Coffee Farming Which May Change The Planet

Coffee Farming Which May Change The Planet
Two roasters, from different parts of the UK, share an enthusiasm for a little-known coffee grown in India, in an experiment by which bio-dynamic farming has renewed a region in which the soil had been ruined.

What may be a fairly revolutionary advance in coffee farming has been highlighted by two separate coffee roasters this month - Ian Steel of Atkinsons in Lancashire referred to it in a TEDx talk, and David Warr of Coopers in Jersey has called it ‘one of the biggest agro-ecological experiments on the planet’ and has written a book about it. “It’s not often,” he has written, “that you meet a group of people who, if listened to, could have the answers to climate change!”


It is the subject of bio-dynamic farming, and David Warr has gone so far in his book as to write that it is superseding both the organic and Fairtrade movements, and could be the system which counters global warming.

Ian Steel referred to it in his talk ‘How Coffee can Save the World’, a TEDx event at Lancaster University.  He surprised his audience with several references to the ridiculous aspects of the coffee trade which he, as a roaster, has to confront – typically, the ludicrous suggestion by the Ethiopian government that if they bulked all the country’s coffee together into mass containers, it would be easier to manage and sell. This, of course, would have meant all the famous origins disappearing.

“This was a frustrating period when non-coffee people in government were trying to run things,” he told us afterwards, “and you can see that it would have been counter to our requirements in speciality coffee. The loss of traceability into a general basket of coffee would have been disastrous.

“When Tadesse Meskela (manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union of Ethiopia and heavily featured in the documentary Black Gold) visited us, he had one question for me – what did I need to add value? I said ‘traceability’. I said ‘give me traceability and quality, and I’ll pay more for it’... and his government wanted to bulk all coffee together into one container, because it would be easier to sell.  Thankfully the outcome was the rise of ‘Primary Co-ops’, able to command higher prices and reward the communities that were producing their outstanding coffees.”

Steel made an equally astonishing reference to there now being 400 ethical and ecological certification badges which can appear on products – three years ago, the Ethical Corporation organisation spoke of how the ‘mass proliferation of eco-labels in the marketplace’ was removing their value as a differentiator, and the EcoLabel organisation, which monitors such accreditations, currently lists 459. They are not all to do with coffee, of course, but Ian Steel told us he was amazed by the figure, and how confusing all these labelling claims must be for the consumer.

However, he said, coffee is also responsible for great breakthroughs, including the potential to ‘save the world’ referred to in the title of his talk. “We visited India, in a place where they had never grown coffee. The farmers there are tribes marginalised by society in an area that was dying – there was no life in the soil, which had been roughly farmed, and over-farmed.

“Now, they are planting millions of coffee trees – four million in the next two years.”

This is more than just agricultural numbers. It has transformed the sociology of the region, as can be seen by the sudden appearance of 300 volleyball courts… because, with money now coming in to the area, the youngsters are no longer leaving the land, as they are in so many parts of the world. The volleyball courts are the evidence that they now have a ‘social reason’ as well as a financial reason to stay with the family farm.

This region is Araku, the subject of a long-term project by the Naandi Foundation working with the Indian Coffee Board, who identified this region as ideal for growing coffee, with the right altitude, climate and soil, funded from a variety of other government agencies, NGOs, charities and trusts. In this area, not only was the soil of poor quality, but the locals have no knowledge of coffee, so experts have had to be recruited from the all over the world, as well as coffee managers from the more traditional coffee producing areas of Kerala in the west.

“The farmers have now been taught very rigorous procedures for picking ripe cherries and been told inferior quality won’t be acceptable at the Central Processing Unit, which is state-of-the-art.  As a result, their coffees have scored 85+ in blind cuppings with coffees from other regions and countries; they have washed and naturals, the latter being beautifully bright and floral and very complex.

“All these are shade-grown and, like a lot of Indian coffees, intercropped with black pepper, papaya, mango and other exotic fruits. The beans have a very good start in life and are processed with great care and attention.

“At Atkinsons, I mainly roast this coffee in small batches for retail, and for showcasing on the brew bars in our cafés. This year, to lend as much support as I can to the project, I have bought an extra amount of one particular natural I liked, as I could find a place for it as a top note in our Prototype blend.”

The full implications of this work have now been set out in the book ‘Big Ideas For a Small World’ by David Warr of Jersey.

He writes that he first realised he was seeing something unusual in coffee farming when he inspected, of all things, a natural fertiliser pit.

“Pinned to a post was something extraordinary – a week-by-week schedule on when to plant, based on phases of the moon. The sceptic in me wondered if they were playing with a full deck…”

It was not long before he changed his mind.

“What they are doing here in Araku is probably one of the biggest agro-ecological experiments on the planet. They are attempting to bring bio-dynamics to about 12,000 hectares of land… about the size of Jersey. Its potential is such that we might wonder one day why the concept wasn’t taken more seriously when bio-dynamics were conceived.”

The belief in the effect of the solar system on growing patterns, influencing which crops should be planted and when, is something he began to take seriously. This, he was told, leads to natural organic farming.

“Listening to them, you feel you’re in the realms of astrology… but such is the lack of connection that we have with nature today. 

“You have to remember that much of their eco-system has been destroyed due to so many trees having been cut down over the last 100 or so years. The soil’s ability to retain water has been severely curtailed. Much of the carbon that was in the soil has gone. Re-fertilising the soil therefore is a top priority but they don’t want to go back to using chemicals again.

“They say that experiments have shown how germination is ‘dramatically’ affected by the phases of the moon. The ‘incontrovertible’ evidence is that the need to use any kind of chemical is negated – healthy soil produces healthy plants which are inherently more disease-resistant.”

David Warr first came across the Araku coffee through the importer DR Wakefield, with whom he and Ian Steel went to visit the growing area. The pre-eminent woman coffee taster in the east, Sunaleni Menon, was one of the pioneers of this project, Simon Wakefield told us.

“A few years back, she asked if I was interested in the project and we have supported it for a couple of years.

“The coffee is fantastic, unlike any other Indian coffee I have come across. The fine flavours and subtle variances from one farmer to another, scream ‘quality’. It is not just the bio-dynamic farming, but the care and attention to every part of the growth cycle. Of course, the organic production is in itself an important aspect of the coffee.

“You have to believe in this sort of farming to fully benefit from its style and understand how the calendar works. However, bio-dynamic farming is not the right method for every farmer and that must also be understood.”

Back in Jersey, David Warr is equally keen on the Araku beans, almost repeating Simon Wakefield’s description.

“It’s totally unlike any Indian coffee I’ve tasted before and is hugely versatile.  Unlike many origins, I would recommend it for pretty much every type of coffee maker - it’s clean without excessive acidity, and has a full body without being overwhelming. If you were to compare it with any other origin, it would give the best Colombian coffees a run for their money.

“As soon as we put it in-store it has proved to be immensely popular, and it outsells Colombian in our store. The standard is incredibly high and is why I suggest in the book that the model they are using is of global significance.”

Indeed, he asks the big question in his book – if the logic of bio-dynamics are all so obvious to the farmers, then why is everybody not implementing these ideas globally? Money, he answers – the implications would cause major problems for those who manufacture agro-chemicals, who have hugely powerful political lobbies.

Nonetheless, the future of bio-dynamic coffee is growing – in Araku, there are now plans for the planting of ten million coffee trees, ‘one of the great forests of the world’. Is this realistic? “I believe it is. The scale of investment being made in Araku is huge – 24,000 farmers, and what the Naandi Foundation has been so good at doing is ensuring that these farmers are rewarded financially for their efforts. More money going into their villages means that they see a direct link between farming bio-dynamically and financial reward.

“The scale of all this is beyond most charities, far beyond most NGOs and highlights the limitations of Fairtrade certification to make transformational and sustainable change. The whole organic and Fairtrade movement here is being superseded by bio-dynamics. It could be the future of farming, which counters that most touchy of subjects, global warming. Bio-dynamics builds resilience into the food chain and takes carbon out of the atmosphere.

“I believe what is being done here has global farming significance. This is a very long-term approach and whilst there is political stability and economic benefit then the planting of 10 million trees is well within reach.

“What I love is the scale of the ambition and its message to the rest of the planet.”