Cultivation Of Coffee

( Originally Published 1900 )

As the methods of the cultivation of coffee and its preparation for market differ to some extent in various parts of the world, it will be best to give first a general account of the processes adopted, and to supplement this afterwards with notes on the industry in the different producing countries.

Coffee thrives to the best advantage in a hot, moist climate, and on rich, well-drained soil. A high rainfall is usually essential, and anything between 75 and 120 inches per annum is desirable, well distributed. It is true that coffee can be grown in dry regions and yield produce of excellent quality, but then the crop is usually very small. While its cultivation is confined to the tropics, coffee is pre-eminently a crop for fairly high elevations, and the best results are attained on estates situated above 2,000 feet, although it will grow almost down to sea level. Liberian coffee gives good results at lower elevations than Arabian.

In South America the coffee grown in very dry regions, situated rather high above the level of the sea is considered the most fragrant ; the fruits are much smaller, however, and the crop less plentiful. In damp regions, above a certain degree of latitude, the plant bears a very rich foliage, at the expense of the fruit. The two things most injurious to its growth are cold, and very hot, dry winds. If the plant is not protected it loses a large part of its foliage on the windy side ; sometimes it is even entirely despoiled of its leaves. To prevent this, trees are planted round the coffee plantations to shelter them from the wind.

Propagation. Coffee plants are propagated from seeds, for which the largest and finest fruits from selected trees should be chosen. The seeds may be planted directly in the fields in the positions the future trees are to occupy. The method is commonly known as " planting at stake, because a stake is driven in to mark the position of the seeds, three or more being planted together so as to allow of the weaker plants being pulled up later. This method has several advantages, as it does away with the expense and risk of transplanting. On the other hand, if the climate is not sufficiently moist, there is always the possibility of drought ink [ring, or even killing, the young seedlings. If there is any likelihood of this happening the young plants must be raised in nurseries. When this course is advisable the seeds are sown in carefully prepared and thoroughly well-tilled nursery beds, situated so that the plants can readily be watered. It is necessary to afford shade to the young plants, and this can be done by arranging coarse matting, palm leaves, etc., on a framework three or four feet above the ground. When the plants are about one to two feet high they are transplanted to their permanent situations, this being done at a season when showers are frequent. Before transplanting the shade is gradually removed and the plants hardened off exactly as in this country one would prepare seedlings for the difference in climate between a frame, or greenhouse, and a situation in the open. After being transplanted temporary shading is afforded by palm leaves, leafy branches, or in other ways, each country and sometimes each estate having its own method in these matters of detail. The distance between the plants varies, but from ten to fifteen feet apart may be taken as about the average planting distance. Catch crops can be cultivated between the rows whilst the coffee plants are young and small. In Brazil, for instance, maize and beans are planted between the young shrubs. These give a useful crop and at the same time serve to shelter the coffee from the sun. Bananas and plantains are commonly employed in a similar way. As soon as the coffee plants become well developed and begin to bear fruit, the other plants should be removed, unless there are special considerations which render their retention advisable for a longer period.

Weeding is of great importance in the coffee plantations and requires great care, for in regions of such luxurious growth grasses and weeds display an extraordinary vitality and vigour. In Brazil, with its dry climate, where the coffee shrubs are planted at sufficient distances from one another, mechanical weeding-knives drawn by negroes are used to clear the plantations, a method which is very little known in other countries.

Shade Trees. So far we have only spoken of the temporary shade provided for the coffee whilst it is young. Permanent shade trees are also often planted, amongst the favourites being species of Erythrina and other leguminous trees. The necessity for these is a disputed question. Certainly, excellent coffee can be grown without shade, for instance, the Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica, and in Brazil also shade is not usually employed. The planters of other countries, such as Porto Rico, say that the plants absolutely require shade. Local conditions probably have much to do with this difference of opinion, and it is one of those problems which, as in the case of cacao, each planter must solve for himself as the result of his own observations. The whole question is fully discussed by Mr. O. F. Cook in an interesting Bulletin of the United States Department of Agriculture, entitled " Shade in Coffee Culture," in which the complex nature of the problem is well brought out. In all probability where shade trees are found to be advantageous their beneficial action is often only indirect, in affording protection from winds, drought, soil erosion, and in that increase of soil fertility which leguminous plants, as a group, bring about.

Fruiting. As a rule the coffee shrub first flowers in its third year, and then only bears a small crop of fruit. The fifth year is usually the time of the first considerable yield. Climate and soil have great influence on the blossoming. Where there are no great differences in the temperature in the different seasons the coffee plant bears flowers all the year through, so that at any time of the year an individual plant will bear flowers and fruit in various stages of development. The gathering of the crop and the treatment of the beans are in such places not restricted to definite seasons—a circumstance which is of no advantage, as the quantity gathered at one time is usually small, and the handling and preparation of the crop is more profitable when large crops are dealt with. It is thus preferable to form plantations in regions where the seasons are sharply distinguished from each other. In Java three gatherings are made annually, called the " early," the " chief," and the " after crop," but only the second, which begins at the commencement of the rainy season, is of great importance.

In the coffee-growing districts of Brazil differences in climate have great influence on the time of flowering, the time of harvest, and the quality of the product. Thus, ripening is hastened in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where it is much warmer than in San Paulo, the consequence of which is that the crop gathered in Rio is ready for sale at least a month earlier than Santos coffee from San Paulo (April and May), whilst in other districts, such as Briganza and Atibaia, the crop is not ready until October.

The flower enjoys only a very ephemeral existence as the setting of the fruit generally takes place within twenty-four hours, and the petals wither and fall off almost immediately. A coffee estate in full flower is a very beautiful sight, but its glory is very soon past, and an estate which was a mass of fragrant white blossom one day becomes green again within a comparatively short time. From the time of blossoming to the ripening of the fruits there is a period of some seven or more months.

Picking. It is easy to recognise when coffee fruits are ripe as they are then dark red, and bear a strong resemblance to ripe cherries. The cherries are readily stripped from the branches by hand, and are collected in bags, baskets, or other convenient receptacles. To obtain the best quality product only the ripe " cherries" are gathered, those which are green and unripe being left on for a later picking. Dry and shrivelled up berries must also be carefully kept apart. The picking requires to be done carefully so as to prevent the plant as well as the fruit from being damaged.

The Arabs allow the fruits to mature fully until they fall off of their own accord, or are made to fall by slightly shaking the plants, a cloth often being spread beneath. This ensures only quite ripe fruit being collected, and is no doubt one reason of the excellent qualities of Mocha coffee. This method, however, is not generally adopted in countries where there is a high rainfall.

In Brazil the crop is gathered " da terra " or " do lençal." If the first method is adopted the fruits are made to fall on the ground, which is first carefully cleared of weeds, and the cherries are afterwards gathered up and freed from sand, earth, etc., by sifting. In the alternative method the tree is shaken and the fruits collected on a cloth (lençal). Formerly this method was also practised at Santos, in Brazil, but since slavery was abolished 1888 in the gathering "da terra" (which is not so good, but requires fewer labourers) has gradually taken its place.

The fruits are usually carried in carts to the places where further treatment takes place, but oil many large, up-to-date plantations they are transported along galvanised iron spouting by the agency of running water.

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