Planting, pruning, fertilizing, picking… While many aspects of coffee production are perennial for farmers, every harvest is different. Farmers prepare based on weather forecasts, market shifts, climate change, and unique micro-regional growing conditions. Over the last five years however, producers have increasingly faced new challenges to coffee cultivation, and perhaps nowhere have these shifts been felt as quickly or acutely as Central America. Coffee is a drupe (a fleshy fruit with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed), that will only thrive where conditions are favorable, so a changing environment can have far-reaching effects. Therefore, we need to explore why the specific contours of coffee’s seasonality are important, how they impact producers, and how they can affect green coffee buyers’ selections.
When considering the cultivation cycle, it is useful to begin – as the coffee cherry does – with flowering. This is important because the flowering starts the clock for farmers planning their harvest activities and gives them the earliest indications of what volumes to expect. For example, in 2019, flowering in Nicaragua got off to an early start, which in turn accelerated the shipping schedule. We started receiving wet parchment in early October, leading to more coffee available for shipment in December. Because of the changing weather patterns over the last couple of years, we have been able to ship our first RTB and A grade coffees from Nicaragua in late December. This would have been hard to imagine five years ago, when flowering patterns historically meant producers were only just starting to pick coffee in late November. Two or three weeks really can make a stark difference.
This change in the coffee cycle also means a variation in the coffee ripening patterns that determine how many pickers or full-time workers will be needed during the harvest. More concentrated ripening patterns can lead to a greater amount of coffee available for harvest than available pickers can handle, creating a shortage of labor and a potential risk to quality. On the other hand, when ripening patterns are less uniform, it is difficult for pickers to only collect ripe cherries, hampering the ability of producers to plan and organize. This has a direct impact on how producers can manage incoming coffee to the wet mill for processing. For example, for the 2020-2021 harvest in Nicaragua, before hurricanes IOTA and ETA struck, we projected coffee to start ripening in early November. This estimate was ultimately revised however due to the delay caused by the increased rainfall.
You might be thinking “Doesn’t excessive rainfall actually overripen cherries on the trees?” Well, it depends. As the rainfall arrived before the cherries were fully mature, the risks were 1) production would drop due to unripe cherries, 2) quality would be affected due to microorganisms that flourish when coffee plantations are too humid, and 3) that less suitable conditions at the farm could risk people’s health e.g., Covid-19. Luckily, while the harvest has been delayed in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, we have also seen an increase in quality. Up to now, one of the grades in shortest supply at these three origins is RTB, reflecting a combination of growing conditions, farmer’s practices, and agronomical advice.
Similarly, compared to 2020, our Guatemala growers reported a two-to-three-week delay in the harvest, leading to less coffee being available on the market for purchase in January. Farmers from Huehuetenango said this situation was extremely difficult, as it affected their cash flow precisely when they needed income to pay back loans and to finance the harvest. Labor shortages are another concern, since coffee pickers have been required to stay close to homes and not travel to other regions, the number of people available to perform harvest the coffee has been reduced.
In the case of El Salvador, the harvest was also delayed, but more importantly we are seeing less incidence of coffee berry borer or “broca” compared to the previous harvest. This year we are happy to see fewer of producers’ delivered offer samples being rejected due to broca. This is great news because it impacts yields from parchment to green and increases producer earnings. We have also seen an increase in quality, with cleaner, more complex coffees being delivered despite the damaging effects of excessive hurricane precipitation. At this time last year, around 70% of farmers had completed their harvest, but this season we are closer to 85%, which has benefitted the quality as we are seeing fewer quakers.
Why do you as a buyer need to know this?
Because it affects coffee availability in terms of quality grades, profiles, and volume. If the harvest patterns change, the flow of green coffee will also change. Think of the following:
- If your shipments are scheduled for April but your coffee is only just beginning to be harvested, it will take a producer around 2 to 3 weeks to dry the parchment and then transport it to the buying station, 1 or 2 more weeks to be ready for milling and prepped for shipment. Could it be ready for export? It depends. In this scenario and with an efficient origin partner, yes, but there is always a possibility that a delayed approval of a pre-shipment sample could delay the milling and therefore the export process, especially given current global supply chain issues. For this reason, it is important to provide sample feedback as quickly as possible and stay up to date with any changes at origin that could impact your origin partners and coffee growers.
- Since every harvest is different, there could be more coffee available of a specific quality grade, but not necessarily a matching demand for that same grade. For example, you need RTB, but there is more A grade. This is great news for producers because they will get a higher price but could mean less coffee available from a specific area for a roaster. The questions are: can roasters take a higher or lower quality grade from the region they buy from? Will they need to find new regions that provide suitable substitutes? Or look to a different origin entirely? How would this affect a buying program, and the communities that rely on those yearly purchases?
As you can see, all these changes whether forecasted or unforeseen can have a gradual but profound impact at origin and destination; we are all connected and depend on each other. However, change also mean opportunity, and to continue making coffee better, we must adapt together. I believe that these shifts in coffee seasonality are a wonderful chance for roasters to continue strengthening relationships and supporting farmers by buying different quality grades, or by knowing if there will be a variation in profile and be ready to adapt to it. It is important to know what is happening where coffee is grown and how it can affect farmers, buyers, and consumers along the way.
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