Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Two: Growing in the Cerrado

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, is currently visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. He’ll eventually end up at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, but currently he is travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the agronomy of the land, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his second trip diary from Summer 2012.


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In typical Brazilian fashion, I asked to speak to an agronomist and they made it happen. I wanted to understand the climate and the agriculture as it related to coffee. It might seem like Speciality Grade is “luck”. But coffee is anything but dumb luck. Coffee is 76% of the income in Patrocinio, a town in the heart of the Cerrado (se-ha-do) region. After talking with the agronomist until the sun was well set, it became clear to me how methodical these farmers are. The agronomist was really patient with all my questions. I asked why they were planting so many trees per hectare. Most farms in the world are planted with 1500-3000 trees per hectare. They are planting about 5000 per hecate in the Cerrado region. “Oh, we only started doing that recently, about 10 years ago”. I totally appreciated the view that what they have is working. The yields are averaging 30 bags per hectare of coffee and they are doing it in totally poor soils. Let me explain. Cerrado translates to “savannah”. The native trees barely grow. The elevation is high and you will want to wear a jacket at night. In regions with richer soil the mango trees are huge. In the Cerrado they are short, squatty and don’t grow straight if they grow at all. It is clearly a rough place to grow things.

After the black frost of coffee in 1975 in Parana in the south of Brazil, farmers started moving north where the frost risk didn’t exist. A lot of these farms have been in production for only about 20 years. They use a fair amount of fertilizer and have learned to use the weeds that grow in between the rows as fertilizer. One farm doesn’t use any chemical weed killer, only mowers, and has a higher level of organic material and (I assume) therefore a higher yield of 50 bags per hectare. Several of the farms I visited are Rainforest Alliance certified. They have taken a dry-brush-filled savannah and planted trees all over the place in poor soils and considering coffee is profitable (at current market levels) there are new coffee plantings all over the place.

So I walk back into the trade house the following day and find the cupper Lucas giving the dry mill manager a hard time because he is letting certain defects through for a Brazil NY 4/5, which is a low commercial grade coffee with defects—the green smelled like a public school restroom, musty and funky. The result of the conversation was to re-run the coffee through a couple machines to get it right. Needless to say I was impressed at the attention to detail for a such a low-grade commercial coffee. I went out to see 3 farms that day. The first was aptly named Paraiso. The farm is from Italy and is totally . . . insane. Before I met the farmer, it was obvious that the farm was strictly managed. I could tell by the natural process cherries on the patio resting at 90 degree angles. I met the farm manager and the owner. The owner was clearly pissed about something and communicated this clearly to the manager. Based on the cupping results, this farm is doing a lot of things right. The Yellow Icatu (variety) was delish, the Tupi tasted like a good espresso base, and the natural from last year (although old) also tasted like a winner.

There were 4 of us in the truck: coffee trader, an interpreter, the farm owner and I. At one point the farm owner was excited and making a joke. I didn’t understand what he said. So I looked at the interpreter, who also didn’t understand, then she looked at the coffee trader, who also didn’t understand who looked at the farmer, who simply repeated what he said in Italian. We all laughed, understanding nothing.  

The next day we did another table of calibration. While the history of the Cerrado is all commercial coffees (many farms only produce natural process) this group is passionately excited about Speciality. You can see it in their faces when sharing cupping notes. One employee there told me he enjoyed sharing information and cupping his coffees more than making money on commercial coffees.

Weather: the weather in the Cerrado region has been rough this year. The region received rain in June like never before. It accelerated the maturation of the crop and therefore reduced the amount of pulp-natural the farms could produce. Most farms will mechanically pick their coffee twice. Then do the sweepings to pick up the loose cherries from the ground to control the broca and sell the coffee as a lower grade. One farm I visited is doing the sweepings, then picking the coffee once, then sweeping again because there are so many cherries on the ground already. At least for now it isn’t raining and they are all racing to get the coffee on the patio and dry before all the remaining coffee ends up as sweepings.

More coming soon from Nossa Senhora Aparecida.