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Part III — Unveiling Mechanical Harvesting in Brazil

Five Senses Coffeejuicebox 4 April 2014

Here is the third and final instalment of Juliana’s three part series giving a unique perspective on Brazilian coffees. In this edition Julz talks about the increasing use of technology on Brazil coffee farms and why farmers are needing to find the balance between cup quality and cost of production for sustainability.

A snapshot of the series:
Part I — The History of Brazilian Coffees
Part II — Brazil: One Country, Many Flavours
Part III — Unveiling Mechanical Harvesting in Brazil


Part III — Unveiling Mechanical Harvesting in Brazil

With the Brazilian coffee season just starting and our fresh arrivals from Alice Estate and Santo Antonio just off the boat, I can’t think of a better time to write the last instalment in my series about this beautiful and versatile country. On my recent trip to Brazil, I really had time to reflect on how important it is for the farmers to ensure sustainability when producing specialty coffee.

Historically in Brazil, an abundance of available labour has contributed significantly to the overall growth of the coffee sector. But the reality nowadays is completely different, as farmers face increased harvesting costs due to high demand for workers during harvest season. Hiring labour for coffee picking purposes potentially increases the harvesting overheads by 40% (depending on the region), but fortunately Brazil has some serious technological options to help boost productivity and efficiency. It’s those options which have pushed Brazil into being one of the most innovative and modernized coffee producing countries in the world.

One of the things that separates Brazil from other producing regions is their ability to harvest coffee mechanically.

But before I go any further, here is a brief summary of the available coffee harvesting options in Brazil.

Basic harvesting techniques

  • Manual selective picking: The pickers selectively pick only the red cherries. With this method, the pickers may need to go over the crops 2-3 times during the harvest period.
  • Manual strip picking: The pickers totally strip the branches of all the cherries but there’s no clear separation between levels of maturation. Using this method, farmers wait until most of the cherries on the trees are red before stripping the trees of their fruit. Strip picking is suitable for drier climates where maturation occurs more homogeneously.
  • Mechanical harvesting: This method of harvesting occurs using a traction tractor with bilateral (or unilateral) rotatory forks which utilize vibrations to pick the coffee cherries from the branches. The speed of the mechanical harvester and the length of the forks (as well as the way they are positioned), plus the rotation speed and levels of vibration can all be adjusted to ensure the harvest occurs without damage to the cherries or plants.

In a country like Brazil with its high labour costs, it is more cost-effective for farmers to harvest all their coffee at once. This is why most manual harvesting in Brazil is done via the strip picking method, with producers relying completely on wet-mill and dry-mill processing to thoroughly sort the coffee post-harvest.

In areas with a favorable climate and topography (gentle hills), more and more farmers are adapting their coffee farms to allow the mechanical harvesters to travel through. It is important to remember that mechanical harvesting is still a relatively young method for harvesting coffee in Brazil. It was first launched in the late 1970’s but it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the machines were widely adopted by the farmers and quickly grew in popularity.

Contrary to popular belief, mechanical harvesting has no direct impact on cup quality.

According to many farmers, when they started picking their coffee mechanically they found an increase in the quality of the coffee picked, and they achieved a much faster and more homogeneous result. If you think about it from a farmer’s perspective, it is of course in their best interests to harvest the coffee as quickly as possible once the cherries are ripe and mature in order to avoid overripe coffee and fermentation problems. Once the coffee is picked, it is then taken to the wet-mill to be cleaned, sorted through water and pulped (if necessary for the process involved).

So we can therefore conclude that the widespread use of technology and modern techniques is not the cause of mass produced, low quality coffee from Brazil. In fact, this more modern style of harvesting contributes (in many cases) to more accurate and reliable results than we see from crops which are harvested by hand.

Another thing which seems to worry many people in regards to the use of mechanical harvesters is the reduction in the use of manual labour. As mentioned earlier in the article, the demand for workers during the 75-100 days of the harvest season is very high, but workers naturally prefer full-time employment to difficult seasonal jobs. The employment of mechanical harvesters, however, does not exclude the use of all manual labour. The machines need drivers and technicians as well as support and sales personnel; in other words, mechanical harvesters have created a new, qualified labour market.

While smaller producers (who are mostly located in the mountain regions) will continue to employ manual labour to harvest their crops, it’s crucial to understand the importance of mechanical harvesters in Brazil. Many farmers still struggle to find a balance between cup quality and the cost of production, but finding such a balance will ensure product sustainability and competitiveness in the market place — and thus secure the future of coffee production in Brazil.

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