Immediately after Antonio Rigno de Oliveira accepted the top prize at the Cup of Excellence ceremony in Pocos de Caldas Brazil we asked what led to his win.
Oliveria, an older man with the rough hands and weathered face of a coffee farmer, looked directly and pointed his index and middle fingers at his own.
He is saying that he keeps a “close eye” on the trees, the interpreter explained. Oliveria’s 36 hectare farm, Chaçará São Judas Tadeu, is located in Piatã, in the state of Bahia, a region 1,000 kilometers north of the more famous Minas Gerais where most of Brazil’s coffee is harvested. This year 5 of the top 15 coffees in the competition, all with cupping scores in the high 80s, and low 90s were from Bahia. It is the second year in a row that coffee growers in the far north dominated the competition.
Oliveria’s son-in-law Vladimir, winner of last year’s pulped naturals competition, took 2nd place, a neighbor took 8th, and Olivera’s wife Zora finished 12th. Three of the other top winners are from farms in Paraná, 1,500 kilometers south of Minas.
First and foremost these awards are a testament to the skills of the farmers. But they also point to a matter of great concern. The coffee friendly weather of Minas Gerais is changing. Researchers in the science journal Plos One recently published a detailed report naming the coffee zones most vulnerable to rising temperatures worldwide. The study predicts that half the land currently suitable for arabica will not sustain the crop by 2050.
The greatest loss will be in dry regions like Minas where nearly 80% of the land will become unsuitable for coffee. High altitude coffee farms near the equator will be less harmed. Lands nearer the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer may benefit.
In Minas uncertain rainfall, unusual weather patterns, and high heat have replaced the once feared black frost that last visited in 1994, reducing the following year’s harvest by 50-80%. Yields are in decline and coffee quality has suffered.
Luiz Roberto Saldanha Rodrigues, director at Capricornio Coffees, told us he is planting in the more temperate belt at 23o South latitude and “thinking different about quality.” Growers could also plant new trees 300 to 500 meters higher up the hill.
Edgard Bressani practices yet another approach. Like Oliveria he is keeping a close eye on the six farms that make up O’Coffee Brazilian Estates but Bressani is using satellites, drones, and a sophisticated geographical information system (see pg. 32). During the past four harvests he has wrested some of the uncertainties from nature to insure quality beans for his chain of Octavia coffee shops.
Every hectare of his 1,000-hectare farm has been surveyed to determine soil composition, nutritional requirements, and moisture available to trees. Bressani irrigates to insure good flowering and he plants many varieties of trees to take full advantage of micro-climates and terroir. He monitors yield by section. Results of the soil analysis and deficiencies common to each hectare are noted in the GIS database.
He leaves little to chance. Dispensers towed by tractors driving the rows between trees automatically adjust the amount of fertilizer that is spread based on their precise location and the needs of the trees. Drones identify the distinctive color of rust or signs of weakness. Ill trees are pinpointed using GPS coordinates and treated or removed.
While climate change presents a formidable challenge, the ingenuity of coffee professionals is up to the task.