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We Must Dig Deeper to Improve Coffee’s Soil Health

coffee soil

Pedro Armengol on his farm in La Pita, San Ramón, Nicaragua. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight.

A farmer must know his or her soil. I mean, really know it: What lives in it (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.); what’s decomposing in it and how much (organic matter); how hungry it is (for certain types of nutrients); if it needs a drink or needs to dry out (moisture level); and how it’s feeling, like acidic (low pH), normal (neutral pH) or alkaline (high pH), among other things.

Like people, soil needs to be nourished. It needs to be tended to and cared for, not treated as an afterthought. As I’ve written in a previous post, farming in the coffeelands as in other parts of the world has become dependent upon the perceived quick-win solution of one-size-fits-all agricultural input solutions. Use this much usually chemical fertilizer, these seed varieties, these pesticides, and repeat.

The problem with this input-based approach is that many small coffee farmers don’t really understand why they are using it, except that it’s the way that they’ve been working their farms for years, if not generations. Simply put, these farmers don’t know the invisible characteristics of their soil, just as you wouldn’t know about your cholesterol levels without a good blood test. If they did, they would probably treat it differently. As a result, they could lower production costs and increase their on-farm income by harvesting more and better quality coffee.

By caring for their soil more precisely and also more comprehensively than merely adjusting fertilizer rates, these farmers would also be protecting themselves from the impact of epidemics such as coffee rust and climate change, involving notably longer periods of drought and increasing temperatures, as well as ensuring the quantity and quality of drinking water sources downstream.

Contrast this with how many farmers in the U.S. and other prosperous nations usually work. They take multiple soil samples from their farms on an annual basis and have them tested in qualified labs. The labs then send farmers detailed reports on the invisible conditions of their soil, including soil chemical properties (pH, soil organic matter, status of macro- and micro-nutrients, cation exchange capacity, etc.), and information on the soil texture (clay, silt, sand), which is critical to understanding how well a soil will retain both nutrients and water. In other words, these farmers are using a knowledge-based rather than input-based approach to managing their soil.

This is not to say that these problems have been resolved in the U.S. or other countries; farmers in the US still use too much fertilizer, or fertilizers with too high a level of certain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous in relation to the real needs of their farms’ soil. As a result, excess nutrients that the soil does not need or cannot filter run off into waterways and/or seep into aquifers. Anyone living near Lake Erie can certainly attest to this. However, there is a clear trend in wealthier countries to focus on soil as part of an emerging conservation agriculture revolution recently discussed in the New York Times. At the heart of this movement is improved soil knowledge and management.

In the Central American coffeelands where I live and work, we are just beginning to address this issue. Coffee farmers desperately need to know more in order to care for their soil well, but this requires money. Costs for lab tests and experts who can interpret the results and make recommendations for specific farms are not negligible. So the question becomes, who pays for this? Should this be another expense built into the farmer’s normal production costs? Or should other actors along the value chain (exporters, roasters, consumers) share this responsibility? What about government agricultural extension programs?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised when we say that small coffee farmers are already operating on extremely tight profit margins, and in years such as these when coffee prices are low, even at a loss. Hence for many farmers this additional cost may be prohibitive. At the same time, we all want more quality coffee. Knowing soils better through testing and analysis is a first step to making sure that we will have it in the future.

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