The Blog


The Coffee Journey: Episode IV

So. It has been a month since the last update and April is usually the last month before the wet season kicks in. We did receive a few showers, which were well received by the trees that have been desperately needing water.

We completed the pruning of coffee trees in early April and moved on to pruning the shade trees. I’ll take a moment now to discuss shade and coffee. Coffee, in its natural environment, is a plant that grows under the tree canopy. That is how you would normally find coffee in the forested mountains of Ethiopia or Kenya. The drawback is that too much shade limits the yield of the plant. If you shoot for high yields as a farmer, then you would grow your coffee without any shade. The drawback is that the tree would require more nutrients to sustain the increased production. Certain locations allow full sun cultivation more easily, either because temperatures are not extreme or because there is more cloud cover. I have seen farms in Honduras that tend to be covered in clouds or mist through the day due to micro-climates from a large lake. In Nicaragua, some farms have an interesting micro-climate due to the proximity to the Caribbean Sea, which allows for less shade to be used. In El Salvador, some high-altitude farms can limit the use of shade as well.

You are probably asking yourself now, isn’t the goal of the farmer to have the highest yield? I asked myself that same question when I began farming coffee. The truth is that as a farmer, you need to find the right balance between yield, cost and quality. More importantly, there needs to be a certain set of beliefs in place to guide all the farming decisions.

All that brings me back to shade. Coffee in El Salvador has always been traditionally shade-grown. The reason is that the country receives a lot of sunlight year-round (from 11 to 12 hours) and temperatures can get into the thirties (celsius). Shade allows for a cooler climate under the canopy and favours a slower development of the bean. The longer the cherry remains on the tree, the better the quality. Better quality coffee commands a price premium to offset the potential lower yield with an added bonus of less stress on the tree and potentially lower costs. Another sweetener is that native shade trees can benefit the soil and also the ecosystem allowing insects and different bird species to thrive. Last year, with support from a local non-profit, sensors were installed to measure the quantity and types of birds in the farm.

Coming back to the farm, our team took about three weeks to trim the shade trees in order for the canopy to allow a certain amount of sunlight. As an activity, it should be done yearly but, realistically, the team gets around the same area every couple of years. Below is an image where you can clearly see the pruned area on the left and the unpruned area on the right. Notice how the shade trees are being “elevated” to allow for better air circulation in the plantation.

This would be the last entry for the dry season. In summary, it comes down to planning for future plantings and pruning. Next month should see the beginning of the wet season and, so far, it's off to a slow start with only 24mm as of the end of this note.

Have a great May long weekend everyone,