I’ve seen them on four dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties now, so yes, cof­fee plants can grow and set beans here in North­land.

NZ Gardener - - Content -

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.

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