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Breaking the Rules at Cloud Forest Coffee Farms

The harvest at Cloud Forest Coffee Farms is in full swing right now. The timing is a bit different from most other growers in Northwestern Ecuador, who have already completed their harvest. We are at a higher altitude, and so our coffee cherries ripen later. This suits us just fine, since we can hire experienced pickers whose work at lower altitudes is finished, like Inés Andagoya seen in this post. Experienced pickers make a huge difference to the quality of our harvest. Coffee cherries don’t ripen uniformly on any individual coffee tree, as you can see from photos elsewhere on our site. Our master pickers instinctively know which beans are ready and they have a gentle touch. This means they don’t damage the fruit or the tree when picking. It’s an important skill. We make half a dozen or more passes on each tree, at two-week intervals, in order to get each bean when it is perfectly ripe. When we first started planting, other growers warned us that we were planting at too high an altitude. But planting at a higher altitude was just one of the rules we broke. Another was planting on land that had been worn out after years of use as a cattle pasture. Ranchers had used slash-and-burn methods to clear the forest for cattle grazing and now the topsoil was giving out. Maybe we’re unrealistic, but we saw the chance to conduct a great experiment. Could the worn-out pasture, bordering one nature reserve and near another, be restored to the diverse ecosystem it once was? And could we grow premium quality coffee at the same time? The idea was that a coffee farm could fund on-going restoration of larger and larger tracts of land. Economically, that made sense. And coffee trees grow naturally in the shade, so it also made agricultural sense to plant coffee among the restored cloud forest trees, if the soil could be improved enough for healthy tree development. The problem was that we had no instruction manual for the project. So we’ve been experimenting. We weren’t too worried about the coffee part of the equation. I had been in the coffee business for more than a decade as a broker and exporter, and I had noticed that many of the winners of regional cupping contests in Panama, Colombia, and Peru originated at higher altitudes – 6,000 feet or more. I began thinking that this might be part of a formula for growing outstanding coffee. We planted the first forest canopy trees in 2010 – mostly fast-growing nitrogen-fixing species like Andean alders, erythrinas and calliandras to begin to re-create the cloud forest shade. Then we added slower-growing hardwoods of various kinds. Once those were established, crews got to work planting coffee beneath the taller trees. We tested small batches of beans in the early years – tentatively happy with the results, but the trees were very young. Last year, Cloud Forest had its first small but commercial size crop. We were very happy with the cup quality, rich red fruit flavors with marked floral aromas. This year’s crop will be much bigger and the quality should improve as well! I can’t wait to taste it. Follow the harvest and the results of our great experiment at www.cloudforestcoffeefarms.com

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