This is us on any given day of the week. We’re lucky to live in a beautiful corner of the west coast beside the Atlantic ocean, splitting our time between roasting coffee and growing chemical-free vegetables. And we love it.
The year that ended recently was very busy, putting ourselves out there with lots to learn and many rewarding experiences. So we would like to take a moment to look back and share our thoughts.
When we lived in Colombia we spent our free time visiting coffee farms. Learning about their growing and processing methods while admiring the beauty of coffee trees stretching across steep mountain sides. We certainly witnessed the hard work of those farmers and the difficulties they face everyday (pests, floods, lack of rains) but we didn’t really share their world.
Back to Ireland, and a year later after launching our own vegetable market garden, we found ourselves closer to those coffee farmers. Not because we roast coffee but because we now grow crops.
2018 was a challenging year for Irish farmers (maybe every year is…). With prolonged low temperatures in early spring and a record heat-wave in June it was a challenge to keep our veggies alive. While everybody enjoyed those sunny hot days, it was clear that climate change was becoming more and more real.
So how will climate change affect coffee production and what should we expect in the future? Arabica coffee trees are mainly grown at high-altitude (up to approx. 2300m) in a belt around the world between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Across these mountains, specific microclimates, soil and other vegetation create excellent conditions for Arabica coffee to grow. Rising temperatures however are putting at risk entire coffee-growing areas. According to researchers, we risk losing about 30% to 60% of coffee growing areas in the future (1). That’s a scary prospect for coffee drinkers, and even more so for growers that rely on coffee production for their livelihoods.
What to do then? Possible solutions include the development of more resilient coffee varieties that will cope better with climate change and disease while maintaining high yields and quality in the cup. Institutes like World Coffee Research and Colombian Cenicafé are looking to create new hybrid varieties by crossing existing ones and selecting for desired characteristics like productivity and resistance to pests. However, farmers and scientists using F1 coffee varieties (hybrids) face propagation challenges as F1 trees do not produce seeds that result in a vigorous next generation (1).
A year after starting our market garden, the main lesson we’ve learnt is the importance of ‘healthy soil’.
We initially thought that the soil in our polytunnel and outdoor garden was good enough and that vegetables would grow happily. We weren’t completely wrong and the vegetables did grow well. Towards the middle of the summer however we planted some new lettuce and spinach seedlings in a no-dig bed that had been manured some months prior. Same crop, better soil. The results were pretty amazing. These new corps grew faster, bigger, greener and above all had superior taste.
Similarly, when our tomatoes were hit by a nasty fungus the first advice we received was to feed the plants with more nutrients (in an organic way) in order to make the plants stronger so they could defend themselves.
Taking stock from those experiences, we are now investing more time in improving our soil. Healthy soil will both increase quality and the capacity of crops to be resilient to climate stress, pests and disease. Similarly, growing crops in an organic way contributes to a healthier ecosystem that self-regulates thanks to the presence of soil enriching organisms and natural pest controls like ladybirds.
Back to the coffee then, we think about farmers and their farming practices and how they are coping with current challenges. While researchers are looking into genetics and generating more resilient varieties, we would like to stress the importance of building healthy soil and advocate making it a priority (2). This also includes growing crops organically, without the use of chemicals and pesticides so that nature can work its magic. It does sound romantic but there are many examples which show that it actually works. Taste after all is deeply affected by a plant’s ‘terroir’ and the presence of a rich diversity of flora and fauna. As coffee roasters and vegetable growers we’d like to encourage coffee farmers to commit to sustainable and organic agricultural practices as this will translate into healthier, more resistant plants and a better taste in the cup.
(1) Neuschwander H., It starts with a seed, in Standard n. 12, July 2018