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Soil Management: Coffee Digs Good Dirt

2015-04-30 Comments Off on Soil Management: Coffee Digs Good Dirt
Juan Alberto Rivas applies organic fertilizer to his coffee plants.  Tuma La Dalia, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.  Photo by Oscar Leiva / Silverlight

Juan Alberto Rivas applies organic fertilizer to his coffee plants. Tuma La Dalia, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Photo by Oscar Leiva / Silverlight

When you think of UN resolutions (if you ever spend time thinking of UN resolutions that is), what probably comes to mind are some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, such as Syria, Iraq or the Congo.  The UN, however, can also use these resolutions in order to educate the global public.   This was the case when it passed resolution A/RES/68/232 declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils.

One of the main objectives of the International Year of Soils, which is led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reads as follows:

“Educate the public about the crucial role soil plays in food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, essential ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and sustainable development.”

What about the crucial role soil plays in coffee production?

Better management of soil is critical to the millions of smallholder families who depend on coffee production for their livelihoods. Poor soil management and resulting low yields can keep or send these same farmers into poverty. When you think of how important coffee can be to protecting fragile ecosystems and the environment, then you start to appreciate the central role that soil plays in the lives of coffee farmers, their families and their communities throughout the coffeelands.

We’ve been talking at length recently about the importance of choosing the right varietal to a) maximize production and b) ensure quality – Viva Castillo! / I Heart Caturra! – but without sound soil management practices a farmer will never be able to maximize his or her production, which means he or she is at risk of losing potential profit.  With proper soil management, a farmer can not only increase yield, but can also produce more efficiently (spending less on inputs such as fertilizer, for example, results in a higher net income).  He or she can increase a coffee plant’s ability to withstand disease such as coffee leaf rust while also having a positive effect on the environment, notably water resources, by increasing the amount of rain water that infiltrates the ground as well as reducing runoff of topsoil, fertilizer and pesticides into waterways.   In sum, proper soil management can mean the difference between a farm that is good for the farmer and his or her community, and a farm that fails both economically and in terms of the environment.

So I’d like to propose an addendum to A/RES/68/232, namely, “Educating the public as to the importance of soil management for coffee.”

Now, I am not an agronomist by training, although my father did teach at Purdue University, which should give me some sort of street cred (he taught French literature though, so maybe not…).  I am, however, in the envious position of working closely with a number of seasoned and talented experts, from soil scientists- the men and women who worry about cation exchanges, pH balance, microbes, nutrients, etc.- to farmers and other knowledgeable coffee actors.

Throughout the Year of Soils you can count on me to share perspectives from those conversations here.