What’s It Like to Grow Coffee?

Cherries grown on an organic coffee plant


In early spring, gardeners in the USA welcome warmer weather by pouring over our seed catalogs, readying the soil in our plots, and starting plants indoors. By June, we’ve moved those seedlings outside. We’re beginning the rounds of weeding and watering that will lead to bountiful harvests in the summer and fall. If gardening’s your hobby, burying your fingers in the damp, rich soil (and later, scrubbing that dirt out from under your fingernails!) can help you feel a connection to the people who grow coffee.

A Long Cycle to Grow Coffee

Across the world, coffee farmers are hard at work, too. But Coffea arabica has a multi-year growth cycle. Its rhythm of cultivation is different from the vegetables we’re used to tending. A tomato or zucchini plant bears fruit all summer before dying. We save its seeds or buy new ones next year. Farmers who grow coffee invest more deeply. Each plant takes years to mature.

Coffee begins its life in a nursery. After about a year, when a plant has reached 18 to 24 inches tall, it’s hardy enough to be replanted on a farm. But it won’t begin to produce until it reaches age four or five. Flowers cover the branches of the mature coffee plant and release a jasmine-like scent. Six to nine months later, fruit – called coffee cherries because of the similar size and shape — appears. Each cherry holds two seeds. These are the coffee beans! As the cherries ripen, they change in color from green to yellow, then to dark orange or deep red.

Farmers must tend their plants carefully to ensure good yield. And when they get old, they won’t  produce reliably. If diseases like La Roya affect the plant, the farmer must replant sooner. This renovation is expensive for small-scale producers, but necessary.

A gray-haired organic farmer knows how to grow coffee and pick it from the tree in Nicaragua.
Roberto Cardnas, a grower at PRODECOOP in Nicaragua, picks coffee cherries.

The Harvest Season

Because coffee requires a warm climate to grow, spring doesn’t mean the same tasks for farmers in the Coffee Belt as it does for us. Coffee thrives in tropical and subtropical climates, usually 1,000 miles from the equator or closer. But that doesn’t mean the crop ripens at the same time in all countries that grow coffee. Generally speaking, higher altitudes mean a cooler climate, deferring the cherries’ readiness.

The beginning of the harvest season yields a small amount of coffee with a flavor that isn’t optimal. Most coffee ripens during the middle of the harvest. Then, the end of the harvest brings the leftovers. Because Equal Exchange has longstanding relationships with growing cooperatives, we can buy high-quality coffee that’s ripen enough to have acquired its most refined and mature flavor.

We talked to Todd Caspersen, our Director of Purchasing and Production, for better insight into what coffee farmers are up to at this time of year. He says:

“As you plant your summer garden, our producer partners in Central America are finishing up their export season, shipping last containers and doing the accounting of the 2017/2108 crop. Farmers will now turn their attention to pruning, fertilizing, replanting and weed control. In Peru and Bolivia, farmers have begun harvesting and will be doing the meticulous work of harvesting ripe cherries, processing and drying the beans that will be exported starting in August.”

Patience is A Virtue

If you’ve ever grown anything, you know it’s not exactly instant gratification. We choose to do it because we enjoy the steps in the process! Our gardening efforts protect something incredibly delicate and vulnerable until it flowers, matures and produces.

For crops like coffee, the maturation of the fruit is still just the beginning. Producers must pick the cherries by hand,  then de-pulp, ferment, dry and sort them before the green beans are finally ready to be shipped. Those who grow coffee are highly-skilled professionals. Their hard work humbles us. That’s why Equal Exchange commits so firmly to trading directly and paying a fair price for every harvest.

This spring, we hope you’ll enjoy every task you undertake in the garden or flowerbed. We hope you’ll recognize all you have in common with people around the world who grow coffee and make their living from the land. And we hope when you brew a cup of fairly traded, Organic coffee or enjoy a glass of cold-brew afterward, you appreciate it fully!

Thirsty? Shop for equitable coffee sourced from our small-scale farmer partners.

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