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Analyzing And Improving Our Soil

May 11, 2018 | Coffee, Newsletter

We talk regularly about how we apply the “Art of Coffee Science” on our coffee farms.

It is an “Art” and it is a “Science”. That´s why we have 2 Agronomists and a Biologist on our team.

By now you should all be familiar with Valentina Pedrotti, our in-house Biologist and Value Chain Analyst, but you may not be all too familiar with what she does on our farms on a daily basis.

Valentina has created a series of “coffee science” reports which we are delighted to be able to share with you now.

She will explain in detail the many tests we are conducting and the plans we are implementing to ensure that we have the best soil, healthiest trees and highest quality specialty coffee possible from our carefully engineered network of coffee farms.

Below is the first report of the series (written back in October 2017) so you can follow the progress and find out the results over the coming weeks, months and years!

So, in your own words, take it away Valentina!

Improving soil conditions in our coffee farms by
applying different sustainable strategies.
PHASE I. Diagnosis

Valentina Pedrotti,
ICFC Biologist & Value Chain Analyst.

In coffee, as in any other crop system, the soil is the most important element to be considered. There is a famous phrase that says “you are what you eat”, and for plants this is also true.  Since they are sessile organisms the soil where they grow is the only source of nutrients they have.

As a result of weak soils, weak plants are developed and therefore low-quality crops are produced. In the Specialty Coffee world quality represents the most important aspect.

Without accomplishing a minimum accepted quality score (80 out of 100), the coffee comes to be seen as conventional or commercial coffee. Resulting prices are much lower compared to prices reached in the Specialty Coffee market.

Considering this we have the responsibility to start planting our coffee farms with the best possible soil conditions. This will be the first element to ensure we have strong plants and therefore, high quality cherries.

Depending on the initial farm conditions, different strategies need to be implemented. In the case of some of the new farms acquired in the area of Jaramillo Arriba, the soil needs to be reactivated.

In the past some of this land was a grazing area. Here heavy livestock compacted the soil reducing the vegetation cover and changing its natural structure.

Under this scenario we started to develop a recovery program using sustainable strategies that will help the soil in the short, medium and longer term. The first step, as in any other project, was the diagnosis stage.

First, we need to make sure where we are right now in order to start developing the correct recovery plan.

For that, soil analysis was taken and the results showed what we expected to see. The soil’s chemical components were altered by the previous grazing activity. Additionally, the soil has a certain level of compaction.

Fortunately, this was an extensive livestock system, which means lower cattle density per hectare compared to an intensive livestock system, where the density of cattle is much larger causing severe damages to the soil.

Additionally, the pH of the soil was altered. This is one of the most important elements to be considered in the recovery plan, because the pH of the soil determines the rate of absorption of the macro and micro-elements of the soil by the plants.

It means, no matter if there are enough nutrients in the soil, if the pH is not appropriate the plants won’t be able to acquire them.

The good news is that all the problems found have a solution. Some in the short term and others in the medium and long term. It is important to understand that each strategy that we are going to select and implement is going to be multifunctional.

This means it will have more than one biological function. For example, adding organic matter to increase nutrients to the soil while regulating the pH.

In the diagnosis phase we decided to look for endemic and/or native elements that can help to recover the soil. For that we decided to visit the farm to identify what we already have there to start improving the soil.

We started to look for species that can fix Nitrogen (belonging to the Fabaceae family) and/or species that quickly provide organic matter to the soil that are already adapted to this environment.

Moment for a scientific pause

Why we are worried about Nitrogen, and what does it work for?

Nitrogen, describe as N on the periodic table of elements, is one of the main components of amino acids, and amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. It means that without the availability of N in the soil, there is no possible way plants can grow their tissue, produce different proteins, and many other vital functions.  This is one of the main reason N is called a macronutrient for the plants, because the concentration of this element is required in higher amounts than the micronutrients.

And… what does it actually mean to fix Nitrogen?

Nitrogen is found mainly as gaseous molecular nitrogen (N2) in the air. In this stage, N is inert and not available by most living organism, including plants. In order to be available, Nneeds to be fixed, which means to be reduced to an element such as ammonium (NH4+) that plants can actually use. And here is where legumes (the plants we are identifying on the farms) have their major contribution to the soil. They can transform N2 into available N for the plants (for example ammonium).

However, things aren’t that straightforward. Actually, legumes do not fix directly N2, this process is chemically orchestrated by a group of bacteria in the soil belonging to the Rhizobiaceae family. Both of them have created a symbiotic relationship, where plants provide bacteria with carbohydrate that they produce in the photosynthesis process and on the other hand bacteria provide the plants with N.

Isn´t this cool?

The next steps consist of describing the species that we found in the field then analyzing the possibility of using them as nitrogen fixers and organic matter sources.

Additionally, we are designing what are the best strategies that will help us to improve the soil condition in terms of pH values, reduce erosion rate and increase the organic layer of the soil.

As it was mentioned before, each strategy we implement is going to be multifunctional. This will help us to address different problems at the same time and reduce costs.

In the next article I will explain the strategies that are implemented and their scientific reason.

See you in the next article.

Valentina Pedrotti
ICFC Biologist & Value Chain Analyst.

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