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Two key elements to agroecological coffee production
Tree cover and compost
We’ve talked before about how coffee presents unique opportunities for creating regenerative agroforestry systems. Much of coffee’s potential comes from the fact that it grows well under the shade of other tree species. Environmental benefits from growing coffee in this way include:
Creating homes for diverse bird and insect species in the canopies of shade trees
Maintaining a resilient below-ground soil cosmos which cycles nutrients, sequesters carbon, and stores water. Additionally, certain categories of plants such as legumes have nitrogen-fixing capabilities through their associations with soil bacteria
Providing additional sources of food and income for farmers such as bananas, citrus fruits, and harvestable hardwood species
For these reasons, some of the first regenerative interventions we implemented with Manuel’s plot were to plant dozens of trees, ranging from banana and citrus to native species.
For the past several months, Manuel’s focus has shifted to the production of high quality compost. In the annual coffee cycle, the coffee plants are fertilized shortly after the harvest wraps up. At this point, the plants are beginning to flower and begin the process of producing new growth and new coffee cherries for the following year. For agroecologically managed coffee systems, this process of fertilization is far more labor-intensive than for chemical systems.
Showing up is half the battle
The fact that coffee grows well on the slopes of mountainsides can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the higher elevation contributes to a cooler climate, which in turn allows a longer development of the coffee cherries and a more complex flavor profile.
On the other hand, these plots can be hard to access. For example, our farmer partner Manuel lives at the base of Volcán de Agua, and his nearest plot of land is over an hour’s hike up the mountainside.
In truck the journey is shorter, but the ruggedness of the trail puts an elevated amount of wear and tear on the vehicle. For many small farmers, having a vehicle is a luxury to begin with, so they must be selective about how they use it. With gas prices currently extremely elevated in Guatemala, they are under even more pressure to make every trip count.
This issue of accessibility is problematic for farmers using organic inputs because organic fertilizers, i.e. compost, simply weigh more than pelletized chemical fertilizers.
In cases where there is water access at the coffee plot, a farmer using chemical farming methods can carry a large amount of granulized fertilizer out to the plot, dissolve the granules in water, and apply the mix with a backpack sprayer. This is a very low-cost operation for a single farmer, as they can fertilize a large area by themselves.
Organic fertilizers are more labor intensive. Not counting the labor required for compost production, simply transporting large amounts of compost up the mountain and then spreading it out between the coffee trees is an arduous task, and it isn’t practical for most small farmers to fertilize their entire holdings in this way.
It’s also important to remember that chemical fertilizers and organic compost are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Chemical fertilizers only provide specific chemicals such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to plants, with no regard for the soil except as a medium in which the plant grows.
Organic compost is teeming with life that constantly converts organic matter into plant-available nutrients as well as providing other important function such as creating soil structure and protecting the plant from pathogenic organisms and diseases.
Yet another gold star for shade trees
Given a nutrient rich environment, such as the organic matter in compost, bacteria will reproduce exponentially (bacteria reproduce via binary fission and in ideal conditions can undergo this process every 20 minutes).
When bacteria populations thrive, the predatory microorganisms such as protozoa and nematodes will also increase due to the abundance of food available. All this sets the stage for rapid nutrient cycling.
However, a fast rising microbial population can quickly exhaust its food supply if more organic matter is not supplied, at which point the microbial life will either starve or go dormant. In cases where the soil is already very depleted, there likely isn’t much of this organic material available.
Now the workload for a regenerative-focused farmer is really piling up. Not only do they need to lug hundreds of pounds of compost up a mountain multiple times per year, but they also have to transport at least that same amount in organic material up as well, in order to keep the compost well-fed and active.
But there is a better way: just grow the organic material up on the mountain to begin with.
Once again, we find that reforestation is the solution. In addition to the benefits listed at the beginning of this article, it turns out that the falling leaves, twigs, and branches from trees also play a critical role in providing a continuous supply of organic matter for soil bacteria and fungi to decompose. Smaller shrubs and ground cover crops also contribute to this kind of system as well.
Embracing a paradox mindset
One of the conceptions among coffee farmers in this area, and likely, all over the world, is that there a necessary trade-off between shade trees and productivity. While farmers generally recognize that shade trees provide some benefits to their coffee plants, the thinking is that with too many trees, productivity will decline as the coffee plants cannot maximize photosynthesis.
Manuel expressed this concern to us as well, and we were sensitive to his comments. After all, our goal is first and foremost to maintain— if not increase— the productivity of his plot and, therefore, his income. If planting more trees is not profitable for small farmers, then it is not a sustainable practice.
So, how do we maximize tree planting while also maintaining enough sunlight for coffee plants to stay in the upper limits of productivity?
Our agronomist technician partner Joaquín suggested the solution: plant many trees, but prune them back at different ages, so that at any given time, only a fraction of the trees are actually shading the coffee plants, while many more are at or near the height of the coffee plants themselves, casting comparatively little shade. In this way, ground cover from leaf litter can be maximized while not sacrificing plant performance.
With this plan in mind, Manuel will be planting even more trees this year, in addition to those he planted last year. This is the kind of work we set out to do with Biota: to solve the conundrums and cut through the confusion about how small farmers can grow coffee more sustainably. The transition to regenerative farming is all about moving from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking.
Agroecology as fermentation
The two key elements of agroecological coffee production are shade trees (and we can include shrubs and ground cover here as well) and compost. The trees provide organic matter and the compost provides a source of microbial activity.
What we are really talking about here is fermentation. We could reframe those two elements as simply, “substrate” and “inoculant.” Anyone who’s ever made kombucha, worked with a sourdough starter, brewed their own beer, or cultivated mushrooms will recognize these two elements.
Furthermore, anyone who is a fan of fermentation doesn’t need to be convinced that it is a rather magical process which results in some of the most interesting flavors that can be produced in this world.
This is what we are trying to cultivate at Biota— regenerative agriculture as a massive fermentation project, one that is mostly self-sustaining, one in which the farmer is managing a natural process with an inertia all its own, rather than fighting against and trying to dominate nature.