Thailand Travels, part 2

By Stuart Grant

[Note: unfortunately I can't refer by name to the villages we visited, because ITDP has had trouble with competitors buying coffee that had been promised to them. The farmers get much less money this way, but they get it immediately, which can be tempting.] ITDP has assisted around 30 villages in planting coffee so far. Some of these projects are well established (10 years plus), while some are quite new, and more a being planted every year. We visited two coffee growing areas. The first was a group of seven villages with a communal processing station where all the cherries are collected and processed. It was west of Chiang Mai, at about 1000-1100m asl, and most of the coffee was grown under thick native forest on steep hills with nice red soil. The plants pictured are 7-8 years old; the project began 9 years ago. The second was a group of four villages (south-west of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border), with a single plot of 500 coffee trees. This plot was at around 1100m asl but the surrounding villages have suitable land up to 1300m or more. This had been established by ITDP to demonstrate to the villagers how to grow coffee. The demonstration plot had it's first (small) harvest this year, three years after planting, and having heard how much the coffee was sold for, the surrounding villagers are very keen to start planting more! This plot was planted on cleared land, so it was necessary to plant shade trees to protect the coffee. It lies on moderate hills with lovely red clay soil (see right). The second village had a plant nursery, where thousands of new seedlings were being prepared. The seeds take 3 months to sprout, and can be planted out after 12 months. From that point, it takes another 2-3 years before they first significant harvest. ITDP encourage using organic farming practices, but generally the farmers can't afford chemical fertilisers and sprays anyway. Coffee plants can be fussy and disease-prone unless they are grown in their natural environment (under shade, in rich soil with lots of mulch and organic matter). The main variety grown by ITDP is Catimor, which is disease-resistant but has a mixed reputation in terms of cup quality. Mike said they have some other varieties including Typica and, believe it or not, the famous Geisha (coffee nerds will get it)! Like a lot of fruit trees, coffee needs a good prune after fruiting to be really productive. On this young plot of coffee (second village), they had pruned the plants to create two or three main stems. This means shorter, bushier plants which should be more productive.

Ideally, coffee plants flower in the wet season and are ready to harvest in the dry season (which means the beans can be dried fairly quickly). That is the case in Thailand, although like many other origins the drying can be interrupted by sudden rain storms.

The harvest in Thailand happens between November and February, with the majority ripening December and January - earlier in the warmer microclimates; later in the cooler and higher altitude regions. In well established areas like the first village, ITDP has helped the villagers build a processing station where all the surrounding farmers can bring their cherry. The processing happens in several stages: