Co-founder, Peter Dupont and I arrived at Uberlandia in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. More distinctly in Daterra. Daterra is part of the Cerrado, a tropical savanna ecoregion covering approx. 21% of Brazil’s total area. Initially, the region wasn’t suitable for agriculture due to the low pH level in the soil. This changed in the late 1990’s when massive amounts of lime were added to the soil to deacidify it. Today, a huge part of Cerrado is used for agriculture, mainly soy beans and coffee.
The vegetation was quite pale and dry when we arrived. Late September is the end of their dry season and Gabriel told us that the heavy rains were expected any time now.
It was a short drive of 2-3 hours from Uberlandia to the farm, very short considering the size of Brazil. Huge soft rolling hills with farmland makes up most of the scenery, abrupted by steeper hills, rivers and small lakes.
When visiting, the people of Daterra were eager to update us on much of the development they have made in recent years and show us the ongoing development. That’s one of the big things that struck us, how much they keep moving. Be it agricultural practices, often with sustainability in focus, processing techniques, varieties, literally everything when it comes to producing coffee.
They have built state of the art fermentation tanks, which enables them to control the temperature and to choose between aerobic and anaerobic fermentation. The different kinds of fermentation refer to whether there has been oxygen involved or not. Anaerobic fermentation is conducted in closed tanks, often plastic or steel, with a valve that allows oxygen and other gasses produced during the process to escape, so that it creates an oxygen free environment.
These tanks, together with the mini wet and dry mill that was built only for their masterpiece series, micro lots, is a real game changer. The technological advances combined with their skills and knowledge has made them able to climb to the top again; recently Emi from Switzerland won the World Brewers Cup with a semi carbonic macerated Laurina from Daterra. A result from a combination of amazing brewing skills on Emi’s part and Daterra’s dedicated work at the farm.
We arrived at coffee blossom peak bloom. In the true meaning of words it was amazing to see almost endless fields of white flowers. The same day we arrived the flowers were still closed and João, one of the agronomists, told us that they would blossom any day now.
The next morning, I went on a mountain bike ride through the farm and closing in on the fields it felt like stepping into a perfume store; overwhelming jasmine hitting hard, it took a few minutes to get used to the intensity. It was awesome to see such an even and controlled blossoming. Apart from the climatic reasons for the even time of blooms, it’s also a testimony of Daterra’s work; when new plants are planted out on the test fields, they monitor them closely and through thorough selection they choose plants from different criteria. One of them is controlling the state of blossoming and cherry ripening. This makes it easier and more optimal when they harvest mechanically.
Sustainability has been a main part of the initial dream of Louis Pascoal when he founded Daterra. A few years ago, they started BioTerra on a recently acquired plot of land. It’s a project where they are trying out different ways of improving soil quality. Their rigorous selection of varieties in coffee plants, that same technique applies to the nitrogen fixing plants. This is to see which ones thrives and actually benefits the soil, and in the end the coffee plants, the most.
The BioTerra project is not about making organic coffee but trying to find more sustainable practices for conventional coffee growing. Because sustainability is important to them, but also due to the challenge’s growers are facing with irregular rain patterns, diseases and temperature fluctuations going towards a hotter climate. They need the terroir to really sustain the plants because the conventional methods don’t strengthen the plants in terms of making the symbiosis between soil and plants better. This takes rich soil with available nutrients for the plants, minimum moisture loss due to evaporation from the soil and sturdier plants that are stronger against diseases. The fact that their results and solutions might be applicable to common conventional coffee farms of big scale is very exciting.
We also have an exciting thing going on with Daterra called Our Plot. It’s a project based on sustainability and coffee farming.
Back in 2014, owner of Daterra, Louis Pascoal visited us in Copenhagen. He asked us if we would be interested in moving into a closer collaboration with Daterra. Louis’ idea was that they would offer us one hectare of their land where they would be doing whatever experiment in growing coffee that we would be interested in. We agreed on a concept for the plot to explore ways to increase sustainability by increasing the resilience of the ecosystem in natural ways. Working with the criteria for organic certification as a baseline and aiming to go beyond that.
We used knowledge gained from experiences in different places around the world, as well as ideas from Ecosystem Sciences, that Peter had studied to meet Daterra’s many years of practical experiences growing coffee in Cerrado as well as their agronomical resources.
It has taken time to develop these thoughts and find ways to put them into practice. We have had a dynamic dialogue over the years developing ideas in an iterative process between us and Daterra.
In early 2017 the first trees were planted on the field and this year they had reached a state where they had the first few cherries – unfortunately not enough to process in a good way, so we still need to wait another year to get to taste the first coffees of the plot.
Farming is an excellent way to cultivate patience and this is especially true for this project since we want it to develop on the premises of the plants, just aiding and helping their natural growth.
We have planted four varieties, all pre-dating 1950 since that’s when the usage of fertilizers and pesticides really began on a big scale. We wanted varieties that weren’t developed with those factors in mind. It is red and yellow Bourbon, Geisha and Laurina. Every row has two coffee varieties with nitrogen fixing shade trees, Inga, in between. The varieties are shifting in a pattern where no tree of one variety will be next to another tree of the same variety. All trees have been planted with extra spacing, to ease the pressure on the soil.
The growing practices of the lot are based on organic principles, i.e. only organic fertilizers and pesticide free methods against pests and insects. We even stay away from the compounds with copper solutions that are allowed in Organic Ceritified coffee production. Hoping that the other initiatives we are taking to increase resilience in the ecosystem, can make the system healthy without these compounds.
Our ambition is to create a system that requires minimal input. The initial calculations based on normal practice for these systems says that one hectare requires approx. 15 tons of organic compost compared to 5 ton of conventional fertilizer on a conventional field of same size. In other words, 300% more in terms of weight.
Some of the upsides of the huge amounts of compost are that there’s more nutrients in the form of trace elements and the nutrients are released and taken up by the plants more slowly. The compost will also provide more nutrients for all the microorganisms and in long term create healthier soil and overall healthier microclimate.
The outcome of these thoughts and ideas are much closer now that it is manifested in actual action but of course, this is a project that hopefully will go on for long and develop as knowledge and experience is accumulated.
We are very excited and thankful that Daterra is making it possible for us to be a part of this even though there is an ocean between us. And we can’t wait to taste the first coffee from this plot!