Whether you typically crave a drip coffee or something a bit more intricate and of the Niles Crane type of order, we can all agree that caffeine is necessary, right? On this episode, Steve discusses our collective love of coffee and his journey to discover his “coffee footprint.” What exactly does it take in terms of land and resources to maintain our daily coffee habit?
No one enjoys a good cup of coffee more than Frasier Crane of the hit sitcom, “Frasier”. Make even the smallest mistake to his daily coffee order, such as adding cinnamon instead of nutmeg, too much or not enough foam, and he will most definitely send it back. Much of the show took place in the local coffee shop, Café Nervosa, where Frasier and his brother Niles would shoot the breeze over their perfectly crafted soy lattes and cappuccinos. But I doubt they were thinking of where those beans came from, or how much land it would take to grow their daily necessity. This lifestyle is not unlike many Americans today.
Take me for example. I generally brew 2-3 full mugs to drink each morning. That probably represents the equivalent of ordering a couple of 12-oz “grandés” at Café Nervosa. In a year, I probably drink around 700 such servings. My guess is that there are lots of others who drink that much or more.
A few years ago, a friend gave me several seedling coffee trees and I planted them in my yard near San Diego. This worked because we don’t have frosts and this semi-tropical plant could survive. Growing those beautiful plants was kind of fun, and it gave me a new appreciation for the crop. These are quite nice-looking little trees and when they bloom with little white flowers the aroma is beautiful!
Over three years, I think I may have generated one pound of green coffee beans, so this was a learning experience – not even a successful gardening venture.
Still, this bit of hands-on experience made me wonder just how much coffee is grown on a coffee farm or “finca” (the Spanish term) somewhere in the world just to meet my demand. I wondered: “what is my personal “coffee footprint” in terms of land and what does that mean for the people who grow that crop?” That’s what we will be exploring on today’s PopAgriculture podcast.
As Americans, we’re pretty big coffee drinkers. I pulled up recent FAO trade statistics, and on average for the five years ending in 2016, we annually imported 1.45 million metric tons of green coffee beans from countries around the world. That translates into 2.7 billion pounds of roasted beans per year. Each pound of roasted beans can be brewed up to make about 24 “tall-sized” cups, making the 2.7 billion pounds we import enough to brew about 65 billion of those 12-oz cups of “morning joe.”
How much land does that require? Using production data on the FAOStats website, we can see that in the 52 countries from which we import our coffee we Americans have an annual “coffee footprint” representing around 4 million acres or about 15% of total world coffee plantings. Just for perspective, that is an area 1.13 times the area of Connecticut, 3.2 times the area of Delaware or 5.9 times the area of Rhode Island. Of course, it isn’t all connected but rather exists mostly as small farms or “fincas” mixed in with other kinds of landscape.
So, what is my share or your share of that “footprint?” That depends on the source country. Brazil is our biggest coffee trading partner at 27% of imports. Brazilian growers get an average of 1,279 pounds of beans per acre – enough to satisfy the yearly demand of 37 people who drink at my level.
To visualize what that means, I compared my “share” of that acre to a tennis court. A doubles court is 78 feet by 36 feet, so if my entire coffee footprint was in Brazil it would need to be as big as 42% of that court area. Columbia provides 18% of our imports, but since it sees somewhat lower yields, 62% of a tennis court area is needed just for me. Vietnam supplies 16% of our coffee and their high yields of 2,161 lbs/acre mean that my supply could be grown on an area one quarter the size of a tennis court. Guatemala and Mexico are lower yielding sources and so my footprint there would be 1.13 or 2.13 tennis court equivalents respectively. In the transcript of this podcast on popagriculture.com, there is a graph comparing import quantities for the top 20 U.S. coffee suppliers and the effective “tennis court equivalents” in each country that would be needed to supply a coffee drinker like me.
Now part of or an entire tennis court is not a huge area, but coffee is a rather labor-intensive crop so that even our individual “footprints” require quite a bit of time and effort on someone’s part. Most coffee is still grown by “small-holder” farmers, particularly in the case of the higher quality “Arabica” varieties that are used to make the “specialty coffee” that has come to dominate our market. The plants must be pruned and fertilized. Weeds must be controlled by hand or with carefully applied herbicides. There are insect pests and fungal diseases that require pesticides. A great deal of this work is carried out by individuals on foot rather than with the kind of machinery that can be used in many other crops. Also, coffee is often grown in mountainous areas because the best climate for coffee quality is often at higher elevations to avoid excessive heat. So when you visualize the work on the “finca” for my or your “footprint,” imagine people navigating a slope employing hand tools and/or using a backpack sprayer.
But the biggest labor issue for coffee has to do with its harvest. As a semi-tropical plant, coffee does not just bloom at a certain time of year. Flushes of blooms can be induced by rain events throughout the year so that at any one time, there tend to be coffee “berries” of very different maturities on the same tree and even on the same branch. That is why coffee has been traditionally harvested by hand so that only the deep red colored ripe fruit is harvested leaving the greener fruits for harvest another time.
When I was growing up there was a ubiquitous television ad campaign for Columbian Coffee and it featured “Juan Valdez” as the person out hand-picking the ½ inch in diameter coffee “cherries” one-by-one. According to one website for the Kona coffee industry in Hawaii, a professional coffee picker can harvest 200 to 500 pounds of coffee cherries a day. The cherries are then crushed and “fermented” for a couple of days. After that the seeds have to be dried after which the hard shell and papery covering are removed to expose the green “beans.” The 200 lbs of cherries would yield 55-60 pounds of green beans, or 47 to 51 pounds of roasted beans. So I estimate that it takes someone between one half and one and a quarter workdays to pick the fruit needed for an annual supply just for me.
One option to save labor is to harvest all the cherries at the same time with a machine and then use a visual sorting machine to select out the ripe fruit and discard the green. Of course that means less total usable yield from each acre of land.
One thing for coffee lovers to consider is that the business of growing coffee is getting more challenging for many of those involved at the farm level. Coffee is one of those crops that has major quality drivers based on genetics, growing conditions (e.g. shade), and especially with growing temperature as a key factor. With climate change, coffee production has been shifting to higher elevations where possible and fading out in some places where that is not possible.
Coffee farmers also deal with serious pests, like coffee borer insects. There is also a serious disease that afflicts coffee that has been a big issue throughout the history of this industry. In the late 19th century, a fungus that causes “coffee rust” somehow moved from the natural range of coffee in Africa to the major coffee plantations in Indonesia that supplied England at that time. Since this was before the development of crop protection tools, like fungicides, that industry was devastated. This is said to be why the English drink tea because they could no longer get coffee. Rusts are diseases that can only grow on a certain plant species, but which severely limit the growth of that host. In the transcript of this post there is a picture a what a “rust covered” coffee leaf looks like and you can see why they use that name for this kind of pathogen.
So when rust took out the Indonesian coffee industry, the crop was shifted to other parts of Asia and to the Americas. In the latter case, it “escaped” the rust disease for a long time. But the fungus eventually made its way to Central and South America and in recent years it has become more and more of a problem for the growers there – again probably as a result of climate change that has shifted rainfall patterns. Many growers have been hard hit by this disease with some going out of the business altogether.
There are now safe and effective fungicides that can control coffee rust, but access to those and even to good advice can be limiting in many areas. First world consumers may think that they are doing something noble by seeking out organic coffee, but in reality, they are asking some of the farmers to fight this pest with far less effective “natural” pesticides, like copper compounds, which require more frequent application and which have poorer health and environmental profiles than do the more modern options.
Now don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not dealing with guilty feelings myself nor am I hoping to generate those for my fellow coffee consumers. The coffee trade can supply a good income and a reasonable lifestyle for many families with small farms, often in regions where there are not that many other good options to help generate an income. The coffee industry as we see it through retail chains or brands is usually quite removed from the actual growing of the coffee, but there are efforts to ensure that “fair trade” practices protect the actual growers from exploitation. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at a national meeting of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Within that industry, the challenge of coffee rust was very much on people’s minds, and I learned that there are on-going efforts to protect and improve conditions in the diverse and scattered coffee farming communities.
So, I’ll pose a question. Does it help you to be able to imagine the tennis court sized, physical footprint associated with producing something you enjoy? It could become even more “real” to you if you have a chance to see an actual coffee “finca” as a tourist someday. Like many crops, it can be a beautiful thing to see.