The second we stepped off the small plane in Jaén, we were enveloped with dry heat and bright sunlight, a stark contrast to the cool, grey climate of Lima where we had started our Peruvian journey a few days earlier. I was a proper tourist, immediately snapping pictures from the airport tarmac. As we drove down the dusty open highway, dormant sensory cues that had been embedded in my memory quickly awakened – the familiar scent of burning wood and the rhythmic beat of cumbia floated through the air. Most of my fieldwork for coffee has been in Latin America, but this was my first time in Peru.
“The difference between those two might seem slight, but the goal of this project is not just to do a carbon footprint of select coffee farms, but really to understand how we can set up a process to collect this data on a consistent basis and across all origins.“
Falcon Coffees has been working closely with producers in Jaén for the past five years, so it is an ideal location to pilot the Carbon KTP project. Setting up research in a place you haven’t been personally yet is a tricky endeavour – especially in mountainous coffee-growing regions where the sites may look close together on a map, but the reality on the ground can be quite different. Luckily, I had a lot of help and advice from my colleagues in Peru, Jacqui and Jhoseari, who were rockstars at planning the research logistics with me. For the duration of the fieldwork, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the whole trip was eerily seamless.
The purpose of our fieldwork in Jaén was twofold. One, we wanted to meet with as many farm owners as possible to better understand and quantify emission sources and sinks on coffee farms. Two, we wanted to see if this type of information could be gathered through a self-reporting survey. The difference between those two might seem slight, but the goal of this project is not just to do a carbon footprint of select coffee farms, but really to understand how we can set up a process to collect this data on a consistent basis and across all origins. The latter is much more daunting.
But let’s put that aside for now… we know the big bucket items for emissions sources and sinks on the farm level. The main sources of emissions are nitrogen-based fertilisers, crop residue management, diesel-fuelled equipment and wastewater. The carbon sinks are biomass that sequester carbon, such as shade trees, coffee plants and soil (noting that when trees are pruned or felled, they release the carbon back into the atmosphere, so this must be accounted for as well). With these in mind, we put together a preliminary survey to gather data from producers.
Did we hit the mark with our survey questions and are we now able to quantify all the emission sources and sinks?
The short answer is… not quite.
Which is fine. I’m fine. It’s an iterative process, I remind myself. I’m not going to go into details about all our findings here just yet. Instead, I think I’ll devote this writing to share some of the questions and complications that this fieldwork brought up and are currently circling through my head.
Complication No. 1: First stages of processing take place on the farm
To reach the coffee farms, we started our days early, spiralling up the mountain on windy, unpaved roads. Gabs (of Falcon Specialty logistics in the UK), who was roped into helping me in the field the whole trip, was in the front seat with a steady gaze ahead, trying to ward off motion sickness. Jacqui looked at her phone, gauging how much longer we had to climb up the mountain by noting the elevation reading.
In other origins where I’ve worked, a centralised wet mill where farmers can bring their harvested cherry is located near the farms. In Jaén, however, the mills are in the foothills and the farms are so high up the mountain that it would take most of the producers at least two hours to get down to a wet mill in town. Coffee cherries must be processed soon after harvesting, ideally the same day. So here, the producers process the cherry on the farm.
I’m going to back up here for a minute and provide a quick primer of how coffee is processed for those who aren’t familiar.
Coffee is a plant that fruits once a year (in most places). The fruit, or coffee cherry, is harvested after it ripens, turning a deep red colour (for most varieties). Inside the coffee cherry are the coffee seeds. The fruit and slimy outer layers are stripped from the seed – either through a washed or natural process, or somewhere in between. The dried seed is called “green coffee” because the unroasted beans have a slightly greenish hue. Once the green coffee reaches its destination, it’s roasted. This roasted seed is what we know as the coffee bean.
For the natural (a.k.a. dry) process, the fresh cherry is washed or “floated” so that debris and overripe cherry float to the top are skimmed off. The cherry is then laid out to dry on tarps on the ground, raised beds in the open or raised beds that are covered. Once the cherry is dried (usually about a month), it’s brought down to the dry mill to be processed.
For the washed (a.k.a. wet) method, the cherry is stripped from the bean, usually using a diesel motor depulper. The pulp is then left aside to be composted and put back on the farm (emission source here) and the bean is fermented in a tank or bag of water for a few days before being washed and laid out to dry on the tarp or raised beds. The wastewater from the fermentation, called agua miel (“honey water”) because of its sweet smell from the degradation of sugars, is also a source of emissions.
So, in addition to understanding the farm management (i.e. fertilisers, pruning, residue management, shade tree management), we need to collect data on the first stages of the processing on each farm.
Complication No. 2: Multiple parcels managed differently
Even though most of the farms that we surveyed were under four hectares, many of them were divided into several parcels, sometimes each with different management. Just the seemingly simple question of: “What is the size of your farm?” can elicit a range of answers and follow-up questions:
Do we mean whole farm with all the parcels together?
Or only the parcels that are used for growing coffee?
Or just the parcels in which coffee is currently in production as compared to the parcels that have been renovated and have young coffee plants that are not yet producing cherry?
What if some parcels are forested/heavily wooded and kept in conservation easements or used for timber?
How do you normalise the emissions per farm if you don’t know the farm size?
TBD, or as they say in the UK, TBC, on that one.
Complication No. 3: Shade trees not evenly distributed throughout the farm
This one is not new to me, but it’s still a challenge that I don’t know how to deal with just yet. Shade trees sequester carbon. Ideally, you want to know the number, the diameter, the height, the species and the age of the shade tree. It is obviously not feasible to measure each and every tree on the farm. So instead, you take a sample plot (or several) within the farm, measure the trees and vegetation, and then multiply those measurements by the farm size (but see complication no. 1). This works relatively well if the shade trees are evenly distributed throughout the farm and there is homogeneous vegetation cover. However, if this not always case, it does not work well.
So, back to the drawing board on that one.
Complication No. 4: Many different fertiliser brands
I went into this fieldwork thinking that we would see four or five different brands of fertilisers. Seems like a reasonable number for which we could track down the manufacturer and contents and make valid assumptions. However, from our 25 interviews, we counted 26 different brands! Most producers currently use a mix of organic and then three or four different inorganic ones for their farms. While figuring out the nitrogen content of this mixture is not an insurmountable challenge, it does add another level of complexity that I wasn’t expecting.
I (on the right) had a great field crew with me for this trip. In addition to Jacqui and Jhoseari (aforementioned rockstars), Gabs (far left), was an amazing travel buddy and field assistant. Kate Monteiro (middle), Falcon’s Director of Sustainability from our US office, joined us for a few days as well, quickly learning the ropes for vegetation measurements and braving the twists and turns of the mountain road. It was awesome to be working with a predominately female crew in the field. Even though the fieldwork may have yielded more questions than answers, it was a productive trip. It was great to meet everyone in person and see how coffee is farmed in this part of Peru. Now, we have a new list of items to investigate as we continue to work through this ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle of a project.