THE HARVEST AND POSTHARVEST OF YALA’S COFFEE
Although coffee (including cocoa) is officially viewed only as “intercrop” in Yala’s integrated agriculture system, the information from various sources is pointing to the same direction that many have a high expectation that coffee will be a new cash crop that generates substantial incomes for small farmers. The possibility of achieving such a goal motivated me to study further about coffee varieties being planted, modern processing procedure, and traditional methods that are still present in some communities.
Coffee bean harvesting and processing from the ground to the roaster.
In general, coffee processing begins with the selection of quality coffee beans. “…Farmers pick perfect coffee cherries with their hands. They choose only the fully ripe ones because they taste the best. Ripe coffee fruits have a cherry-red color, called coffee cherries. Firstly, the shells will be removed from the coffee beans at the right humidity. We call this step “hulling.” Farmers like to choose the wet/wash method to hull the shells instead of a dry method because the former technique can better preserve the quality of the beans, and therefore, a higher price. After having their shells removed, the coffee beans will be called “green beans.” The wet coffee bean processing method consists of peeling, mucilage removing, drying, storing, and hulling. At this stage, even the beans are ready for roasting, the operator still needs to sort them based on the color of the beans into ripe, raw, and rotten beans. The unwanted beans will be discarded. The selected beans are stored in a clean, temperature-controlled and well-maintained environment to ensure the quality.
Coffee roasting is the process that gives coffee the brown color that we are familiar with. At this process, the meeting between substances in the raw green coffee beans and heat will result in many chemical reactions that produce acids and sugars in the beans. The two main chemical reactions that occur are “caramelization” and the “maillard reaction.” These reactions are known to produce the color and flavor of coffee that we know. In ancient times, coffee was often roasted in a pan over a stove, a method that is still used in many coffee growing regions around the world. However, the most popular roasting method used today is the “drum roaster.” This type of roasting machine has seen only a little change since it was invented about a century ago.
Coffee bean harvesting and processing from the ground to the roaster: Yala coffee
After the brief overview of the coffee bean harvesting and processing process in general, in this section, we will look at specific steps of Yala’s coffee roasting and whether it shares any characteristics with or differs from the standard process.
The coffee varieties grown in Yala today include Robusta as the main variety followed by Arabica, which has recently been promoted by the government. The basic knowledge of coffee cultivation is that the Arabica coffee must be grown at a minimum altitude of 700 meters above sea level and the Robusta can grow on the lowland and has a higher average yield than Arabica. However, after cupping/cup testing by the Department of Agriculture, it was found that the Arabica coffee grown in Yala, only 280 meters above sea level, gave a very unique and good taste, indicating a high cup quality. Pornthep Theerawataphong, or Soong, an agricultural scholar from Yala Horticulture Research Center, concluded that, based on the result of the cup testing, altitude might not be the key factor that shapes the taste and yield of coffee. As it is understood, taste is a result of various variables. One of them is the environment, altitude included, that gives a unique flavor and characteristic to each variety. In addition to the case of Yala coffee, there are many other confirmed cases of good coffee that grows in a far-from-ideal location, such as Arabica coffee from Costa Rica which wins the cupping test and is grown at the sea level. Consequently, altitude is definitely not the only variable or the most important determinant of coffee’s quality.
This diversity leads to a variety of flavors and confirms something that coffee lovers may have already known but forgotten. For example, coffees from Africa are generally quite acidic, light-bodied, luscious, and very aromatic, with Ethiopian coffee being the “regional brand.” South American coffees tend to be softer, less acidic and more drinkable to beginners. Asian coffees, like those grown in India, tend to have a nutty flavor. Indonesia has made a unique difference in its coffee beans with its volcanic soil in several plantations on Java and Sumatra, as well as the world-famous “Kopi Luwak,” or civet coffee. The identity of each coffee bean, although of the same variety, is refined differently by the environment that adds to its peculiarity. The hot air warms the seeds and gives them a spice-like aroma. In colder areas, the “fruity” scent is more pronounced.
I agree with Soong’s hypothesis that each environmental factor shapes the taste and characteristic of the beans, just like they shape people’s way of life. This theoretical conclusion shifts Soong’s focus to another activity rather than just the altitude of the planting area, and that is the “postharvest process.”
The pre-processing of coffee beans can be done in a variety of ways – dry method, wet method, semi-wet method, and yeast-based method. The beans are then aged in husks and stored in the form of “green coffee/green bean” for approximately 6 months to reduce acidity. The curing time depends on the individual operator. Some age the beans for up to 4-5 years. This process requires a lot of attention to prevent possible contamination, such as musty odors and moisture build-up. After curing, the beans are sent to a roasting house.
The future of coffee in Yala: Boom or gloom?
Many highland areas of Yala, especially in Bannang Sata, Than To, Khirikhet and Betong districts, show historical evidence of coffee plantations. It was estimated that there were over a thousand coffee plants before the government encouraged people in this area to grow rubber trees because at the time rubber could be sold at a much higher price and was easier and faster to harvest than coffee. The rubber trees, therefore, replaced the coffee plants that had existed before. Among the few remaining coffee trees, some are almost 60 years old, and some in Yala Horticulture Research Center are around 60-70 years old. These are endemic Robusta, or Yala’s Golden Heart variety. Upon discovering this local variety, Yala Horticulture Research Center plans to push Golden Heart Robusta as Yala’s flagship coffee to compete in the domestic and global markets among other competitors.
Where did the Golden Heart variety come from? There is no conclusive evidence, but coffee is believed to be a domestic plant of Yala which, at one point, disappeared. Coffee returned to Yala again around 1987 because Chumphon Horticulture Research Center, in collaboration with Quality Coffee Products Company Limited (the agricultural division of the Nestle (Thai) Group), started to develop coffee varieties. Then in 2004 there was a project by Nestlé (Thailand) to grow Robusta coffee seedlings from the following varieties. Chumphon 2 (FRT65), Chumphon 4 (FRT09) and Chumphon 5 (FRT68) were distributed to farmers in Chumphon, Ranong, Surat Thani, Krabi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phang Nga and surrounding areas without flooding. Yala received Chumphon 4 and 5. The expansion of coffee cultivation in Yala is a commercial plan to feed coffee beans to Nestlé’s “instant coffee” production. Nestlé established a coffee bean purchase center from farmers at Sawi District, Chumphon Province in 1992 and another one at Tha Sae District, same province in 1999.
In 1977-1997, many farmers in Yala switched to rubber trees planting in accordance with the government’s policy, but Chumphon Robusta 4 and 5 have always been under government promotion, are serve as a source of income for many farmers ever since even though the current distribution pattern may differ slightly from the past. In the past, coffee farmers would prefer to sell the beans to the factory (Nestle), but now farmers will only sell small beans to the factory, and the larger ones will be cross-bred with other Robusta species to create cultivars with larger beans and higher quality. The coffee varieties development is a collaboration among local horticulture research centers in the region which collect information and send it to the Horticulture Research Institute, Department of Agriculture to be analyzed. The study result will then be shared with the local centers. Knowledge of coffee cultivars and development has been continuously accumulated since 1989.
The promotion of coffee cultivation as intercrop according to the current concept of integrated agriculture is not entirely new, but it is a mission to revitalize local plants, improve them with new knowledge, and create an economic value out of them. For example, the discovery of a high amount of antioxidants in coffee and its leaves is an added value to coffee. This information can be marketed because today’s consumers pay more attention to nutrition and health benefits from coffee, and coffee drinkers have high purchasing power. From this health trend also emerges a new product, coffee leaf tea, which has a similar production method to matcha tea, but is lighter, easier to transport, and can be kept longer. Coffee leaf tea is expected to generate significant incomes for farmers provided that it has good promotion and marketing. In fact, some entrepreneurs have already been selling this product for years using its health and organic properties as a selling point. It is also possible to make coffee cherry tea, also known as cascara, or “coffee hull tea” thanks to the influence of a specialty coffee culture and its burgeoning market. Some big Thai brands like “Doi Chaang Coffee” has already sold coffee cherry tea in its shops.
Even the return of coffee cultivation in Yala is possible due to enabling factors, such as new knowledge and a wider and more diverse market, there are a number of limitations as well. Taken together, they raise considerable concerns about economic sustainability.
(1) Coffee cultivation in Yala still produces an insufficient supply to meet the demands even of the local market where many coffee shops are now popping up. It is necessary to increase the quality of the produce and campaign for coffee shops to use local coffee beans, which now include Robusta and Arabica. Communities and groups of coffee farmers may add value to the products with stories of their coffee beans or by collaborating with local artists to create beautiful packages.
(2) Coffee farmers in Yala’s coffee cultivation program are in the working-age population, mostly in their 30s, have their own land and are constantly dependent on state support. Younger generations tend to work outside their hometown. However, some coffees are cultivated on state-owned land, and this is a cause of concern. Some farmers receive allocated land from the state to live on, and do farming, but not to own. In political economy, this means that farmers do not really have ownership over their farmland, which is a very important factor of production. The government can expropriate the land at any time. Although the likelihood is low, if it occurs – for example, the state taking back the land to build an industrial estate – the severe impact will fall on farmers and other related occupations (low probability/ high impact). Currently, the Land Development Department is working on mapping farming area in Yala, which will help identify different types of land use. The map will be a crucial tool that state policy makers should consult when forming a land reform policy to make sure that it truly benefits the people.
(3) All agriculture requires the development of water resources and water management systems with modern technology to prevent and solve the problems of flood and drought. Local communities expect, amid limited resources, that the government will decide to invest in such critical infrastructure.
(4) What the community needs from coffee planting is empowerment so that they can be self-reliant. The community does not want the government to promote coffee planting as a form of social work that makes them dependent on other actors. Empowerment will help the community’s economic activities remain sustainable. At present, the price guarantee and the business in the coffee bean market are conducted in the form of an informal agreement between the private sector and the community, where they jointly agree on the minimum price of coffee at 60 THB per kilogram and a certain quality control for coffee beans. “…It is an unwritten agreement, witnessed by the military generals and the heads of relevant government agencies…,” said one of the participants.
(5) Most of the coffee farmers in Yala sell fresh coffee beans because of the lack of modern machinery and technology for processing. To obtain these machines, the farmers need financial support. In the Marxist perspective, many coffee farmers in Yala do not own either land or technology. Funding often comes in the form of state subsidies, promotions, and grants. The farmers possess only one factor of production, which is their labor. This reflects the low bargaining power of farmers and the unsustainability of livelihoods since they depend on other actors. To be truly financially independent, the community needs support from the state as much as its own initiative and activism. For the latter, community farmers may “form a group” to raise fund or seek funding opportunities to acquire machinery or gather their produce and send it to the central postharvest facility. These suggestions are results from the focus group discussion and are consistent with what many successful agricultural community enterprises have done, such as Ban Tham Sing Coffee Group, Chumphon Province.
Focus group discussion
Pornthep Theerawataphong, agricultural scholar, Yala Horticulture Research Center, Than To District, February 20, 2021
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This story is the sixth of mini series on “Food Dialogue for Social Cohesion” written by Mr. Arthit Thongin as a part of the independent research under the Southern Thailand Social Innovation Platform initiated by UNDP.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or the UN Member States.”