Labour-intensive coffee farm prospers in Hazyview climate

With the call to increase job opportunities in agriculture, many farmers have been left scratching their heads over the economic implications. But the Schroeders of Mpumalanga have found a winning recipe in coffee production: its high labour component and profitability levels make the crop viable. Lindi Botha visited the mother-and-son team on their farm near Hazyview.

Labour-intensive coffee farm prospers in Hazyview climate
Coffee berries ripen at different stages, making the crop labour-intensive to harvest.
Photo: Lindi Botha
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The coffee industry has grown in leaps and bounds as a global coffee culture pushes up demand. It is estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee are consumed globally every day.

With this increasing demand, on-farm prices have remained steady. This justifies the crop’s considerable labour expense, according to Hazyview coffee farmer Wolfgang Schroeder of Shiloh Estates.

He adds that with this high labour component, there is much incentive to develop the coffee industry in South Africa.

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“Workers get paid per kilogram picked and they all achieve minimum wage plus 50%.”

Coffee farming requires about 2,5 workers/ha in season and one permanent worker for every 3ha throughout the year.

“The price we get for the coffee is good enough to make the high wage bill viable,” says Wolfgang. “It’s an ideal job for women and the elderly because it’s not back-breaking. We also find the women pick the berries more gently.”

Coffee shop
The coffee farm has opened up further opportunities for the Schroeders. Two years ago, they launched a coffee shop on the farm, enabling visitors to taste the very coffee they can see growing from the deck.

Wolfgang’s mother, Mariana Schroeder, who runs the shop, says that when the coffee farm started taking off, they realised there was a need for people to taste the product on-farm.

“We converted an old boathouse next to the farm dam into a small restaurant,” she explains.

“Initially, we only sold cake with the coffee, but as we’ve grown in popularity, we’ve expanded the menu.”

The tranquil atmosphere and farm vistas ensure a steady stream of tourists. Mariana adds that the locals have also supported the venture.

An early setback
The flourishing coffee plantations make it easy to forget that the operation started disastrously.

The family’s macadamia farm borders a land reform farm whose beneficiaries wanted to create income opportunities. So, in 2016, the Schroeders decided to partner with them to plant coffee.

“We provided all the trees and were on the brink of planting when a fire broke out,” recalls Wolfgang. “Everything burnt down. The community who owns the land then halted the project and we sat with all the trees, which needed to be planted quickly.”

As fate would have it, a farm down the road came onto the market and the Schroeders jumped at the opportunity and bought it.

“We sent in a bulldozer to clear the lands, with a planting team walking behind it putting the trees into the ground,” says Wolfgang.

“It was a bit haphazard, with no irrigation, but we had little choice. Then the drought came and the trees didn’t get the water they needed. With the intense heat, the trees became infested with coffee stem borer. So we got off to a bad start, but we’ve learnt a lot, and today we can apply our lessons to the newly planted crop.”

Changing crops
Coffee has become a viable alternative to the traditional crops in the area, says Mariana.

“We started farming bananas a few years ago but with the increase in banana cultivation in Mozambique, at a fraction of the cost of South Africa’s industry, we couldn’t compete and it became less profitable.

“We started planting ginger and macadamias. But macadamias take seven years before you break even. We prayed for an answer and decided to venture into coffee.

Initially, we planted the macadamias in between the coffee with the idea of eventually removing the coffee once the macadamias were in full production.

But we found that with the pesticides required by macadamias, the coffee was getting loaded with unnecessary chemicals. So we needed to find another way.”

Today, ginger is planted to new lands, where it remains for six months before it is ready to harvest.

As the land cannot be planted to this crop again for seven years due to a build-up of soil diseases, coffee is planted instead. According to Mariana, they intend planting the entire farm to coffee ultimately, but in the meantime the ginger provides good cash flow.

Shiloh has 18ha planted to coffee in total. The three-year-old trees provide a yield of 3t/ha, with the potential to reach 5t/ha when they are fully grown at five years.

The Schroeders sourced a new cultivar, the F6, from Beaver Creek Coffee Estate in KwaZulu-Natal. This is a semi-dwarf tree that grows to only 1,5m, making harvesting easy.

The trees are grown in the on-farm nursery from seed, and after a year are ready to be planted at a high density of 3 500 trees/ha.

The farm is equipped with a micro-irrigation system. Wolfgang explains that with its shallow root system, coffee requires short, regular bursts of water. About 460 micro-sprinklers are placed on a hectare, providing 250m3/week/ha.

Several factors affect the yield.

“There’s quite a prolonged flowering period, from August to November. Each time the tree is stressed, it flowers and forms fruit. So, in a way, you need to induce stress.

“But because temperatures here are slightly higher than they should be, our trees are under too much stress.

“The heat also affects the quality of the coffee bean, as higher temperatures mean they grow more rapidly, resulting in a less dense bean. The denser the bean, the more robust the flavour and the higher the price.”

Wolfgang reduces the temperature in the orchards by providing shade.

“We don’t trim the grass or the weeds; they act as ground cover to retain moisture and even provide shade when the coffee trees are still small.

“We’re also leaving some of the indigenous trees on the lands we’re clearing, so they can provide shade. In older lands, we’ve started planting indigenous trees between the coffee rows.”

Controlling coffee stem borer is a major challenge. Over the past three years, the Schroeders have lost 10 000 trees to the pest.

“The borers like to lay their eggs on trees exposed to sunlight, so the shade from the indigenous trees is really necessary. They then hatch and the worms start eating the root of the tree and slowly move into the base of the plant. You only notice it after 18 months when the tree has died.There’s no chemical prevention. You can spray neem oil but the best way is to try to prevent it by ensuring the trees are in shade.”

Wolfgang says most of the pests prevalent in coffee plantations have natural predators.

“In the indigenous forests surrounding the coffee plantations there are eight types of wasp that feed on the coffee stem borer. If we cleared the whole area, there wouldn’t be a natural habitat for the wasps, so it’s important to maintain an ecological balance.”

Chemical sprays cannot be used to control pests due to the withdrawal periods of the chemicals and the fact that the fruit ripens at different stages.

Foliar feeds are applied as determined by leaf analysis.

The Schroeders use chemical fertilisers, but the requirements are quite low (80g nitrogen/ ha/ year). After seven years, the yield starts to decrease and the trees are cut down. They are left to grow back again, and tonnage thereafter steadily increases.

From farm to cup
Harvesting the crop demands the most labour. As the coffee berries ripen at various stages, workers need to move constantly between trees over a period of six months to pick the fruit.

Once the berries are harvested, the skin, pulp and hull surrounding the bean are removed and the beans dried. They are then polished and sorted according to size and colour.

A gravity sorter is used to sort them according to density, and a colour sorter splits the crop into different colours. Shiloh Estates uses a facility in Delmas for sorting. The farm’s volume does not yet justify the expense of this specialised equipment.

Roasting is outsourced to a company in Johannesburg. According to Wolfgang, the time allotted to roasting depends on the density of the bean: lighter beans roast quickly and denser beans take longer.

“It’s important to get this recipe right because the roasting process can make or break the coffee,” he says.

Finally, the coffee is tasted and scored. A score of above 90 is classified as speciality
coffee at a premium price.

A score between 75 and 90 is commercial grade, and below that is substandard. Shiloh’s score is 82.

The coffee is then packaged.

A portion goes on sale in the coffee shop under the Shiloh brand and the rest is sold for export under a commercial label.

Wolfgang says they will sell coffee under their own label to a wider audience when they have more volume.

“We have the potential to expand to 80ha,” he says.

He adds that they are considering expanding to eSwatini due to its conducive climate. “This should give us the volume to market Shiloh coffee more fully.”

Email Wolfgang Schroeder at [email protected].