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Mechanization in the Coffee Orchard.

With labour costs increasing, many producers are considering mechanized harvesting to replace manual picking but question whether it is possible with specialty coffee. This story, an excerpt from a larger article, aims to prove that specialty coffee can be produced using harvesting machines.

As often told, coffee is the second largest traded commodity after oil. An estimated 25 million families depend on coffee cultivation and are located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Approximately 11 million hectares are devoted to coffee cultivation. Labour was always a major factor being solved with slave labour in the historic past.

Many areas offer coffee employment, however, in some instances it still resembles slave labour conditions, as lack of housing, transportation and deficient social benefits are concerned. Child labour sounds terrible, however, many young people want to work and often falsify their papers to be able to earn some money during the coffee harvest.

Even today, coffee is still a predominantly hand-picked crop. Mechanization is relatively new to coffee cultivation and harvesting. Many coffee farms are located in difficult terrain, thus, mechanization is difficult or impossible in some of these mountainous areas.

Worldwide, the trend is to replace hand labour with machinery, no matter what crop is involved. There is a trend for coffee cultivation to move from steep mountain areas, into more flat areas such as the Bolaven Plateau in Laos at an elevation of 1,300 meters or the Cerrado Plains in Brazil or the Highlands in Papua New Guinea or the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. These locations are all around 1,300 meters-plus elevation, are excellent coffee growing areas, and suitable for mechanization.

Assessing Harvesting Costs

The most expensive coffee task is harvesting. As a single task, harvesting costs are about double all other costs combined. Furthermore, harvesting labour is short in many areas, thus having to rely on migrant workers. In Bangalore, India, some farmers could not harvest the coffee crop because there is a labour shortage.

Hawaii, Australia, parts of Brazil and other areas are using harvesting machines not just to reduce costs, but to have the means to harvest the crop, as competition for harvesting labour often creates shortages especially during the harvest period. In addition to self-driven harvesting machines there are other means to speed up the harvest with hand-held shakers, pneumatic shakers and tractor-pulled harvesters.

It is essential that with machine harvesting appropriate wet milling equipment is employed to sort the harvested beans into the three different categories: ripe, over ripe and under ripe beans.

Good green bean separation and over-ripe separation with flotation are critical to get the best cup results. With today's processing machinery, it is possible to remove any immature green beans to less than two percent. Many people doubt that specialty coffee can be produced using harvesting machines. Yet, it has been proven, that specialty coffee can be produced with mechanical harvesting.

Criteria for Coffee Mechanization

Although specialty coffee can be produced with mechanical harvesting, certain requirements must be met:

1. A self-driven harvester can handle a 22 percent incline. However, terrain needs to be reasonably modulated.

2. Rock removal is necessary, as machines do not mix with rocks. This applies to harvesting as well as orchard maintenance.

3. Field layout needs to conform to machine spacing requirements. Turn-around areas, including field entry and exits need to be to specifications.

4. Supporting roads need appropriate dimensions.

5. Drainage provisions and erosion control is essential for a sustainable operation.

6. Good ground cover plantings are important.

7. Machines save labour but need qualified maintenance and access to parts.

8. If irrigation is required infrastructure needs to complement machinery.

9. Windbreak or shade trees need planting to co-exist with machinery.

10. Shorter, more compact coffee varieties are more suitable for mechanical harvesting.

11. Mechanization and machine selection are area specific and can be selected for topography and soil conditions.

Components Must Complement Each Other

Aside from the specific criteria that must be met, there are additional components involved in mechanical harvesting that need to complement each other:

1. Climate: in the case of the Bolaven Plateau there is a distinct dry season starting in the fall with the onset of harvest. This greatly helps with harvesting and it also helps to unify flowering. Ideally, flowering will happen after a dry period, followed by rainfall in the spring (March, April). Consolidated flowering makes machine harvesting much easier on account of red cherries being ripe at the same time.

2. Fertility: it is notable that the Cerrado Plateau in Brazil needed considerable amounts of calcium upon development for agriculture production. The same has proven with numerous soil tests on the Bolaven Plateau. The hydrogen-calcium ratio needs to be reversed with the application of considerable amounts of calcium carbonate. The typical manure application does not help with this.

3. Uniform Flowering: areas where flowering and ripening happens throughout the year do not lend themselves to mechanical harvesting. Flowering manipulation through various means can reduce the number of flowerings to three or less which makes mechanical harvesting easier and reduces the amount of immature green.

4. Varieties: shorter varieties tend to be better suited for machine harvesting. The Laos Experiment station in cooperation with CIRAD (French Experiment Centre) have produced good rust resistant varieties based on Catimor crosses. On the other hand, a local cooperative is producing Typica coffee (not rust resistant) and getting premium prices in Japan.

Sequential Coffee Development

There are also a number of sequential coffee development factors when preparing the coffee fields for mechanized harvesting, prior to and post planting, these include:

1. Field Preparation/Rock Removal: field layout has to conform to machine usage and field access has to be convenient to the fields and turn around space. Surface rocks must be removed as they do not mix with machinery.

2. Field Preparation/Waterways and Drainage: coffee does not tolerate standing water except for a short time. As part of field preparation all fields need to drain to a waterway to take away excess water without causing erosion. Waterways need to be grassed in, for example, with Bermuda Grass.

3. Field Preparation/Marking and Deep Ripping: row spacing of 12 feet allows for a six-foot spacing between mature trees and provides access and light to the lower parts of the trees. "In-row spacing" depends on the selected variety but should be three to five feet, allowing for 1,200 trees per acre. Line marking can be done with a GPS guidance system mounted on the tractor or outrigger markers. Prior to marking, levelling with a land leveller or angled tree logs will help with smoothing and filling low spots. A three-foot ripper behind a dozer will open soil structures and provide better drainage and most of all allow the tap root to develop easily.

4. Pre-Plant Fertilizer and Rotovating: often calcium and phosphorus are in short supply. Both nutrients don't travel well to the lower parts of the soil when applied to the top of the soil structure. It is an advantage to drop them into the rip line allowing for easier translocation to lower levels.

After applying the pre-plant fertilizer rotovating the planting line is necessary. Then, after the initial application, a second application of conventional NPK fertilizer is applied into the rotovated area followed by exact marking of the planting line.

5. Mulch Laying and Planting: the soil now is rotovated and smooth, allowing for easy mulch laying. Plastic mulch has several advantages, mostly weed-control during the critical early stages. It also conserves moisture. While laying mulch, another application of NPK and micros are applied to the exact planting line.

As the ground is well prepared and amended with fertilizer, planting is easy and does not need a deep hole. If seedlings come from plastic bags the bottom needs to be cut to eliminate circulating roots and most important tap toot. If seedlings come from Dibble-Tubes they can be planted direct without cutting the bottom.

6. Field Maintenance: good early field maintenance allows for a fast start and good initial growth. Various machinery can help eliminate weeds. The key is to deal with small weeds and not let them get to the seeding stage. One year of seeding will result in several years of subsequent germination taking maybe four to five years of weed infestation. Mechanical weed-control is advantageous over chemical weed control. However, a pre-emergence spray over the newly planted seedlings to the planting hole and a strip next to the plastic will help with early weed-control. There are numerous types of machinery available for field maintenance allowing for specific applications when needed.

7. Plant Response after Transplanting: planting success depends largely on eliminating transplanting shock. Loss of leaves on the young transplants shows problems and sets the plant back. Light acclimatization among many other details result in no loss of leaves and good early growth. The nutritional makeup of the soil and good healthy roots are essential. To overcome moisture problems after transplanting the addition of "planting-gel" can help greatly.

A dark green colour and a shine on the leaves will indicate good plant response to the various treatments. A good ground cover is essential to minimize soil erosion and soil compaction. A plant like Arachis pintoi will also provide nitrogen as it is a legume.

The initial fertilizer application will carry the plants for at least one year or until the roots move out from the plastic cover. Once the roots are outside the plastic cover side dressing can start, provided soil testing indicates a requirement.

8. Coffee is a Female Crop and needs TLC: coffee is a responsive crop and reacts quickly to various treatments, good or bad. Remember there is the two-year time lag as the plant will make a crop the first year and needs to make buds and flowers for the following year at the same time.

Continued new growth is essential as the same branch will not flower again on the same wood. This year producers must look forward to the next year and manage accordingly, or one year of production can be lost or be minimized.

9. Yield: in this project example, the first crop came two years and ten months after transplanting, producing 8.4 tonnes of cherry per hectare (ha) or 7,700 lbs of cherry per acre. Subsequent years should produce higher yields between 15 to 20 tonnes of cherry per ha.

To view the full article, visit: www.teaandcoffee. net/category/features.

Daniel Kuhn is a coffee consultant. He worked in various countries with coffee development. He spent the last three years on the Bolaven Plateau with this project. He may be reached at:

Caption: A first in Southeast Asia--an Oxbo machine harvesting on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos.

Caption: Coffee development 1.2 years after transplanting in the Bolaven Plateau in Laos.

Caption: Modified steel plates pulled by tractors can handle large and small rocks. Very large rocks need two tractors.

Caption: In Queensland, Australia, a Korvan machine is harvesting coffee.

Caption: An agromachine, or vertical green bean separator.
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Author:Kuhn, Daniel
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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