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Wet Mills and Water: How Better Measurement Leads to Better Management

A hand-cranked wet mill. Photo by Kraig Kraft.

A hand-cranked wet mill. Photo by Kraig Kraft.

Wet mills — key elements in the coffee landscape, and the first step toward transforming the cherry into a green bean.

At their core, these structures can be relatively simple. They need to receive the cherries, to depulp — and some stop here, though we won’t get too much into detail on pulped naturals, naturals or honeyed coffees — ferment and wash.

The setup of the physical infrastructure depends on the context, the local coffee history, the size of the farm and the distance to market. In Costa Rica, most of the wet milling is done in central mills, with farmers bringing their cherries to be weighed and processed every day during harvest. It’s the same in Veracruz, Mexico. However, in most of the Latin American coffeelands, everyone from estates to small holders processes their own cherries in their own wet mill.

A wet mill can range from a hand-cranked depulper into a plastic barrel or tiled lined tank, to a multi-million-dollar structure with a truck scale to weigh cherries, float tanks to separate impurities and ripe cherries, and multiple lines for depulping, fermenting and washing.

Whatever the level of investment, a great majority of wet mills are lot like Frankenstein’s monster. You start with one piece, add another piece. A piece gets adapted here, a pipe added there, and another piece repurposed here. You connect the electricity, and if all goes well, it’s alive!

Martin López, at a wet mill at La Revancha Coffee Estate in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Photo by Oscar Leiva for CRS.

Martin López, at a wet mill at La Revancha Coffee Estate in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Photo by Oscar Leiva for CRS.

From an engineering or efficiency standpoint, this is the exact wrong way to approach the core problem of how to quickly and efficiently transform coffee cherries to green coffee beans. Too often, each piece or step in the mill gets treated like its own entity, with little thought of treating the entire wet mill process as a system, starting with a holistic design that is centered around maximizing the efficient processing of coffee cherries. Instead, the economic realities of small farmers dictate levels of investment, and therefore, these are almost all built in a piecemeal fashion.

When it’s set up efficiently and well, the wet mill processes coffee cherries with minimal use of water, with systems in place to eliminate groundwater contamination. On the quality side, you should not really perceive the milling process in your coffee unless it’s been processed differently, as with naturals or honeyed coffees. Yet it’s rarely this simple.

Most wet mills use tremendous amounts of water, funneling coffee cherries through inefficient systems that end up returning contaminated wastewater back into the environment. Wet mills are an issue that have to be dealt with on an individual basis, yet when you start doing the math and look at the sheer number of wet mills in the coffeelands, you begin to understand the scale of the problem.

For instance, let’s review some of the numbers of wet mills in some of the countries where CRS works in coffee: In Colombia, there are approximately 500,000 farmers, each with their own wet mill. There are 40,000 farmers with wet mills in Nicaragua. There are 120,000 farmers in Honduras… You begin get the picture.

Kraig Kraft photo

Kraig Kraft photo

This past summer, the SCAA published “A Blueprint for Water Security in the Coffeelands.” In recommendation #3, it addresses wet mills specifically. The recommendations were to reduce, reuse and recycle water; to treat wastewater and to commit to continuous improvement. These are the basic principles, yet for a small farmer it is often difficult to put theory into practice, since doing so can require costly investments in infrastructure.To adapt an old adage, in order to manage, you first need to measure. Our first recommendations to smallholder farmers is to measure their water usage. How much water does it take to process one bag of green coffee? With this data, we can begin to explore with the farmer where the biggest uses of water are in their process and which is the main source of contamination.Recently, the CRS Blue Harvest team was in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua with Leonardo Sanchez, a water treatment and wet mill design expert, to train technicians on how they could “triage” wet mills and look for ways in which they can be made more water-efficient and more environmentally friendly.It starts with an analysis process. For every process, a diagram is created to understand what enters and what leaves. Does water enter? Is it clean water? Does coffee enter? In what form? How does it leave? How much water and how much coffee? What are the waste products that are produced?This flow diagram helps identify critical points where changes can be made in the future. In practice, what we encountered was that most wet mills need to start at a much more basic understanding of how much water is actually used during the process. The benchmark of water use efficiency would be to use one liter per kilogram of cherries. Farmers need to know where they stand against the benchmark before they can identify where the inefficiencies are.

By creating a yardstick, we hope that farmers and the other actors in the value chain can collaborate to make improvements in mills, and to co-investment towards increased water use efficiency and sensible water treatment systems to ensure the shared stewardship of water resources in the coffeelands.