I looked very much forward to coming back to Ethiopia, since it is definitely one of the coffee producing countries that intrigue me the most. You can see the notes from my last visit in Ethiopia here.
Last year Casper and Peter Ebdrup went to meet Akmel Nuri for the first time at his farm in Limu Kossa. See the write up of the visit here.
Now we have had Akmel’s coffee on our shelves for a while and are really impressed by the combination of sweetness, body and cleanliness of this Natural. But one aspect of his coffee that also is relevant for us is that it is organic certified.
Organic certified coffee has been a tricky thing for us during the years. At a general idealistic level, we believe in organic production as the way forward. But when it comes to coffee production organic, certification is a more complex issue.
As a starting point, we believe that sustainability is a very important issue to address as a company trying to conduct business in a responsible manner. But I would question if organic certification is the way to secure sustainability. In a market where the prices paid for coffee in real terms are lower today than they where in the 1960’s (see Klaus presentation of the issue and related consequences in Paris coming up here soon) its difficult enough for the coffee farmer to make their business run in the way they are used to. If they, within the frames this low market price gives, should risk their harvest, changing their practises to organic practises, it can have very profound consequences for them.
In addition to this we believe that for reel sustainability to be achieved it needs to be locally embedded and not brought on to coffee producers in one end of the world, by organisations and companies in the other end of the world. Therefore we have since we started The Coffee Collective worked from the strategy, that if we want to support a sustainable development in the coffee business, we should start at our own doorstep paying sustainable prices to the coffee producers, before trying to push organic standards on coffee farmers in developing countries.
When all that is said, it’s important to stress that we do believe that the standards behind organic coffee certification is good – we just don’t believe its enough to secure sustainability. Not that what we do is enough either, but we try to move as far as we can to promote a sustainable development in the coffee business.
Last year when Casper and Peter Ebdrup went to visit Akmel Nuri it wasn’t because his production was organic certified, but when his coffee is as good at it is, it is of course an added benefit. From my masters in systems ecology, the whole issue of the environment, ecology and nature is something that fills quite a bit in my mind. I was therefore looking very much forward to visiting Akmel to see his farm and get a better understanding of his approach to organic farming. Akmels fundamental approach is to make the coffee grow in the ways of nature. There are old indigenous trees functioning as shade trees for every 10 m, which means that when you see his farm from the outside it looks more like a forest than a coffee farm.
In this forest-like coffee farming the indigenous trees are still there, but the lower bush-type vegetation has been replaced with coffee (that is technically also a native bush in Ethiopia). We walked around the farm on Tuesday and Wednesday and saw lots lying from 1800 masl. up to 2025 m. Even on the highest lots Akmel had forest-like shade tree cover.
It was amazing to see that even at 2000 masl he had coffee trees that were 2-3 meters tall even though they were only 6-8 years old and having, for that altitude, a reasonable amount of cherries. Its interesting to see since I earlier thought that one should have less shade in order not to get too much humidity in the lower temperatures at higher altitudes. Of course things like this will also depend a lot on local climate like temperature ranges and wind patterns. But here it seems to be working to have dense shade even at 2000 m.
And a good thing for coffee is that the dense shade will protect it from the hard morning sun, that in some places can be burning the coffee plant that is cold from the night, when the first rays hit. Maybe also the fact that the shade trees where very high allow for better airflow below them and thereby less problems with humidity, than in cases where the shade trees are only a little higher than the coffee trees.
Another ecological aspect of Akmel’s farm was his work with producing compost. Compost is a very valuable input of nutrients to any farming but in organic coffee farming it is a crucial. I might be a bit biased here since I, in my own garden, find great appreciation in reusing organic waste material from the kitchen, waste from the garden as well as the manure from our chickens in making compost and thereby giving important nutrients back to the soil in our vegetable garden and berry bushes. Nevertheless, I believe that compost is crucial for a coffee farmer wanting to grow coffee organically.
Since Akmel makes natural coffee, the valuable nutrients in the coffees pulp is moved to the dry mill, in Jimma. To get this valuable nutrients back to the farm, he hires trucks to drive it all the way back in order for him to use it in his compost piles.
They dig a big whole for the compost and fill it up in layers. In the compost they make layers of the husk, and layers of manure as well as layers of weeds (some of them rich in nitrogen) and blend it with soil. When the hole for compost is full, they cover it with soil and leave it for 4-5 month. When the compost is ready they will use donkeys to move it out to the trees. They put approximately 0,5 kg of this compost per tree. And currently that makes it possible to give each tree compost every approximately every 3rd year.
In their nursery they also use the compost in mixture with soil as the substrate for the small coffee plants to grow in.
Akmel will get a soil analysis done soon to see if his soil needs particular nutrients. We talked about different possibilities to add more nutrients back if the soil needs some in particular, as the compost, as it is now is not enough. He is already working with different nitrogen fixing plants, that also goes in the compost, this could potentially be increased if needed. But since quite a lot of the native shade trees on Akmels land seems to be leguminous nitrogen fixing trees, I would guess that Nitrogen might not be the biggest issue even though it very often is.
If potassium is the need, ashes from burning of wood can be added to the compost, since its very rich in potassium, maybe looking into getting the ashes from the kitchens of his workers could be a very local source of this.
If the need is phosphor, bone meal is a good source for that. It’s a tough thing to make without special equipment but from an organic / local cyclic way of thinking if the bones from the meat eaten at the farm could be used to make this that would be very sustainable.
Akmel was also looking into something he called Biotar. That comes from heating organic material over fire, in a drum closed for air. This should create a sort of anaerobic decomposition of the organic material, that should make it more easily ready for the plants to take up.
In general talking to Akmel over the days walking around his 200 Ha farm convinced me how dedicated he is to combining the strive for continuously higher flavour quality of coffee with a wish “to grow coffee with nature and not against nature” as he said.
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