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Alice Estate: they’re on to something!

Five Senses CoffeeJacob Ibarra 28 August 2013

As specialty consumers, we often don’t give Brazil enough credit. This may be because Brazilian coffee is not always packed with flavour or complexity. Sure, every other espresso blend has some Brazilian it, but it is usually used as a less exciting base component. However, one fact that people seem to gloss over is that Brazil has been producing coffee for years and has turned coffee into an effective business.

It’s easy to forget that business and progress often go hand in hand. It’s natural to try and improve, especially when a higher return on investment or money is involved. Thus, organization and cost versus production have long been in the headspace of the Brazilian farmer. Volume and the commodity market will always be important for Brazil. It is a huge and reliable source of revenue and will always have its niche. Yet for some, their intuition about coffee production has graduated to the realm of quality.

 

As also happens in the wine industry and subject to the availability of study and research, many of Brazil’s coffee producers call upon universities, agronomists and other scientists to help in producing coffee. As specialty coffee consumers, this is an exciting reality. So you can imagine my interest and heightened level of attention when I visited Alice Estate and the good people of Carmo Coffees this week.

For the past year, Jacques Pereira Carniero, owner of Alice Estate, has been managing his farm differently. Jacques has really been wrestling with the issue of sustainability. Costs are increasing each year and quality can easily become less lucrative as a result. So he is experimenting with the modern technique of pruning.

For many, pruning is a recognisable word and concept. However, in the coffee world it has not been used with consistency and there is only a small amount of research available to support the idea.

Jacques is convinced that pruning is the way of the future. In the state of Minas Gerais, the average yearly production usually sits at around 20-30 bags of coffee per hectare. Jacques usually produces around 40-50 sacks per hectare, but witnessing a neighbour in action with pruning shears has convinced him that he can do more and achieve a higher level of sustainability.

So now Jacques is beginning to prune portions of his farm. This is not the kind of pruning that involves stumping the plant or cutting off branches which might be infected with disease. No, this pruning is radical and involves cutting all the branches off a tree so that the only thing left is the tree trunk itself. Yes, this does cause the tree to have an ‘off’ year when it does not produce fruit, but the results might not be as bad as you initially imagine.

In the second year, when the tree produces cherries, Jacques has seen an increase of about 150% in the crop. And that’s not the only benefit — the maturation of the cherries seems to be more uniform when the tree begins producing new fruit on all the new branches at the same time. These results and his general thoughts on pruning have only been confirmed by the sustainability and cost conclusions he is reaching as well.

In the ‘off’ year, while the plant is regrowing its branches, there are essentially no costs to the areas of the farm that have been pruned. Since there is no production, there are no labour costs for picking and processing. Fertilisation is the only necessary activity and that is relatively cost effective. With the increase in production by the second year, the ‘off’ year’s sales are essentially recouped over a two year period. Jacques could not do this over an entire farm in one go because he would then lose the ability to provide a consistent product (and income), but you can begin to see the benefit if he rotates pruning through certain portions of his farm every year. And, as I mentioned previously, because the second year’s harvest has more uniform cherry maturation, the coffee is picked and processed more efficiently which also translates into financial gain.

I’ll be honest and say that there is still much that is unknown about this practice of pruning. However, I am convinced that this progressive attitude towards experiments in coffee production could only exist in a couple of countries in the world. Add to that the caveat that this experimentation was driven internally and not by some external factor, and the list probably dwindles down to Brazil as the only likely place for such bold experimentation.

Jacques and Alice Estate are on to something here. If you couple that with some of the best growing conditions in the whole country, then we can start getting excited about this Brazilian farm and its coffee for years to come.

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