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Monoculture vs Polyculture Farming and its Impact on Coffee Cultivation

Posted by Meera Nair on

Did you know that it can take as much as 3 or 4 years for a newly planted coffee tree to bear coffee cherries? 

Once the coffee plant has matured, coffee is generally harvested once a year and this harvest season usually lasts around 2-3 months.

You must be wondering why we’re suddenly talking about coffee growing.

Knowing the difference between monoculture and polyculture coffee cultivation will help you understand exactly how agricultural factors impact the coffee industry.

What is Monoculture Coffee Farming?

To start growing coffee, farmers need access to plantations or agricultural estates that have the right soil depth and nutrient quotient. It must also be in a region that meets the requirements of the coffee plant in terms of humidity, precipitation, elevation, etc. Basically, if it’s along the Bean Belt, there’s nothing like it!

Although coffee is considered to be a shade-grown plant, it is not uncommon to find vast stretches of coffee plantations that are open to direct sunlight. This is what a monoculture coffee farm is like. 

In a monoculture farm, the land is used to grow only a single plant, in this case, coffee. 

what are monoculture coffee farms

The reason why some producers choose to cultivate coffee in monoculture farms is that it is said to result in higher yields and requires less manpower.

Considering that coffee is planted evenly in these farms, mechanical harvesting machines can be used to pick the coffee cherries at a pace much faster than farmers having to navigate polyculture farms and handpick the coffee cherries.

With practised measures, farmers can also make up for the lack of shade and reduce its impact on the quality of coffee grown.

Moreover, these days, more and more coffee species aren’t negatively affected by direct sunlight.

The fact that monoculture farms enable the production of large volumes of coffee doesn’t really nullify the dire consequences they can have on the soil quality of the land. 

This type of farming is often met with criticism because it isn’t as environmentally friendly as the alternative. There’s less biodiversity, and the crop can be more susceptible to plant diseases.

There are both pros and cons to monoculture farming.

What is Polyculture Coffee Farming?

You would have heard of the term “shade-grown coffee”. It literally means that the coffee plant is grown in the shade of other trees. 

polyculture coffee farming

This can happen both in a natural forest setting as well as on coffee estates, where other trees are intentionally grown at regular intervals to allow for optimum growth of the coffee plants. 

Polyculture farming is the traditional type of farming and is reminiscent of how plants and trees grow in nature, intermingling and thriving in a mutually beneficial system.

Polyculture farms have a host of benefits for coffee farming as well as the environment. There’s less soil erosion and more biodiversity. It also reduces the probability of pests destroying all crops within the farm.

Some crops that are typically grown alongside coffee include black pepper, orange, vanilla, and cardamom. This isn’t necessarily why some of the coffee you drink has a citrusy flavour or spicy tasting notes. 

Polyculture farms also come with great economic opportunities. Farmers can make additional income selling other produce, and not just coffee. It’s a win-win essentially.

Despite polyculture coffee farms producing less yield, these harvests can often be sold for more when compared to produce from monoculture farms because of their superior quality and specialty-grade characteristics.

Some drawbacks of polyculture farming are that it Is more labour-intensive and the land is not as efficiently utilised as can be. A lot more space gets used up to grow non-coffee crops and other plants that are meant to maintain the ecological conditions of the farm.

Much like all stages of coffee production, farming too has an impact on the sustainability of the coffee trade. 

Coffee farming has come a long way when compared to the early 20th century. With better technology and resource allocation, coffee farmers can choose between monoculture and polyculture farming depending on what kind of coffee they are looking to grow.

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