coffee comes from!
So, whether you get your next cup from your local coffee shop or brew it yourself, hopefully you will have a greater appreciation for the delicious drink we all love.
And remember… if you want to ensure that you are supporting the environment, coffee farmers, and the surrounding community, look for the Fair Trade Certified stamp of approval on your coffee. Or, even better, buy organic!