Mechanical coffee harvesting equipment: Mechanisation on the farm

The 2005 award-winning documentary Our Daily Bread serves a wake-up call to the realities of modern food production. Stark industrial shots of factory rows of vegetables, conveyor belt cultivation and mechanical tree shakers paint a portrait of the actualities of agriculture in modern-day developed countries. Where labour costs are high and land is scarce and costly, efficiency through technology has become a vital component of keeping food prices affordable. For most rich countries, gone are the days of the family farm. They have not been spared from economies of scale. With most coffee production taking place in developing nations, however, coffee cultivation has largely been spared the advent of mechanisation. Farm workers lugging baskets of cherries they hand-pick off trees is often the norm, where low costs of labour and limited access to technology make hand cultivation possible. Selective picking has become a popular term in the specialty coffee community, where this process of cultivation has become associated with quality coffee. It’s an association, however, that isn’t being universally welcomed. Carlos Brando, of P&A International Marketing in Brazil, can’t help but express his exasperation of this “romantic” idea that coffee has to be hand-selected to be of any quality. “There is this ridiculous idea that coffee has to be selectively picked, but there is no negative association between mechanical harvesting and quality,” Brando says. “There is this illusion that consumers care about how their coffee is picked. Do you think they care about how their sugar cane is picked? Or their oranges?” In coffee-powerhouse Brazil, mechanical harvesting first entered the country in the 1960s, explains Brando. They were initially adapted from berry harvesters developed in the Northwestern United States. More recently, he says grape harvesters have become a popular adaptation. While initially these were limited to self-propelled vehicles, in the 1990s hand-held harvesters became increasingly popular. These are essentially gasoline-powered stroke-engines, similar to lawn mowers or chainsaws. The natural limitation to the machines is the slope of the hills. As most coffee is grown at 1000 metres or more above sea level, coffee trees lend themselves to hilly terrain. Not only does this make using the machines harder, but when the trees are shaken the cherries are difficult to collect as they roll downhill. Levelling devices have been developed to allow the machines to operate on more vertical terrain, but these still have their limitations. Hand-held devices do help overcome these differences. As Brando points out, these devices are in a “permanent” state of development, and every improvement in helping the harvesters select the ripest cherries and operate on more vertical terrain. “Both types are increasing selectivity with the ability to change the speed and intensity of the vibration depending on the trees,” he says. Brando points to the potential of genetic work that would see the stems of the cherries become even weaker as they ripens. This would facilitate the selection process, in that a weaker vibration could let loose only the ripest berries. Brando explains that the attachment force between the cherry and the branch is different between Arabica and Robusta varieties. Just as genetic work has helped fight rust disease and other plant developments, similar genetic “borrowing” could help in this space. The advantages to mechanical harvesting, Brando points out, are evident. Hand held devices can harvest 20 times as much as a person can in selective picking, while self-propelled harvesters can collect a full 500 times what a person can. “That is a substantial savings in terms of the labour it takes to harvest,” Brando says. With Brazil having one of the highest labour costs among coffee producing nations, mechanical harvesting is essential in large farms to ensure the owners can turn over a profit. It’s this savings in labour that explains the two other countries where mechanical harvesting is most used – the United States (Hawaii) and Australia, two of the most developed countries that grow coffee.
Australian coffee farmer John Zentveld says that he couldn’t possibly operate his farm profitably without mechanical harvesters.     “Our labour costs are too high, if we couldn’t do it with a mechanical harvester, we couldn’t do it at all,” he says. “To hand-pick our cherries it would cost us something like US$6 a kilogram, and that’s even if you can find people to do it. No one in Australia wants to pick cherries all day for seven days a week during harvesting time.” Australia has a history of working with mechanical harvesters, when the Queensland-based company Austoft began developing and producing the machines. With such a small coffee growing market in Australia, Zentveld explains, they have since sold off the production of the machines to Brazil.  On his farm, Zentveld has purchased coffee harvesters from leading American manufacturers Korvan. He’s also supplied three harvesters to coffee farms he helped set up in New Caledonia.
As Zentveld explains from this experience, implementing the use of mechanical harvesters isn’t as simple as just purchasing a machine. Especially with the self-propelled machines, farms need to be set up with wide lanes to ensure the machines can drive through. With the farms in New Caledonia, Zentveld was expecting from day one they would be using mechanical harvesters, and set-up the farms as such. Farms that are looking to make the technological step-up often have to do so at the cost of a row of trees. Such a set-up, however, is now the norm among Australian coffee farmers. Mark Bullivant of Byron Blue Coffee Estate agrees that hand-picking is simply out of the question – with minimum wage in Australia starting at over US$15 an hour. Bullivant boasts that they hardly touch a single cherry in their harvesting season. Between two people, they were able to harvest 45,000 trees thanks to their set-up, which includes screening and colour matching technology that works to select the beans post-harvest. In their set-up, they’ve ensured that their machines can be adjusted to harvest more or less cherries, depending on their ripeness. The result is an impressive specialty product. Of around 500 kilograms of coffee, 470 kilograms are screened at 16 plus, resulting in just 30 kilograms of chips.  As yields continually improve, Bullivant says it won’t only be a matter of wages that will move farmers towards mechanical harvesting. “Look at Brazil, it’s not just the labour costs that prevent them from hand-picking,” he says. “They have so much coffee that they pick, there is no where near enough people to do all that picking.”
Bullivant says that hand-picking cherries in developed countries is only possible where coffee is grown in small micro lots and collect a premium. He points to experience in Hawaii, where hand-picking does occasionally still occur. “If you’re getting $45 a kilogram for your coffee then yes, you probably can afford to get the labour,” he says. “We just haven’t invested in that kind of marketing in Australia. As a result, even though we have a great product, we can’t get top dollar for our beans.” John Ah San, of Ka-u Ocean Vista Coffee Estate in Hawaii, is one of the farmers in the Ka’u District who is benefitting from the strong Hawaiian coffee brand. Last year, they sold around 900 kilograms of green coffee to Starbucks, who on-sold 8-ounce packages for US$25 each. The coffee sold out in two days, and Starbucks has since revisited their farm to look at purchasing more coffee.  
Ah San’s entry into the specialty market took place after a trip to a Brazilian trade show, where he was told that to stay competitive, they would have to sell their coffee in the gourmet, also known as specialty, market. Following the show, Ah San received a group of roasters who showed them how to select only the ripest cherries. Following these recent developments, they’ve paid special attention to market their beans in this space, and their reputation has helped them demand a high price for their beans. In the last five years, they’ve regularly placed in the top 10 at Specialty Coffee Association of America competitions. “More farmers are realising that we have to up our quality if we want to stay in the gourmet market,” says Ah San. “The challenge is to get the pickers to only pick what’s ripe.” Whereas pickers are paid based on the weight of what they collect, Ah San says many were afraid they wouldn’t make enough weight, so getting them to pass over accessible cherries was tough. What they found, however, was that the riper cherries were actually heavier, which meant that the pickers would receive more money for picking riper cherries. “Not only were they getting paid more for their cherries, but they were also getting more work as we had to keep calling them back,” he says. “And so it was a win-win situation. They would get more work, and where our cupping quality would go up we would also get more money for our coffee.” While Ah San does enjoy marketing his coffee as “hand-picked”, he says it isn’t necessarily the desire to stay in the gourmet market that’s keeping them away from mechanical harvesting. As one of the newer islands in the state, which is made of volcanoes emerging out of the Pacific, the “Big Island” of Hawaii is among the steepest islands at over 4000 square metres high. As such, mechanical harvesting is virtually impossible using current technology on this type of terrain, with no harvesters on the island. “We have to hand-pick our coffee, it’s not a marketing tool. But since we have to, we can say, ‘we pick nothing but the ripe cherries,” Ah San says. “Whether hand-picking cherries is ‘romantic’ or not it doesn’t matter – you just can’t do it any other way here.” While they can increase their profitability by continually improving their cup quality and marketing their coffee in the specialty market, he says they’ll never have the capacity to increase their volume. When asked if he would consider mechanical harvesting if the technology were adaptable to his terrain, Ah San says he  isn’t adverse to the possibility. “We’re certainly open to suggestions, we’re always willing to give something new a try.” As for how the specialty market will accept mechanical harvesting, Stephen Hurst, Managing Director of Mercanta Specialty Coffee Merchants, says that from his view mechanical harvesting is perfectly acceptable: “The setting of the tension of the arms of the harvesting machine can be very sensitive, only harvesting ripe cherries, or harvesting all colours – just as humans could be instructed (or rewarded) to pick well or badly,” Hurst says. “I know many fine farms using harvesters, many using hand picking. I know poor quality industrial low grade farms using harvesters and using hand picking.” Hurst says that in his experience, harvesters do not put people out of works. In the farms where he sees harvesters deployed, he’s seen that workers are deployed elsewhere within the structure or organisation. Brazil’s Brando says that a country can only develop when workers become increasingly skilled and can demand higher wages. “How much coffee can a single person pick? If they pick X kilograms, that isn’t going to change overnight, not without technology,” he says. “People’s aspirations are increasing, their costs of living are increasing. Has anyone thought that by forcing them to pick coffee, you’re condemning them to poverty? In the long run, coffee prices are going to fall over time. How will coffee pickers survive without better technologies?” 

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend