|Pivot Irrigated Coffee Production
The Money Tree of Western Bahia?
No new irrigated crop exploded into Western Bahia
as did coffee. However, in 2002 production leveled off with a decline
in world prices. Currently, about 14,000 hectares in the region
are planted to irrigated coffee.
The attractions of pivot irrigated coffee in Western Bahia are easy
mechanization, a high quality product, exceptional yields, cheap
land and returns that start about 30 months after planting on newly
opened cerrado lands.
+ Soils + Altitude + Water + Cheap Land = Profits
Coffee needs a tropical climate, well drained
soils and an altitude above 700 meters. These requirements make
a large part of Western Bahia suitable for coffee production. Climate
is ideal, soils are sandy to moderately sandy, and altitude over
most of the area is above 700 meters.
With pivot irrigation, rainfall amount and distribution are of little
concern. This means that coffee can be planted in the lower rainfall
areas of Western Bahia where grain crops might suffer from veranicas--mini
droughts during the rainy season that last 10 to 20 days or longer.
Land in lower rainfall areas is notably cheaper than in the high
rainfall areas. Virgin cerrado land with good location and with
electrical power is priced at 25 to 50 sacks of soybeans per ha.
Coffee Planted on Newly Opened Land
Coffee can be planted on newly opened cerrado.
The establishment of pivot irrigated coffee on newly opened virgin
cerrado starts with land clearing during the peak rainy season of
November - January.
The vegetation is knocked down by pulling a heavy 100 meter chain
or cable between two tractors, then the tractor direction is reversed
over the same area. Woodcutters saw, remove and sell the larger
wood to the two soybean processing mills in the area. The remaining
brush is piled up and burned. The land is then disked with a heavy
disk. After disking, about 5 mt/ha of limestone are applied plus
0.6 mt/ha of super simple phosphate. The soil is then disked again
to work in the limestone and phosphorus. Any remaining roots and
branches are manually removed.
Most of the coffee
plantings in Western Bahia are irrigated from rivers. These
rivers run throughout the year at virtually the same level.
Pumps elevate water from the river to a reservoir or directly
to the pivots. Farms with reservoirs can pump from the river
during off-peak hours when electrical rates are 10% of peak
After the pivot systems are in place, they
are operated one full circle to mark the concentric rows where
coffee is to be planted. The spacing between rows is typically
1.70 to 1.80 meters. A measuring wheel is used to mark planting
distance every 0.5 to 1.0 meters in the row. In February and
early March, coffee seedlings from a local or on-farm nursery
are transplanted by hand, or by mechanical planters.
fertilizers, fungicides, and other chemicals are applied via
the irrigation water directly in the plant row, saving water
and materials. The space between the rows is cultivated or
sprayed with a herbicide to keep down weeds.
Irrigated Coffee Yields
The first harvest of pivot irrigated coffee
in Western Bahia is at about 18 months after planting. Yield
is around 30 to 40 sacks of 60 kg per ha. Yield of the next
crop harvested 30 months after planting is around 80 to 100
sacks per ha.
At 42 months, the coffee is considered mature and begins a
biannual cycle of high and low yields ranging from about 45
to 80 sacks per ha. Many producers get higher yields; the
known record for the Western Bahia area is 160 sacks per ha
for a 103 ha pivot.
These are exceptional yields--by far the world's best, and
several times the 11 sack per hectare average yield of the
coffee grown in Brazil's principal production areas in the
south. Yields are much higher in Western Bahia, and international
and domestic buyers regard Western Bahia coffee as the best
What's the future?
As noted, the rate of increase of new coffee
plantings has fallen off over the past several years. Few
farmers have access to the capital required to establish new
plantations and major shifts in the world coffee market discouraged
investment. Recently, world coffee prices have rebounded,
but there has not be a renewed surge in plantings.
response to the drop off in new plantings, a regional development
bank provides eight-year loans of up to 50% of the total investment
assuming the land is free and clear. Adding the cost of 500
ha of land at 25 sacks/ha, the investor needs access to about
US$1.5 million to start up and bring a three pivot coffee
operation to first harvest.
is not for everyone. In the entire Western Bahia region there
are only 49 coffee producers. It is a crop that requires a
significant up-front capital outlay, and once established,
any shortfall in production capital will result in sharp yield
reductions. Production requires field monitoring 365 days
a year and marketing is not a simple matter of hauling it
to a local buyer.