The Complexity of Coffee Production
Challenging Assumptions in Agriculture
To truly appreciate coffee production and the intricate web of agriculture, we encourage you to approach this topic with an open mind. While it would be tempting to brand our coffee as 'organic' – a marketing strategy with undeniable appeal – the reality of agriculture extends far beyond the mere transition from chemical to organic inputs. Agriculture is a tapestry woven with sociological and economic threads, all set against the backdrop of the natural world. This is far from the comfortable perception of thinking that everything is black or white, or good or bad.
Organic agriculture, a term often synonymous with the elimination of synthetic chemicals, is a multifaceted journey. The mere elimination of synthetic inputs, while noble, could potentially harm productivity, financial stability, and the environment. In the diverse landscape of farming, organic practices, alongside approaches like Permaculture, Agroecology, and even conventional farming, yield varying outcomes concerning social, environmental, and economic factors. In the modern era, a sustainable agricultural system takes into account a mosaic of influences, including cultural, geographical, agroclimatic, financial, and even human behavioral factors.
Embracing Sustainable Farming Philosophy
Contrary to the industrialized and conventional agricultural behemoths, alternative approaches prioritize the use of locally sourced renewable resources, the pursuit of closed-loop systems, and the careful oversight of natural ecological and biological processes. This approach encompasses intriguing practices such as biological nitrogen fixation and biological pest control. The ultimate aim? Ensuring bountiful crop yields, the well-being of livestock, and human nutrition, all while guarding against the formidable adversaries of pests and diseases. This approach seeks to provide equitable returns for the resources invested, whether human or otherwise, and endeavors to reduce dependence on external inputs, be they chemical or organic, in favor of self-sufficiency and sustainability.
It's essential to understand that while organic standards do indeed prohibit most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the distinction between synthetic and natural molecules is not the heart of the matter. The notion of 'chemical-free' food, sometimes inelegantly articulated, is fundamentally flawed. All food, like all living organisms and elements, is inherently composed of chemicals. In the intricate tapestry of life, the line between synthetic and natural chemicals serves merely as a veil that obscures the profound interconnectedness of all existence. Every agricultural system, by its very nature, introduces some disruption to the 'natural' environment, leading to unintended consequences. Absolute sustainability remains an elusive ideal; therefore, our focus shifts toward comparing different systems and making incremental improvements that steer agriculture toward a more sustainable trajectory.
Shade-Grown vs. Sun-Grown Coffee: Two Paths, Two Outcomes
In their natural habitat, coffee plants grow in the understory of tropical and subtropical forests. Basically, coffee is generally produced in two ways under the shade of trees or in the sun of an open field. There is a general discussion on whether coffee naturally needs shade to grow or actually it does well without it.
Shade-grown and sun-grown coffee represent two distinct approaches to coffee cultivation, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Shade-grown coffee, often practiced in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, prioritizes biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability. Under the protective canopy of diverse shade trees, this method provides a haven for various wildlife species while promoting soil health and organic matter decomposition. It's renowned for producing beans with a complex and rich flavor profile. However, it typically yields fewer beans per acre, demands more labor, and can pose challenges in disease control, making it less economically attractive in high-production-focused regions.
On the other hand, sun-grown coffee, found in countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia, is characterized by open-sun plantations, leading to higher yields and lower labor costs (this is usually the kind of coffee you find at supermarkets or in general commercial brands). Yet, this approach often comes at an environmental cost, as it can contribute to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity. It also tends to produce coffee with a simpler flavor profile, raising questions about cup quality. The choice between these cultivation methods hinges on a delicate balance between environmental concerns, economic considerations, and coffee quality, with farmers and consumers worldwide making decisions that reflect their priorities within the coffee industry.
Our Sustainable Approach to Farming
At Dota Coffee Company, we practice traditional coffee cultivation within a diverse shade canopy. Our coffee fields, known as 'cercos,' are characterized by the coexistence of various tree species alongside coffee plants. Depending on the specific area, we strategically introduce more shade by planting common species such as Erythrina sp, commonly known as 'poró,' which belongs to the legume family and naturally enriches the soil with nitrogen, a vital nutrient for plant growth. Bananas, Musa sp, are another common companion plant found in our coffee fields.
Our approach to coffee farming is deeply rooted in cultural practices, including regular pruning and the incorporation of pruned material into the soil or its use as supplementary cattle feed. Both the shade trees and coffee contribute to a nutrient recycling system, with pruning enhancing nutrient availability. In addition to coffee, we diversify our income sources by cultivating avocados and other traditional crops like tree tomatoes, blackberry bushes, guava trees, and more, ensuring that our farm remains a vibrant and thriving ecosystem.
In Costa Rica, new coffee planting is restricted to pastureland. We retain existing trees within the system to provide established shade and boost biodiversity. Annual pruning of the shade trees helps maintain balanced humidity levels, acting as a natural deterrent against pests. Anthracnose, a common coffee pest, is managed with fungicides applied three times a year, particularly during heavy rainfall periods. We adopt a rotation of chemical and organic methods to prevent fungal resistance.
Nurturing the Soil and Beyond: Enhancing Soil Health for Sustainable Growth
To enrich our soil, we annually apply compost obtained from local compost companies, as our organic matter production isn't yet sufficient to meet all our coffee's nutrient needs. This compost enhances soil quality, ensuring efficient utilization of fertilizers by the coffee plants. Additionally, we apply mountain microorganisms (MM), cultivated on our farm, to increase beneficial microorganisms in the soil.
As you can see, our approach to farming aligns closely with various sustainable and environmentally-conscious practices.
We incorporate elements of agroforestry, organic farming, and integrated pest management (IPM), emphasizing biodiversity and soil health, which are key components of sustainable agriculture. Our business model, which involves obtaining retail profits, provides us with financial stability. This, in turn, strengthens our ability to confront the challenges of transitioning from fertilizer-dependent agriculture to organic farming. We are prepared to navigate potential yield decreases and all the experimentation, time, and challenges that this transformation entails
Want to know more? We invite you to read more about farming:
Lampikn, N. 2011. Organic farming myths and reality. http://www.world-agriculture.net/article/organic-farming-myths-and-reality
Lyon, S. 2009. What Good Will Two More Trees Do?’ The Political Economy of Sustainable Coffee Certification, Local Livelihoods and Identitieshttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01426390802390673