How is the harvesting carried out on coffee plantations

A cup of freshly brewed coffee is a symbol of well-being and relaxation. However, few people realize during their drinking how much work is really hidden behind it.

Methods of harvesting coffee cherries

For many, coffee plantations are associated with a beautiful natural scenery. However, the truth is that life on plantations is mainly about hard and demanding work, which never ends. In order to have a realistic idea of the value of food, one must know how it is produced or grown. Therefore, we have decided to tell you about the two main methods of harvesting green coffee or more precisely coffee cherries.

hands of the picker when picking cherries

Selective harvesting: traditional and ecological method

Two methods are used to harvest coffee cherries: selective harvesting and belt harvesting. Selective harvesting consists in the manual harvesting of only ripe fruits. During this process, the worker physically bypasses every single coffee tree on the plantation and collects only those cherries that have already ripened in the basket. He still leaves unripe cherries on the bush and collects them later when their time comes.

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In addition to harvesting, the collector also inspects overripe cherries, which he either leaves on the coffee tree or collects and stores in separate containers. When the collector has the basket full, he pours the crop into a large collection container and at the end of the day the whole crop is sorted from various fragments and impurities that accidentally got to the cherries during the harvest. Subsequently, the cleaned cherries are weighed and the money is distributed among the individual collectors.

the picker pours the cherries into the basket

This type of collection is therefore repeated more often, usually every 8 to 10 days, and lasts until the farm owner says that there is no need to collect. As this type of harvest is time and labour-intensive, it is also more expensive and is used primarily to collect the best Arabica coffees.

What are the advantages of selective coffee harvesting?

It is an original, traditional way of collection, which therefore has a certain historical and cultural value for people, individual regions and countries.

It is suitable for even the most demanding terrain. As a result, coffee trees can be planted on steeper hills and slopes, which are common to the topography of many coffee regions, which also results in a more efficient use of land or other natural resources.

This is a precise harvest, in which only ripe cherries are harvested. As a result, the percentage of unripe fruit in the crop is low, which in practice means higher prices and earnings for the grower.

In addition to being a more environmentally friendly method of harvesting, the presence of humans on the plantation can also help in the early detection of any diseases, fungi or pests that may endanger the harvest.

The employment of collectors increases employment in the region and is also beneficial for the development of the local community.

basket full of coffee cherries

Main disadvantages of selective coffee harvesting

Manual harvesting is time-consuming and requires a large number of workers willing to work in demanding conditions.

Workers often receive a minimum wage. Although farm owners want to reward workers fairly, in many areas it is not that simple. The higher the price of labour, the fewer workers a grower can afford to pay, which in turn threatens the timely harvesting of mature crops.

The selective harvesting of cherries also threatens the growing urban population – many people from the countryside go to big cities for better paid work. This reduces the availability of the rural population willing to work on plantations.

ripe coffee cherries in a harvest container

Strip coffee harvesting: fast and more economical method

Strip harvesting is essentially a massive collection where all coffee cherries are collected at once, regardless of their level of maturity. Robusta is most often collected in this way. Track collection can be done in three ways: manually, mechanically or using heavy machinery.

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During manual strip harvesting, large canvas are spread on the ground under the coffee trees, on which the crop is thrown down. In this case, the picker grabs the branch of the coffee tree at the trunk and he “combs” it with his hands towards the end or pulls the cherries onto the tarpaulin.

multi-blade "scissors" for coffee collection

The mechanical strip harvesting is similar to the manual one, with the only difference that the picker uses the so-called derricadeiras, i.e. large multi- blade scissors on the handle. When harvesting, these blades vibrate, so they drop the cherries from the coffee tree onto the tarpaulins below them. In both of these methods, the harvest is weighed at the end and the workers are rewarded according to its weight or volume.

Harvesting with a mechanical harvester has nothing to do with manual harvesting. It is already a heavy machinery that began to be used in the early 1970s. During the harvesting, rotating and vibrating brushes are used, which drop cherries into the special containers. These machines can also be calibrated to reduce the harvest of unripe cherries.

harvesting coffee cherries using a harvester

Usually, the rotational and vibrational pace, or even the speed of the combine itself passing between the rows of the plantation, is adjusted. It is also relatively common to adjust the harvesting brushes, where, for example, they are left only in the upper part of the machine, so that only the upper, more mature crop is harvested. In a few days, the remaining crops harvested on the lower branches of the coffee trees are harvested.

What are the advantages of strip coffee harvesting?

As the harvesting is carried out in a sudden way and all the cherries are harvested without distinction, it is a faster way of harvesting.

Because this method is faster and does not require as much human labour, it is also cheaper for the farm owner.

Thanks to the mechanical harvester, it is possible to harvest a huge amount of crop in an incomparably short time.

harvested coffee cherries

Strip coffee harvesting also has its disadvantages

Harvested coffee cherries have different levels of ripeness. If they are not separated from each other, this can lead to non-uniform drying, lower quality of the final product, and thus lower yield for the grower.

In order to achieve optimal harvest quality, growers must also have other adequate post-harvest equipment available, such as an optical sorter or a machine for cleaning coffee beans from cherry peels. This is, of course, a relatively large financial investment that not every grower can afford.

In addition, the use of such a heavy machinery is only possible in easily accessible and flat plantations, where coffee trees are planted in symmetrical rows.

ripe coffee cherries

Coffee = gold in a cup

Different harvesting methods also apply in different parts of the world. The use of a particular method depends on the type of plantation, coffee variety and its fertility, topography, availability of coffee trees, but also on the post-harvest infrastructure, availability and price of workers, the required quality of the final product and other factors.

Historically, selective harvesting has prevailed, but in regions with a low rural population or higher overall wages, such as Brazil and Hawaii, some forms of mechanized harvesting have logically begun to gain ground.

coffee in a golden cup

Nevertheless, in most countries the harvest is still harvested by hand, i.e. in humanly demanding and intensive processes. On average, one picker can harvest 45 to 90 kg of cherries per day. However, only about 20% of green coffee is obtained from them, i.e. about 9 to 18 kg of beans intended for roasting.

When we realize that coffee is the most traded commodity in the world right after oil, and more than 25 million farmers are involved in its cultivation, only then will we find out its true value. Let’s try to remember it every time we enjoy a cup of our favourite coffee