Science Spotlight: Coffee and Regenerative Farming Practices
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Science Spotlight: Coffee and Regenerative Farming Practices

This quarter, we'll focus on the intersection of coffee as a plant and leading practices in regenerative agriculture.

This quarter, we'll focus on the intersection of coffee as a plant and leading practices in regenerative agriculture.

Coffee Production 101

Coffee is native to northern Africa and was spread to the current growing regions by colonial Europeans who used the plantation model to grow them. In the last several decades production has become much less centralized, with many more small independent farmers contributing a majority of the beans grown in the world.

There are two main strains of coffee: Arabica accounts for 60-70% of global production, and Robusta the remaining. There are hundreds of variants in the genetic tree under each strain. Arabica beans are known to have a smoother, less bitter taste and grow best in cooler temperatures in mineral rich, well-drained, volcanic soil.

Regenerative Farming Practices 101

The root systems of every plant humans consume for food grows in a layer of topsoil that is roughly 4 inches deep. This thin layer of soil is an incredibly complex ecosystem in itself, and it has been eroding at an alarming rate for decades. The primary causes of this topsoil erosion are the main practices of industrial agriculture: Monocropping, heavy use of pesticides and insecticides, over-tilling, no planting of cover crops in the winter. The goal of regenerative agriculture is to improve topsoil fertility, biodiversity, and ecosystem health in addition to producing the crop.

(It is important to distinguish this from other certifications such as organic, which limits the use of toxic amendments on farmland, and Fair Trade, which ensures growers are paid a premium on the commodity price of their crops. FedUp Foods sources coffee that is all three - regenerative, organic, and Fair Trade).

Sir Albert Howard wrote, in 1943:

“The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted to humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease”.

Today’s regenerative agriculture is based on all of these principles, and works to integrate them into scalable food production for the modern world.

Regenerative Coffee Production

One of the easiest regenerative practices is to eat/grow perennial plants (like coffee and tea). Another easy one is to avoid mechanization. Large megaton tractors require farmers to remodel the earth into a vast flat plain, and then compress that soil. Both lead to higher rates of erosion.  Coffee is grown on hills and picked by hand.

Additionally, coffee is an understory tree, allowing it to be grown within a diverse ecosystem that is ideal for soil health, plant health, and human health. There are multiple shade types in current regenerative coffee production:

  • rustic (coffee is grown under the shade of a natural forest)
  • traditional polyculture (similar to the rustic system in structure, but has a greater diversity of economically valuable shade trees planted by the farmer)
  • commercial polyculture (shade trees are mostly planted as alternative commercial products)
  • technified shade (original forest has been completely removed and replaced with a few shade tree species)
  • most coffee farmers practice commercial polyculture by growing timber and fruit trees adaptive to the region

These practices are especially important in the cultivation of Arabica coffee, which is currently being threatened by a variety of factors, including:

  • Loss of genetic diversity. Humans plant limited genetics and monocrop so the plants are susceptible to disease epidemics.
  • Habitat loss due to deforestation, agriculture, and development.
  • Climate change.  Plants are needing to move uphill and rainfall patterns are changing.
  • Fungi and insects

The farmers, importers, and roasters that we have built relationships with as we established this supply chain for cold brew coffee are committed to regenerative practices to address all of these risks. We are happy to share more about the specifics, including their work with Innovea’s Global Coffee Breeding Network and the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe’s certification standards for regenerative and sustainable farming practices. For those of you who want to go really deep into this work, we can send the 2023 Regenerative Guidebook for Coffee Growers.