I’ve seen them on four different properties now, so yes, coffee plants can grow and set beans here in Northland.
Dreaming of growing your own coffee? Wendy Laurenson has good news.
We think of coffee as having exotic origins in tropical lands – and it does – but in recent years, experimental coffee bushes in some hidden pockets of the Far North have been quietly maturing and are now yielding their first significant crops.
Last year, Rob and Carol Schluter handpicked just under a tonne of red coffee cherries (which contain the coffee bean) from 700 bushes on their two-hectare property in the hills overlooking Doubtless Bay. Here, they have created a subtropical oasis amidst steep clay-loam farmland 200m above sea level with minimum temperatures of 8°C to 9°C.
The milestone was a long time coming – for the last 12 years they have roasted and sold imported coffee beans to cafes and farmers markets in the Far North. “We planted our first few coffee bushes as ornamental plants here in 2002,” Rob recalls, “but it took several years to learn what grows well in our conditions and to build up our plant numbers, so it’s only now that we have a significant harvest.”
Commercial coffee comes from two main species: Arabica coffee ( Coffea
arabica) is the basis of the fresh ground coffee industry; Robusta coffee ( Coffea
canephora) is the basis of instant coffee. Coffee plants like temperatures between 15°C and 30°C, a rainfall average of 1500-2500mm a year, and humidity of around 70-90 per cent. They will survive a mild frost but heavy frosts will kill the plants. Rob says that climate is the main determinate for coffee growing; soils and
plant management are secondary and usually adjustable. “Most Arabica coffee is grown in the tropics in higher altitudes to moderate the temperature extremes of continents, and to combat the pests and diseases at the lower rainforest altitudes.”
However, the maritime subtropical pockets around Northland are the climatic equivalent of the higher altitudes in the tropics. “Our natural humidity here also means we don’t need canopy. We don’t irrigate because of our clay-loam soil and we’ve learnt that established coffee plants will withstand drought conditions. The plants flower from late January to April depending on rainfall, and unlike Robusta varietals, Arabica coffee is self-fertile with pollination enhanced by bees.”
Rob and Carol got their first plants at a time when there was little precedent for growing coffee in New Zealand.
The plants had come from Lake Ngatu Plantations, and some of these originated from a selection made about 30 years ago by a (then) Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR) team from a trip sourcing subtropical and tropical plants from Brazil, Ecuador, California, Papua New Guinea and India. Many of those coffee plants are also now growing and fruiting at Austen’s Exotic Gardens near Kaitaia, but the former DSIR trial plantings themselves no longer exist.
The plants that Rob and Carol obtained started to fruit at five years old.
“We had lovely red cherries, but those cherries didn’t reliably contain hard coffee beans, so we decided to improve our soil using compost sourced from the farm, plus some missing trace elements, and we began to document bean-set,” he says. “Coffee plants are heavy feeders and like slightly acid soil with plenty of organic matter.“
In the summer of 2011, they harvested beans from their most prolific trees and hand-processed those to offer to customers.
“The response was so encouraging, we selected seed from trees that were cold tolerant, had a good shape and had reliable fruit-set, to grow as seedlings,” Rob adds. “Coffee grows reasonably true to type from seed, so most of the coffee industry worldwide is based on seedlings.”
The couple planted the first 550 of these plants in 2012 and 2013 with help from some coffee-loving friends, and a further 250 trees of a new varietal in 2014, so they now grow three coffee varietals and are further refining their selections. Last year, they selectively colour-picked just under a tonne of cherries (60kg of roasted coffee) between December and February.
Carol enjoys the harvest. “The picking pace is about the same as for blueberries, and friends and customers are happy to help in exchange for the coffee harvest experience and some good coffee,” she says. “The wet season early last summer made it challenging to pick the cherries before the rain split them, and it made the drying timeframe tricky too, but the upside was that the rain induced early flowering and fruit development, so we’re now looking at a much larger crop for this season.”
The harvested red cherries are pulped through a small machine that separates the red skins from the beans.
The beans are then washed before being dried on racks in a plasticroofed shed, then are husked by another machine to remove the thin outer membrane so they are ready for roasting. “The whole process reduces our harvest weight by about 90 per cent,” Carol explains, “so growing coffee is very labour intensive for the roasted end-weight.”
Rob adds, “Our growing project here is experimental but so far the results are promising. We love the idea of producing our own coffee from seed through to the cup. Customers are increasingly hungry for the story behind their choices, and we’d love to add a locally grown coffee to New Zealand’s coffee drinking experience.”
The coffee plant is a lush evergreen ornamental but growing them for beans in the home garden is still challenging, partly because of the warm sheltered conditions needed and partly because some of the varietals available in garden centres are from unknown or unproven lineage for fruiting in our conditions.
However, the fact that some varietals are now proving their productive worth here means grow-your-own coffee could one day be an additional curiosity in our subtropical gardens – and the plant is an exotic good-looker in the meantime.
Carol harvesting the coffee crop. Ripe red coffee cherries. Coffee beans inside the cherry. Rob at the coffee drying rack. Drying coffee beans still with husk on.