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World Coffee Research Director Tim Schilling Tells Us All About the Variety Intelligence Project

sorting coffee cherries

Photo by Dennis Tang

by Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog

I had the honor during this year’s SCAA Symposium of facilitating a panel discussion on the coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America — a panel featuring some big names in coffee. In the end, some of the most memorable contributions to the conversation were made by folks not on the official agenda, including World Coffee Research Executive Director Tim Schilling:

In today’s interview, Dr. Schilling tells us a bit more about the Variety Intelligence Project he mentioned back in April in Seattle.

Can you tell us what the project is all about?

The Variety Intelligence Project is designed to help the grower make the best investment decision regarding varieties to use in a renovation scheme or in new plantings.

What is the goal?

The goal is to produce a kind of variety catalog that will list all the attributes of every variety grown in Central America and show both productivity and quality performance data over altitudes, soil types, etc. Seed and seedling sources will be identified and recommended by country/region.

Would you say it is similar in terms of its focus to our Colombia Sensory Trial in its focus on helping stakeholders in the coffee trade make better decisions?

Very much so. The big difference is that in Central America there are many different varieties being grown so instead of just two, like we are doing in Colombia, we’ll have about 12 or more. We also will not have the benefit of having the varieties always grown side by side so it won’t be as precise as results coming from the Colombia trial but we will do the best job of compilation using advanced statistics. No matter, it will still be the best thing out there for a farmer to make a decision on.

So how does it work?

You are a farmer in the Western Highlands of Guatemala at 1,400 m in forest shade. You’ve been growing Caturra but got hit hard with rust and on top of that you think you have nematodes. You have to choose a new variety that may last 20 years so you have to make the right choice. Pick up your handy WCR Variety Catalog. Thumb through the variety descriptions. Find those that fit your needs, i.e. those listed as performing well 1,200-1,500m, med-high quality at this elevation, rust resistant, work well under shade, and is graphable onto a nematode resistant variety like Nemaya. So you might find two or three that fit the need. Then you look at the seed/seedling sources and find that one is an F1 Hybrid that costs $1.25/plant so you eliminate it because it’s too expensive (or maybe you want to try x seedlings anyway… whatever, you get the idea). Then you see where you can buy the seed/seedlings. One place might be in another country, so you eliminate that and hopefully you are left with one pure line that fits all the bills and a certified seed grower of this variety is located only a few bus rides away!

During Symposium you suggested that the project would start publishing results by early 2015. Is that timeframe still valid?

Yes. We’ve identified the variety intelligence team and they will start work in the Fall and finish by Spring 2015.

What are the first products we can expect to see from the project?

There will be intermediate products along the way like variety list by countries with performance data, a huge cupping trial (like the Colombia one) for quality, ID of certified growers by country, labs, nurseries, etc… But there’s only one product: The WCR Variety Catalog that will have all the information in it.

This project will lay the groundwork for a certified seed/seedling enhancement program for the region providing sources of high quality, pure seed and seedlings for coffee farmers.

What are your plans for distributing the catalog? How can I be sure to get my hands on a copy when it comes out?

The WCR Variety Catalog will be distributed through coffee institutions like ANACAFE, IHCAFE, etc. In addition, we will make it available to exporters working with farmers (ECOM, VOLCAFE, OLAM, etc…), roasting companies working with farmers (SBUX, KGM, CC, Intelli, JMS, …), certifiers working with farmers, (FTUSA, 4C, etc.) and of course all the NGOs working with coffee farmers (CRS, Mercy Corps, TechnoServe, etc.). Finally, it will be available to download from our site and others.