Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When Specialty Coffee Isn't Appropriate?

For the past two weeks, I've been on a home-coming journey to the small, cigar-shaped island of Yapen in eastern Indonesia. The trip was a personal and community milestone packed with celebrations. My siblings and I were formally inducted into our tribe, reunited with long-lost friends, and joined the villages in celebrating the publication of the first book in their language, a translation of the New Testament completed by one of their own people.

This was all wonderful, but what stood out from a coffee point of view was very different. The island of Yapen is on the low side for growing specialty coffee, topping out at a little over 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). Most coffee is grown in individual plots along a single mountain valley in the lower 3,000's (900+ meters). The varietal is untested, but was introduced from Brazil in the first half of the 20th century by Dutch colonizers. I suspect the trees are robusta-arabica hybrids.

The community does a great job with managing their value chain. Crops are grown individually and then sold (either dried or wet) to the local cooperative, which owns depulping, hulling, drying, roasting and grinding equipment. The cooperative processes the coffee, packages it and sells it on the regional market under it's own brand for about $1 a pound. This is a sustainable business and price point, and the cooperative has been running for decades now without provoking either a spiral of deforestation or going bankrupt. In fact, the cooperative has amassed significant savings available for re-investment into community infrastructure projects.

Great stuff, and my first thought was that simply by changing out their coffee varietal, the community could move up market and capture disproportionate returns in the specialty market. Maybe. I think community vision and entrepreneurial willingness are definitely present, and the small family holdings of coffee would lend themselves to gradual, low-risk adoption of new coffee trees and processing methods as families observed a few innovators.

The challenge, I think, is the topography, soil and disease burden of the area. This is not an easy place to grow coffee. The current coffee stands are mature and are being replaced gradually, but they suffer from (I suspect) coffee borer disease as well as a fungal infection. Proper diagnosis and treatment of coffee stands is extremely difficult, as coffee stands are spread out in clumps over difficult terrain far from a qualified agricultural specialist.

Topsoil quality also seems to be a challenge. Without active cultivation, the soil is extremely clayey and apt to slide down the steep valley walls at first opportunity. In fact, a recent earthquake left fresh scars in the rainforest hundreds of feet across all over the island and obliterated the village's only road.

Bottom line, while there's plenty of energy and interest in expanding coffee opportunities responsibly, the low altitude, unstable soil and disease prevalence form a very tough triad that has me stumped in terms of an appropriate varietal.

Any thoughts? I loved getting a chance to see coffee and the dedication of a proud group of coffee farmers! I know they'd do their best with a better coffee varietal if one was found.

Photos courtesy of Ethan Johnson.

Landslide - where's the road?

Wet Depulper

Even the village is built on a steep slope!