Market Reports

Working towards a sustainable future

In a remote corner of India’s Tamil Nadu state, the smell of faint jasmine fills the air as GCR Magazine approaches a coffee farm here. It’s the middle of the flowering season – or “the blossoming” as producers say in India – and the perfumed white flowers blanket the farm’s green branches. The young plants are bearing an impressive carpet of new buds. Veera Arasu Natarajan manages this small farm called AL Plantation with her husband in the Pulneys region of eastern Tamil Nadu. She boasts of her high yield levels, growing at least 800 kilograms (around 2 metric tons per hectare) of clean coffee per acre every year for the past 15 years. Yields such as these are the envy of coffee growers across not just India, but the rest of the world. They compare to average productivity of 300 – 500 kilograms per hectare elsewhere. In the Pulneys region, coffee growers have for over a decade worked steadily toward improving yields to maximise profits even from small land plots of 2 hectares. Farmers here have invested in regular renovation and replanting of trees, using better varieties from new plant material as they become available, says Natarajan, as she shows GCR Magazine around the farm. “This farm was originally started by my great-grandfather. In 1991, when my husband and I came to live here, we replanted the entire farm with new trees. Back then the variety that was recommended because of its high resistance to leaf rust was Catimor and the Selection 9 from the Coffee Board of India and they were producing very well,” she says. By 2000, she explains the Sachimore variety became popular due to its good productivity and high cup quality. “We started planting Sachimore in 2000 and I am very happy with that because I get a lot more AA-grade size beans, between 60 – 67 per cent. By now I have turned 80 per cent of the plantation into Sachimore,” says Natarajan. Long overshadowed by its two bigger producing state neighbours Karnataka and Kerela, Tamil Nadu is home to between 11 – 12 per cent of India’s annual coffee output. As in the rest of India, all the coffee planted in Tamil Nadu is grown under heavy shade via a dense forest cover. This hasn’t prevented some innovative farmers to look into mechanising their farms. “Coffee is a very labour intensive crop and the cost of labour alone constitutes about 70 per cent of the cost of production in the case of Arabica and about 60 per cent in Robusta,” Jawaid Akhtar, Chairman of the Coffee Board of India, tells GCR Magazine. “Labour shortage in the coffee plantation area continues to generate an acute problem year after year because more and more workers today don’t want to live in the rural areas. So the idea of mechanisation is starting to win acceptance by our farmers, even though it’s still a very new concept in India.” St Joseph Estate, also in the Pulneys region in Tamil Nadu, is leading mechanisation efforts in the region. Gustave Joseph is a third generation coffee farmer who runs the estate. When the coffee price crisis hit the region at the turn of the millennium, Joseph managed the farm remotely from the United Kingdom while he finished an MBA with a focus in finance. He returned to the estate towards the end of 2007. The farm has a total area of 91 hectares, with 61 hectares dedicated to coffee. Most of the coffee is young, having been planted over the past two to three years. The farm produces 100 per cent washed Arabica coffee, and in the 2012-13 harvest it won the Flavor of India Fine Cup Award for best Arabica. “We initially started mechanising because of a labour shortage, slowly replanting the gentle slopes, re-programming the spacing of the trees and turning all the lands into terraces in order to allow for the tractors to come through,” he explains. “Traditionally we’ve used spacing at 6 by 6 feet (roughly 2 by 2 metres) but for the tractors to pass we’ve needed to adjust all the spacing and widen the distance to 12 by 3 feet (roughly 3.5 by 1 metres), creating more dense singular rows of trees.” He says that around 60 per cent of the farm is made up of gentle slopes, and that area is now fully mechanised. They are now restructuring the remaining slopes to facilitate the terracing of the land, and expect to have the entire farm mechanised by the end of 2015. The makeover of the St Joseph Estate is an impressive sight. Large yellow tractors move scopes of tree trunks away, slowly opening up the land for new coffee terraces in the dense forest. While this level of mechanisation may not be new to more advanced countries like Brazil or Australia, it’s uncommon in most of the coffee producing world across Africa, Central America and South-East Asia. Mechanisation is often said to not be feasible because coffee is mostly grown at high elevation along hillsides. Joseph’s work is proving this theory wrong, and earning him a lot of talk among India’s coffee industry as a result. “In a farm plot of 50 acres (20 hectares) it would normally take 45 days with normal labour to do all the spraying, weeding, fertilising and irrigation,” explains Joseph. “But now it takes two and a half days to take care of the entire 50 acres with only two or three labourers. It’s only the harvesting that we are still contracting manual labour for today.” In the nearby village of Kodalankadu a group of smallholder coffee growers are eagerly participating in a lively discussion about growing practices, renovation and the rains. As the flowering season for the new 2014-15 harvest comes to an end, expectations for the new crop from the recently re-planted trees are high. “I have 3 acres of coffee (1.2 hectares) but it was all very old. My father planted this coffee over 50 years ago,” explains local farmer Jayaraman Ganesan. “So five years ago I started to uproot all of it and replant it one acre at a time. This coffee is now starting to enter production, so this year I should have a better crop, even if we have had some problems with a lack of rains during the blossoming.” Ganesan, and most coffee growers in the region, are able to rejuvenate their crop without losing their incomes, thanks to the efficient  management of multi-cropping. Farmers in India typically grow at least two to three other crops, mostly pepper, citrus and cardamom, giving them healthy income diversity. “In this last harvest I got 1 tonne of white pepper from my farm and prices were quite good at 650 rupees (US$10.50) per kilogram,” he smiles. Ganesan made $10,000 from his white pepper, covering the production costs of both his pepper and coffee, while also providing everything his family needed. Thanks to this plant diversity, growers here are able to experiment as well with new agronomic practices. Five years ago Mahesh Krishnamurthy uprooted and replanted his 40 acres of 50-year-old coffee. “We have deliberately gone for unconventional planting here with wider spacing between the lines but higher density among the trees,” says Krishnamurthy. “Because we see that this is working very well for the coffee here at these altitudes of 1100 to 1250 metres.” He’s happy to report yields of almost 1 tonne per hectare from his new plants in the first year of production. With increasing yields such an important part of improving the lives of coffee producers everywhere, these are impressive achievements that are making Tamil Nadu one region to look out for. 

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