24 March 2016
UPDATE: When a friend sent me an article about growing coffee, my coffee farmer ego made me feel obliged to point out what the author got wrong. Well, the author found me. We talked awhile, had a couple great chats, and he decided to create a podcast for his website. It was a fun and informative conversation. He's a master gardener so I learned a lot too. You can find the podcast and all sorts of good information on his website here: The Survival Gardener
We have a customer in Alaska who owns a large coffee tree in a pot. They own a roastery and they wheel their coffee tree outside on nice days. Since they're in Alaska, that means the tree spends most days inside. They were extremely proud when one year the tree produced a couple blooms. They should be proud, that's very difficult to do in a place like Alaska.
We have another mainland customer who owns several coffee trees. They even have their own label and sell roasted coffee. I'm not going to say their name because the truth is that most of their coffee comes from Kona Earth. They have far more demand than their trees can possibly supply. No problem, we're happy to help make up the difference. I like the ego boost of selling coffee to another farmer because if our coffee is good enough for them then we must be doing something right.
A friend recently sent me an article about growing coffee plants. I've seen articles like this before. As a fancy-pants coffee farmer, I like to read these articles and make fun of all the inaccuracies. I realize that my "I'm a professional farmer" perspective is not necessarily the same as a backyard gardener's perspective but I don't let that stop me from gloating when they get something wrong.
This article got most things correct. One minor inaccuracy was about germinating coffee. The author stated that the coffee beans (i.e. seeds) need to be no more than a couple weeks old. This is not strictly true. Getting coffee beans to germinate is extremely difficult but freshness probably wasn't the issue. Unless he purchased "seeds" from a gift shop, then they were almost certainly too old for successful germination.
The best bet for germination is to use parchment. These are the green beans with the fruit removed but the papery outer layer (endocarp) still intact. This layer needs to be removed before roasting. That's done with some fancy dry milling equipment. That equipment can heat up the beans and damage them just enough that they won't germinate. Getting the parchment to germinate is easier. That's how nature does it.
Another problem is that germination takes several months. Using heated trays can speed things along some, as long as the heated trays don't get too hot or dry out the seeds or grow mold or fungus. Keeping the seeds moist, warm and fungus-free for 90-120 days isn't easy. This alone puts it beyond the interest of most hobbyists.
The biggest inaccuracy of this article was the estimated yield. The author estimated that "a serious coffee drinker will require about 25 bushes to stay caffeinated through a year." Hah! He wishes.
I suspect the author isn't really growing much coffee. He probably cares more about selling seedlings than about producing coffee. That's great, it's difficult to find nurseries that sell coffee seedlings. Probably because the tree cannot tolerate any cold temperatures whatsoever so it's not suited for most backyards. The few places that do sell coffee seedlings can usually find plenty of
suckers eager gardeners willing to give it a try.
Coffee is an extremely finicky plant. It needs a lot of rain but also well-drained soil that doesn't stay wet. It needs tropical temperatures but not too hot. It wants constant sun but not too bright, shade grown or cloud cover is best. It needs slightly acidic soil but not too acidic. Those are the basic requirements for growing the tree, producing a large crop of coffee is even more difficult.
Here in Kona mauka, where coffee grows like a weed all by itself, the average "farm" is lucky to get 2 pounds per tree. I put the word "farm" in quotes because that includes all the part-timer hobbyists who have a few trees in their backyard but don't do much with them. If you exclude the hobbyists, the average goes up to maybe 5 pounds per tree. If you include only the farmers that fertilize, prune and other basic farm maintenance, then the average can go up to 8 pounds per tree. Kona Earth needs about 10 pounds per tree in order to stay fully profitable. We average about 12-15 pounds per tree. Our highest yield ever was more than 20 pounds per tree. That was an extremely busy year. Most farms would be happy if they could produce 8 pounds per tree.
Those are pounds of cherry per year. That's the raw fruit. It takes about six pounds of raw coffee cherry to produce one pound of roasted beans. That's for weight loss alone. If you remove all the bad beans, the ratio jumps up to 8:1. If you also remove the mediocre beans then the ratio is 10:1. Plus, a ratio of 10:1 makes the math easy.
The standard rule of thumb is that each tree produces about one pound of roasted coffee per year. At the rate of two bags per month, having 25 trees sounds about right. If Armageddon comes along, a married couple would need 50 trees to avoid caffeine withdrawals. That's too much for a typical greenhouse or suburban backyard.
It gets worse though. The pound per tree rule of thumb is for a professional farm in Kona. Remember, most "farms" in Kona don't produce anywhere near that amount. And that's in Kona where coffee grows like a weed.
On the mainland, you'd be lucky to keep the tree alive. If you manage to keep the tree healthy, it might produce a few blooms. Only the happiest of trees will turn those blooms into ripe coffee cherries. Any coffee tree that produces a handful of harvestable cherries will get it's picture taken and posted on Facebook.
Congratulation, now what? Even if you manage to pulp, dry, mill and roast that handful of cherries, it won't be enough for a cup of coffee. We have a $20,000 wet mill with a large drying deck and mechanical dryer. We do custom milling for other farms and our minimum run is about 50 pounds. Anything less than that simply isn't worth bothering with. Some of our neighbors can spend all day picking their coffee trees without getting 50 pounds.
I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, I just want everyone to be prepared. When the world economy collapses, the zombies rise up, the space aliens invade, the power goes out permanently, the barges stop running, or whatever doomsday scenario is your favorite finally happens, then you should be prepared for caffeine withdrawals. You won't be the only one, most of the planet will suddenly discover that the tropics are really, really far away.
Imagine if you were the only one in your neighborhood with a supply of Kona coffee. I suspect the other doomsday preppers would be happy to trade an entire pile of ammo in exchange for small handful of coffee. You'd be the richest person on the block. At least until your coffee supply runs out.
I'm just saying, if you wanted to start stocking up now, we'd be happy to help.