Chapter 3 of our coffee story
Hi folks. I’m glad to be back and go on writing our coffee-story part 3 – the harvesting.
We already know in detail what coffee is and how coffee farming works, the next step is very close related to the farming process, it might be better to say: it is a part of it.
When is coffee harvested:
It happens during the dry season and is a bit tricky because not all coffee cherries are ripe at the same time. Furthermore you cannot wait until the last cherries are ripe because they become overripe within 10-12 days. This means the time for harvesting is quite long, it can take up to 12 weeks. The cherries are ripe when they are bright and deep red. If you press them they are slightly soft.
Due to these circumstances two main methods are used to harvest coffee cherries:
So let’s dive deeper in the details of these methods.
Selective harvesting is the picking of only ripe coffee fruit by hand. Unripe coffee is left on the tree for future harvesting. Overripe coffee can either be left on the tree (commonly not recommended) or picked and kept separate from the ripe fruit.
Pickers rotate among the trees every eight to 10 days, choosing only the cherries which are at the peak of ripeness. Because this kind of harvest is labor intensive and more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer Arabica beans.
A good picker averages approximately 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.
At the end of the day, the harvest is spread out and unripe or overripe fruit as well as any foreign debris that accidentally made their way into the ripe coffee are sorted out. The coffee is then taken to be weighed, and payment is normally apportioned by weight.
Advantages of Selective Harvesting
Only ripe fruit are picked, resulting in a lower percentage of unripes in the harvested coffee and higher prices for producers.
Because the coffee is picked by hand, the trees can be planted on steep slopes that are common to the topography of many coffee regions, resulting in more efficient use of farm land.
Disadvantages of Selective Harvesting
Hand picking requires a large labor force working for low salary.
As wages increase and prices keep volatile producers are less able to afford the labor cost of selective harvesting. Moreover farm-workers or even farmers themselves tend to go to the larger cities in order to gain higher wages. A situation that makes hand picking quite rare.
The alternative to selective harvesting is strip harvesting. Here all coffee fruit are mechanically “stripped” from the coffee tree at once. As a result you have ripe and non-ripe cherries in you harvest.
There are three ways of strip harvesting.
A canvas is placed on the ground and the pickers grab the branch next to the trunk with their hands and pull outward, knocking all of the fruit onto the ground. This done as long as all cherries are harvested and the tree doesn’t have any fruits anymore. The cherries are collected and packed in bags to weight them. A common bag weights about 60kg.
The second strip harvesting method is similar to the first but with some mechanical assistance. Here pickers use mechanical strippers. As with the manual method, the pickers lay down a canvas. and strip off all cherries.
The third way to strip harvest coffee is with a mechanical harvester. These are farming-machines, first introduced in the early 1970s, use vibrating and rotating mallets to knock the coffee fruit off the tree into collection units. They can be calibrated to minimize the yield of unripes by adjusting rotation and vibration rates as well as the speed at which the mechanical harvester moves through the rows.
Another common technique is to remove the bottom cherries at the beginning of the harvest because the cherries on the top of the tree normally ripens more quickly. Later, the lower cherries can be added to harvest fruit from the same plants, this time from the lower section of the plants. This type of harvesting needs very flat environment to be able to use this heavy machinery.
Advantages of Strip Harvesting
- Strip harvesting requires far less effort of labor.
- It is much quicker.
Disadvantages of Strip Harvesting
Strip harvesting produces lots of various levels of maturation, which can lead to lower quality. You can avoid this by separating ripe from non-ripe cherries.
To achieve best quality, the farmers must have good organised post-harvest technologies like pulpers and optical sorters.
The heterogeneous lots produced by strip harvesting result in higher percentages of unripes, which reduce the quality and sale value of the final product, meaning less profit for producers.
Conclusion: Which Harvesting Method is best to use?
This depends on the circumstances. In countries or regions where you cannot find enough labor-force, or the wages are to high, you must use more machinery. Of cause the hand picking method is the more traditional one but must be able to afford it.
Even for small farmers it can be hard to earn money by using traditional, labor intensive methods. On the other side, as seen above, the mechanic methods need an post harvest infrastructure to cope with the huge amount of different cherries and their mature.
So there is no best answer for this. Fact is that if the coffee farmers could gain more money for their products, they could afford labor-force, pay them adequately and could use the hand picking method in order to produce better cherries.
In this chapter we learned how difficult it is to harvest coffee, especially if you are not able to use machinery. So if you enjoy your next cup of coffee think about it.
In my last chapter of our coffee-story I received an interesting comment, which I answered. In my answer I describe my experience with coffee farming and the actual situation of coffee farmers. This is closely related to our chapter coffee harvesting. For those who didn’t yet read the coffee farming chapter I recommend to catch this up. It’s really worth it.