Coffee is one of the most important cash crops, known best for its delicious taste. Carefully roasted beans are manufactured to produce popular beverages that are consumed worldwide. Coffee beans are grown along the Equatorial zone called “The Bean Belt”, in over 70 countries. World coffee production is estimated to have produced 155 million 60-kilogram bags, with that figure rising annually. Over 50 percent of total production comes from just four countries, including Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia and Indonesia.

There are many different coffee varieties, with two types most commonly farmed; Robusta and Arabica. Arabica is known to be of superb grain quality. Robusta, on the other hand, is known to be of a lower grain quality but it is much easier to produce and more resistant to diseases. The world map below shows areas in which Robusta and Arabica are grown, as well as areas of mixed production.

Approximately 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee to support and maintain their livelihoods. It is the most valuable and widely traded tropical agricultural product, with 25 million smallholder farmers producing 80% of the world’s coffee.

Global coffee production varies from year to year according to weather conditions, diseases, harvest time, and other factors, resulting in a market that is inherently unstable and characterized by wide fluctuations in price. This price volatility has significant consequences for those who depend on coffee for their livelihood. The inconsistency can make it difficult for growers to predict their income for coming seasons and budget for their household and farming needs. Another fact that greatly affects smallholders is the size of the farming area. These farmers often produce coffee on only 1-2 ha of land, which, depending on circumstances, may not always allow production for the planned yield needed to pay off all farming dues.

Coffee farm production is straightforward. There are a few practices that every farmer must apply in order to produce a successful harvest and maintain efficient and effective farm production. Suggested practices are as follows:

  • Choose a proper variety for a certain growing area
  • Plant disease-free transplants
  • Intercrop with vegetables and other fruit trees for maximum land utilization
  • Execute on-time and regular insect pest and disease protection
  • Administer proper fertilization management (apply only recommended fertilizer dosages for certain varieties)
  • Arrange for timely bean harvesting
  • Implement a sustainable farm management system.

In coffee production, sustainable farm management practices are extremely important, both to ensure protection of the environment as well as to reduce climate change due to pollution. In some countries, these farm practices have already adopted. Such practices as intercrop rotation, use of natural fertilizers and chemicals, reuse of coffee husks as heating fuel, solar coffee dryers, and using renewable resources should be integrated whenever possible.

A sustainable farm gradually adds natural nutrients to the soil by spreading fertilizers and organic matter (composted coffee pulp) under and between the trees. This type of fertilization has been found to increase yields over time and produce a more uniform and natural mineral content in the ground. Another sustainable practice is appropriate water use. Water from fermentation tanks should never be returned to rivers or lakes, but rather filtered naturally through the earth and then used for irrigation.

Since coffee is produced throughout many countries worldwide, it is available all year round due to different times of harvest.

Along with following all suggested farm practices, modern farm software and technologies can also be of great importance and serve to be very beneficial to farmers. These software and technologies have the ability to help improve coffee production, achieve higher yields, and track the product through all of its production stages, from processing to distribution.

At Cornestone Farms, Our coffee can only be as good as the land that it’s grown on – but by my calculations, nearly 35% of coffee crops are produced in the wrong environmental conditions.

I’m talking about something called life zone, which refers to the temperature, luminosity/solar brilliance, rainfall, relative humidity, and soil characteristics that are best suited to coffee farming.

As an agronomist, allow me to take you through the ideal life zone for growing coffee – and what poor conditions will mean for your harvests.

Let’s break down some of these qualities in a little more detail.

  • Effective Soil Depth

When it comes to your soil, you need to consider both its structure (which includes the soil texture) and chemistry (essential elements and minerals).

These two factors are connected because of the coffee tree’s root structure. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains, each tree will have multiple types of roots. The tap roots will grow down deep. However, there are also many secondary roots.

The secondary roots lie within the top 30 cm of soil and their role is to recover water and nutrients from the soil. As of such, the essential elements are key – and a loamy soil of the right pH ensures that the coffee tree can absorb the nutrients well.

  • Essential Elements & Minerals

The coffee tree requires 16 essential elements for its proper nutrition. These can be divided into four groups, based on their function and importance.

Group 1: Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. These elements are present in water and air, which is why the life zone is so important.

Group 2: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. These are also called “macronutrients,” due to the large amount of them that healthy coffee trees need.

Group 3: Calcium, Magnesium, and Sulphur. These are called “secondary elements,” because they are needed in lesser amounts than the macronutrients.

Group 4: Zinc, Boron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Iron, Copper, and Chlorine. These are called “microelements,” because even less of them are required – although they are still essential for coffee plant nutrition.

The importance of all these factors is visible in the plant’s harvest. Growing coffee in an adequate life zone reduces costs, makes work easier, and increases yield. In turn, this lowers risk levels and makes coffee production more financially sustainable.

For this reason, it’s important that producers plant coffee within an adequate life zone. Of course, within this life zone, there will still be variation in terms of soil conditions, hours of sunlight, rainfall, and more. These will require producers to adapt their farm management further (ideally with the assistance of an agronomist).

  • 35% of Coffee Grown In The Wrong Life Zone

From an analysis of these factors, I have calculated that nearly 35% of the world’s coffee crops are outside the adequate life zone. During the past 10 years, I’ve visited 16 coffee-producing countries across three continents (America, Asia, and Africa). On these trips, I’ve worked on farm management, project development with small and medium-sized producers, and crop research.

That research involves the analysis of 22 aspects of coffee farming, ranging from the agronomical and environmental to the economic. My team analyzes one hectare per thousand hectares of coffee plantations in each country. We take as a reference the thermal zones and compare them to the physiological behavior of coffee trees, based on temperature and rainfall as the most relevant indicators.

From here, we reached the conclusion that 35% of coffee crops are planted outside the adequate life zone. Of that 35%, 30% are completely outside the ideal life zone. The remaining 5% are where farms are mostly within the ideal life zone but the producers have extended their plantation outside of it.

So what does it mean for producers if a farm is outside of the ideal life zone? Let’s take a look.

Growing Coffee In Poor Conditions

If a farm is in an upper marginal zone, i.e. it exceeds the figures in the table, you can expect:

    • Slower tree growth
    • Lower productivity
    • A lower fruit yield with higher weight and density
    • Higher susceptibility to diseases
    • In the wet season, a higher risk of disease and pests
    • Better sensory qualities for the coffee
    • Increased production costs compared to crops within the adequate life zone

And if it’s in a lower marginal zone?

    • More aggressive tree growth
    • Higher productivity
    • Lower yield made up of low-density fruit
    • Higher susceptibility to pests and diseases
    • In drought seasons, a high risk of losing all or some of the plantation and/or harvest
    • Reduced sensory qualities
    • Increased production costs compared to crops within the adequate life zone

Of course, you should remember that you may also see these traits on farms in the adequate life zone if there are problems with the farm management. Healthy coffee plants are a result of many factors, including farming practices, life zone, and more.

It’s important that we consider the ideal farm location and soil condition for coffee production. Planting in the right zones can help producing families to realize greater profit margins on their crops. It can also stabilize climate conditions as the local ecosystem will be more balanced.

For producers, there’s so much more to consider than just the farm location and soil condition: asset management, financial restructuring, varieties, processing methods, laborers… But the life zone is an important starting point.