Taking it to the field
Update to Global Coffee Monitoring Program
In November 2019, 12 coffee farmers in Jinotega, Nicaragua took a break from the intense work of harvesting the coffee on their farms to gather in front of the street—the term in Spanish for the space between rows of coffee trees on a farm. These farmers were standing between rows of three relatively new varieties, Marsellesa, Starmaya, and Centroamericano (also called H1), at a neighboring farm. They were gathered to observe the progress of a research trial underway at Finca La Marsellesa (both the farm and the variety are named in honor of the French city, Marseille).
Together, the farmers—most of them smallholders from the surrounding area— gathered to learn about the early results and walk through the research plot to observe differences in how the 2-year-old plants were growing.
The research plot at La Marsellesa, an 840-acre farm operated by ECOM, is part of WCR’s Global Coffee Monitoring Program, a network of hundreds of farmer field trials. Each plot is laid out in grids of nine squares, each testing a different combination of variety and farming practice to determine which combinations have the lowest costs and highest production—and produce the most profit. Given that cost is one half of the profitability equation, farming approaches that reduce costs (even if they do not increase production), can be an essential path to profitability for farmers. It’s a major goal of the GCMP network to deliver better information on how these pathways to profitability differ for different types of farming systems. The goal is ambitious: to drive a step-change in knowledge globally.
Marsellesa is one of 13 farms in Nicaragua testing Marsellesa, Starmaya, and
Centroamericano. But each research site is different in important ways, too:
Some are at higher and lower elevations (La Marsellesa is at 1100 meters), some
are smallholder farms and others are large estates, and each has unique
temperature and rainfall patters. Another critical difference is that at every
site the farmer chooses which agronomic practices to test alongside the new
varieties. At La Marsellesa, the following practices are being examined:
- Soil conservation: Using brachiara ruziziensis groundcover planted in between rows of coffee to retain moisture, and reduce soil temperature, runoff, and weeds
- Nutrition: Two different fertilization approaches, one which is more expensive (but only requires one application per year (therefore reducing labor costs), and one that is cheaper but requires 3 applications.
During the field visit, WCR agronomist Elly Castro and partner Phillipe Courtel of ECOM presented the different treatments and costs associated with each. Most of the visiting neighbors use family labor on their farmers and typically do not think of or keep track of such labor as a cost, were surprised to learn about the tradeoffs in fertilizer costs (cash vs. labor).
Farmers were also interested in the groundcover, which is uncommon in Nicaragua. A number of visiting farmers have steep slopes and liked the idea of using groundcover to preserve soils and nutrients, humidity, and lower soil temperatures in the dry season. They also immediately noticed the difference in the overall vigorousness of the varieties in the trial—the trees were loaded with green cherries (the first harvest produced at the research plot) waiting to be harvested. The crop looked promising.
Other discussion focused on the low price of coffee, which had preventing many of the farmers from having enough income to purchase fertilizer during the growth season. This is another key question that the GCMP trial hope to address: In the absence of ideal conditions, what is “good enough” for a farmer to turn a profit?
At the end of the day, one farmer turned to Courtel and asked: “So, in your opinion, what is the best variety?”
He smiled before answering. “Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. What is your focus: volume or quality? The best variety is the one that covers your costs.”