An important part of producing quality coffee is choosing the right varieties for your land. Why invest in plants that need additional resources that aren’t reflected in the final price? But how do decide which is the right variety for you?
Choosing a type of coffee should be based on a number of factors including genetics, environment, access to the market, and budget. Let’s look at these elements and what else to consider when choosing a variety of coffee.
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A producer picks yellow coffee cherries.
Different types of coffee have different characteristics, including flavor, pest-resistance, yield, and more. But these genetic differences should only be one consideration in choosing a variety. For example, Robusta is generally more pest- and disease-resistant than Arabica, but Arabica has more desirable flavors and therefore a bigger market with better prices, so most producers choose to grow it.
Jorge Raul Rivera, is the producer of Finca Santa Rosa in San Ignacio, El Salvador. He tells me that farmers in El Salvador often choose to grow Pacamara despite its relatively low yield and vulnerability to coffee leaf rust. “We look at the [quality of the] variety, not the ease of maintenance,” he says. “Quality is always better in a plant that produces less.”
The choice of variety will affect how a farm is managed, to whom the producer will market their beans, and will influence what method of processing is used. Carlos Pineda is the director of the school of coffee tasting at Instituto Hondureño del Café. He says that “the coffee variety lets us know the versatility that the coffee plant will have.”
One-year-old Castillo trees at Vereda Jámbalo in Cauca, Colombia. Credit: Diego Cobo
Climate & Environment
The place where you grow coffee should be a major factor in deciding which variety to produce. One variety may have a high yield and be in demand, but does it thrive in your climate?
There’s no point investing in a crop that needs a relatively cool, dry environment if you live in a warm, humid one. It either won’t produce high-quality beans or it will require much more investment to do so.
Diego Cobo is the manager of Elixir Cafe in Cauca, Colombia. He says, “The variables that we need to consider for quality are genotype, the place of origin of the seed, and the characteristics of the field.”
He tells me that Castillo is a popular variety in the region he lives in for its ease of maintenance. He says that it’s a variety that is already adapted to the local environment and tolerant to coffee leaf rust, a potentially devastating disease.
Make sure to do detailed research into your climate including rainfall, humidity, and temperature. You may also want to use field mapping techniques such as soil analysis to evaluate which varieties will thrive on your land and what amounts of fertilizer will be beneficial. This kind of analysis can reveal that it’s better to grow two or more varieties in different areas of the farm, rather than planting the all of the land with the same variety.
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A one-year-old Castillo plant at Vereda Jámbalo Cauca, Colombia. Credit: Diego Cobo
Resources & Budget
The varieties you choose should also be based on your access to resources and budget. Before choosing what to plant, work out whether you have the funds to cover all the expenses associated with the specific variety and if all the supplies are available in your area.
Diego tells me that some Colombian producers choose to grow Geisha. He says that this variety needs five or six fertilizations per year versus the three required for Castillo. Producers who grow Geisha also need to be more aware of pests and the overall maintenance is more complicated, he says. Without the budget for workers, pest control, and fertilizer, this likely wouldn’t return a good yield and may mean a loss of investment.
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A producer prepares a nursery in Colombia. Credit: Diego Cobo
Consider The Market
It’s important to consider consumer demands and your own access to the market when choosing a variety. If you invest in specialty coffee but don’t have the relationships to sell it at the right price, you may be left at a loss. Similarly, if there’s no demand for the variety you grow, or it is in surplus, you may be forced to sell it at below-market prices.
Carlos says, “Another factor to consider when selecting coffee varieties is the market, the elegance of the cup, and who is going to buy it.”
So, do some research into local selling opportunities and consider joining an association or cooperative that could help you make new business relationships. As an aligned group of producers, you may have better access to resources, be able to leverage better marketing and business opportunities, and learn from one another’s experiences.
Coffee farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
How To Choose Your Specific Plants
Many farmers buy seeds or plants from a vendor, but others use their own seeds. Jorge tells me that it’s common for producers to use local seeds in El Salvador and that they offer an advantage because the plants are already adapted to the environment. He says that using local seeds allows more confidence in the purity and hardiness of the variety, and that this results in better quality in the final cup.
He cautions against using varieties developed elsewhere, saying that they will need to adapt to their new environment and that this may impact quality.
Ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Mapache Coffee
If you decide to use local plants for seed, choose mother plants that are healthy and vigorous with straight, thick trunks. The primary branches should be not too distant from each other. Opt for plants that have shown fast development and abundant yield of cherries. Branches with the highest number of nodes have the most productivity, so take cherries from these branches and select only healthy and completely ripe ones.
Diego tells me about a traditional method that he says many coffee producers use. Harvest 100 mature, healthy cherries and submerge them in water. If the floating cherries are less than eight, that is a good candidate to be a mother plant.
He explains that it’s not recommended to use a plant that has a lot of floating cherries, because these are the ones with low density, which means they’re likely less developed and have a low probability of germination.
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Coffee plants in Cauca, Colombia. Credit: Diego Cobo
Choosing the right varieties for your farm is a balance of many interrelated factors. Make sure that you’re being honest in your evaluation of your own circumstances and do some research into the different varieties and local resources. By carefully considering genetic components, environmental conditions, and the market, you can find the most appropriate varieties for your farm.
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