Coffee and macadamias prove to be a great match in the same orchard

Lowveld farmers have limited options to get around the cost-price squeeze in order to remain profitable amid rising input costs and decreasing crop prices. Father-and-son team Charles and Carel Burger have an innovative approach: they are intercropping coffee and macadamias to maximise returns. Lindi Botha reports.

Coffee and macadamias prove to be a great match in the same orchard
On Macvue farm, coffee is intercropped with macadamias to increase the income per hectare
Photo: Lindi Botha
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The Burger family, who farm near White River in Mpumalanga, own some of the oldest macadamia nut orchards in the area. The land below the towering trees is shaded and dark, with only patches of sunlight periodically filtering through.

The cool atmosphere among the trees and the spongy, mulch-dense soil mimic that of a jungle, just perfect for growing coffee.

Macvue is headed by father-and-son team Charles and Carel Burger, who both trained as commercial pilots. While on holiday at the farm during his studies, Carel decided to start experimenting with coffee cultivation.

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“We had a coffee tree growing in the yard and I wanted to see if I could produce more trees by planting the beans. When they flourished, I started looking into coffee production on a larger scale.”

Charles explains that since coffee plants do best when planted in shade, it made sense to intercrop it with the macadamias. Coffee that receives minimal sunlight is also of a higher quality.

In addition, the farm does not have open land on which to establish a new crop.

“Coffee can’t tolerate cold and frost. The ideal altitude for production is above 800m, which is where we farm. The heat and humidity of the Lowveld are also well suited to coffee,” he says.

The Burgers planted their first large-scale coffee crop in 2018 under 20-year-old macadamia trees, using spacing of 8m x 5m. A coffee plant was planted on either side of each macadamia tree in the row. Today, the farm has 9 000 coffee trees in production.

Carel Burger started farming coffee between his macadamia nut trees after noticing that the coffee tree in the farmstead‘s garden was flourishing.

Low-cost production
Beans that are not picked up off the ground will germinate and produce more plants. When the Burgers decided to plant coffee on a large scale, they obtained plants from a nearby farmer, Robbie Nel, who was growing coffee.

“He allowed us to go into his orchards and take out the extra trees that were sprouting, because the additional coffee plants actually become weeds. We did this for the first year and thereafter we had our own germinated seeds in the orchards that we could transplant,” recalls Carel.

The extracted seedlings are first placed in a nursery for a year to grow bigger before being transplanted in the orchard. Here, they are given a simple fertiliser to boost growth.

Carel notes that having Nel as an adviser at the start of their foray into coffee production was a great advantage, as there is little information on growing this crop in South Africa.

“There’s no industry organisation in South Africa that focuses on research and development for coffee. Internationally, most growers do this in-house, and coffee farmers are generally quite stingy with sharing information. There’s a fair amount available on the Internet, but not everything works in our environment.”

The Burgers plant the varieties F6, SL28 and SL34 on their farm. The SL varieties produce a higher-quality coffee, but the trees are more prone to disease. The F6 is easy to manage, but produces coffee of a lower quality.

Establishment costs have been kept to a minimum, as seedlings are freely available and intercropping has meant that no soil preparation needs to done.

“You do interfere somewhat with the roots of the macadamia trees when digging holes to plant the coffee, but it’s not a big problem. Because the orchards have drip irrigation, the roots are generally concentrated in a specific area, which we avoid,” Charles notes.

Fertiliser is added in the hole when the coffee seedlings are planted. Some of the seedlings are planted in orchards where the macadamias are planted on ridges, and these coffee trees do particularly well.

It takes three to four years to get a full harvest from the newly planted trees. Yield currently reaches 1t/ha, but orchards in full production should go up to 3t/ha. Trees planted in full shade take longer to produce, but the coffee is of a higher quality, ensuring a higher price.

Another advantage of coffee as an intercrop is that it responds well to the same fertiliser and crop protection programme as the macadamias. The only change is a 10% increase in the nutrition applied to an orchard.

Additional foliar fertiliser applications would help to boost the yield of the coffee trees, admits Carel, but these would come at a considerable increase in labour cost, as each tree needs to be sprayed individually.

“You have to weigh up the increase in income from yield versus the increase in labour costs. Ultimately, the macadamias remain the cash cow, so their needs take precedence.”

Soil moisture is measured by probes, and irrigation is scheduled accordingly, but Carel explains that coffee is not overly thirsty and the irrigation requirement has increased by only around 10% since this crop was added.

“Each plant ends up with about 4ℓ per week. The fact that it’s planted in shade means it doesn’t have a high water requirement. We manage the irrigation by placing two drippers per macadamia tree and only one on the coffee, as the macadamias need more water.”

The coffee is pruned regularly to ensure that the trees don’t exceed 2m. This is both to prevent the coffee from interfering with the macadamias, and also to ease the harvesting process.

Flowering starts in September, coinciding with the macadamias. Although coffee is self-pollinating, its sweet-smelling blooms attract bees into the orchards, where they then pollinate the macadamias, providing an added benefit for the nut production.

Pests that affect coffee are taken care of by the crop protection methods used on the macadamias, which saves on input costs.

The seasons overlap, so the withholding periods to take into account are the same for both crops. The coffee harvest starts around June, just after that of the macadamias.

Phytophthora is a potential threat to the coffee trees and must be managed. Carel notes that keeping the plants healthy is key to reducing their susceptibility to this fungus.

“Globally, stem borer is a big problem for coffee production, especially as it’s not easy to spot. The tree won’t die immediately, but over time the yield will drop and eventually the tree will die. We haven’t yet noticed stem borer in our orchards, but we prune against it by removing all side branches from the trunk up to 0,5m off the ground,” says Carel.

The Burgers imported this small coffee roaster from China. It can roast 10kg of beans at a time.

Processing the beans

Charles says that the greatest challenge with coffee production is the market, but the greatest cost is labour to pick the coffee.

“The general rule is that on 1ha of coffee you need 20 to 45 pickers. The way in which we farm means there’s a gradual harvest over a few months, so the workers go through the orchards every week to pick only the fully ripe cherries. This requires less labour (around 15 workers) than in Brazil, for example, where they pick the entire orchard in one go.”

After the coffee has been harvested, the cherries go through a depulper, which removes the outer, fleshy layer around the beans.

There are different methods to follow from here, and Carel is experimenting with two: the honey and the wet method. With the former, the beans are placed on a drying rack in the sun straight after depulping, with much of its wet, sticky-sweet layer still intact.

The wet method, which is the most widely used, entails placing the depulped beans in water to ferment for four days, during which time the slimy layer around the beans falls off. The beans are then placed on drying racks in the sun.

“Each has its pros and cons, but ultimately it depends on what flavour you prefer,” says Carel.

“We tried the honey method last year, but it seems as if the wet method produces better flavour, so we’ll go back to that this year.

“It’s difficult to get a sense of which is better, as it’s not just the drying method that influences the flavour of the coffee, but the climate. You can get different flavours of coffee between two years based on changes in the weather.”

It takes around two weeks in the sun to dry the beans to between 11% to 15%. The beans then go through a dehuller, which removes the thin papery layer around them. They can then be stored in bags for a few months and roasted as needed.

“Part of our value offering is that we provide fresh coffee. As the client orders, we roast,” Carel explains.

Maximising value

The Burgers decided early on to produce coffee for the boutique market rather than sell green beans in bulk to large-scale roasters and packers.

“At 9 000 trees, we’re at our peak. If we wanted to plant more coffee, we would need to buy more land. Producing in bulk makes selling in bulk more feasible. But at the volumes we produce, there’s more value in roasting, packaging and selling directly to the consumer,” says Carel.

The farm has received numerous requests for green beans, but at the price offered for green beans – R120/kg for really good quality – the Burgers would only break even. Compared with the R330/kg they receive for roasted beans, it’s easy to see that more value lies in roasting their own beans.

Carel adds that the cost to have the beans roasted by an external service provider is high, which was why they invested in their own roaster.

“You need economies of scale to justify the price,” he admits, “but we’re getting there.”

The small roaster, which can accommodate 10kg per batch and takes 10 minutes to perform the roast, is sufficient to handle the farm’s entire crop of around 3t.

Carel notes that roasting coffee beans can be a finicky process to perfect. He attended a number of courses on roasting, but mostly learns through experimenting.

“Because we produce our own coffee, we can afford to experiment a bit, so it doesn’t cost the business a lot to learn. All the experiments go to the household to consume, so it fulfils our own coffee needs!”

The roaster is gas-powered, with a small electric motor. The farm is in the process of switching to solar power, which will eliminate any delays caused by load-shedding.

The coffee is packaged on the farm under their Foothills brand, a reference to the farm being situated at the foothills of the Drakensberg, in prime coffee-growing climate.

Most of the coffee is sold in the Lowveld to restaurants and through word of mouth to locals. A small portion is sold online through Takealot, but Carel says that the cost of being on this platform is high and they are using it “more to just get our name out there and test the market”.

“Getting our product into coffee shops is very difficult, as most have a contract with the company that supplies and services their coffee machines. It’s hard to get around this unless you start providing machines as well. We’ve built up a good following of locals who drink only our coffee, and this is the kind of market we want to focus on.”

Carel’s holiday project has proved to be a boon for this macadamia farm, maximising the value extracted from their land.

While the journey is still in its early stages, it could prove to be the foundation for a flourishing coffee industry in South Africa, with the crop being grown side by side with other subtropical crops.

Email Carel at [email protected]