Pivot Irrigated Coffee Production

Coffee: 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.

Climate + 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.

Irrigation Water

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 period hours.

Planting Coffee

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.

After planting, 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 in Brazil.

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.

In 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.

Coffee 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.

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