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Big data, big results

From the January 2018 issue.

Through its Global Coffee Monitoring Program, World Coffee Research is building the biggest coffee data set yet – and getting it into the hands of the farmers who need it.

WCR researcher

Last year was a busy one for World Coffee Research (WCR), with the announcement of the launch of the global nonprofit’s nursery and seed verification program, the first of its kind. Before that it was sharing results of first-generation hybrid breeding trials – a first in the global coffee industry.

While each of these initiatives is individually groundbreaking and will be beneficial to the industry, together they are actually steps toward a greater goal of getting better coffee into farmers’ fields to support an industry that is expanding faster than producers can keep up as it deals with increasing demand amidst the detrimental effects of global warming.

In traditional agricultural research and improvement initiatives, “you usually have a three-legged stool,” explains WCR Communications Director Hanna Neuschwander. “You have the research and development (R&D) component, and then the extension component that takes the results of that R&D out to the farmers. The third component is education and training.”

“In coffee, all three of these components are severely lacking,” she continues. “Most of the work that WCR does is really about the research component and using the knowledge [gained] to develop new varieties that will benefit farmers and help fill a need that they have.”

So, as if the folks at WCR weren’t busy enough, they’re getting ready to fully launch a new initiative to address some of the key barriers in getting improved varieties to farmers – that extension step. Since the nonprofit started in 2012, they’ve been working hard to create new plant varieties. They’ve also been running multi-location trials with various varieties to test their performance in different coffee-growing regions globally. And more recently they’ve started working with nurseries around the globe to ensure farmers are actually receiving the pure, accurate seeds and seedlings they’ve paid for through a verification program.

This latest initiative, the Global Coffee Monitoring Program, is the next step in pursuit of the greater goal and involves testing different varieties and agronomic practices in farmers’ fields, explains Danielle Knueppel, Director of the program. “It’s much different to test in an actual farmer’s plot compared to a more controlled research plot. It’s a way for farmers to get to know new varieties and see how those varieties and different agricultural practices perform in a more realistic environment.”

That latter part is key considering the disconnect and lack of trust in the industry.

“There isn’t a tremendous amount of trust from coffee producers of outsiders coming in with new ‘solutions’,” Neuschwander tells Global Coffee Report.

On top of that, farmers are very risk averse considering their entire livelihood is based on a crop that is subject to unpredictable and changing weather conditions and price volatility.

So rather than outsiders simply telling farmers what to do and expecting them to take the risk, WCR researchers have built a unique model behind this initiative that actually places the trials on the farmers’ plots and involves them in the process.

Says Neuschwander, “Any time that you’re trying to introduce a new technology or new knowledge, it helps to be able to show the farmer so they can really see with their own eyes whether there is an impact, and in a way that doesn’t impose any risk on them.”

Coffee farmers

The project takes a concept known in the agriculture industry as a ‘demonstration’ and continues it a step further to analyse the rich array of resulting data on yield, quality and most importantly, profitability. True agricultural demonstrations don’t have the component of calculating profitability at the end – which is a key objective in this initiative.

“Rather than just setting up this demo plot, we’re actually designing it in a way that we can extract meaningful data from multiple different interventions to let the farmers see some different options and then see what those options translate into in terms of money in their pocket,” she adds.

In addition to allowing farmers to see and feel the benefits of new farm technologies on their own farms, another key objective is centered on that monetary factor.

“Farmer profitability is one of the most important outcomes of [the Global Coffee Monitoring Program],” Knueppel tells GCR.

“Finding a variety and agricultural practice that a farmer could put in their field and potentially continue after the trial is really important. That’s the bottom line. If it’s not going to be profitable for a farmer, then he or she will want to get into other crops that are more profitable.”

According to WCR, this is a trend that is repeating itself daily around the world as old, tired and outdated plants and soil fail to produce the volumes or qualities they once did. Today, most coffee growers are still using the same varieties that have been available for the past 200 years, and the industry is starting to see the limits of those varieties with climate change. Despite the dire need for many farmers to update and refresh their plots, WCR estimates that many coffee farmers have delayed renovating their farms over the years because they haven’t had the capital to do it.

“Typically, renovations are expensive and something a farmer would get a loan for, except most small farmers can’t get loans because banks don’t feel confident extending loans without data to show that they’re going to get paid back,” Neuschwander explains. “And what smallholder has that kind of data lying around?”

So the data extracted from these trials can show not only farmers the potential profitability to be had, but also banks, governments and other investors the potential return on their investment (ROI). She adds, “This robust data can flow up to loan agencies who are involved in extending loans to farmers for renovations and show them whether it’s a good investment, whether or not they’re going to get their money back.”

Funding for the Global Coffee Monitoring Program trials isn’t coming from banks, though. For that, WCR is working with local supply chain and NGO partners, such as roasters, exporters and institutions. In addition to committing cash or in-kind contributions to at least five trial plots, the partners may also provide field agronomists to execute the trials and collect resulting data. The data will then be aggregated globally for the benefit of the entire industry.

“The partners are very interested in supporting these trials because often the farms are in their supply chains,” says Knueppel. “What’s more, a lot of times the staff are part of larger training programs for these partners. This trial can be used as a demonstration in their own training programs.”

Thus far, program partners include HRNS in Guatemala, Avé Café in El Salvador, ECOM in Costa Rica, and ECOM, Mercon and Catholic Relief Services in Nicaragua. After the partner agreement is finalised and roles and responsibilities are identified, the two organisations will locate farmers that are interested and willing to designate a portion of their land for the trial. This is where that aforementioned lack of trust can come into play, but because WCR and the partners are funding the project, any farmer cost or risk is minimal.

“We’ve taken as much risk as possible out of the equation,” Neuschwander tells GCR. The only cost to the farmer is preparing the land for the trial, maintaining the trial plot as they would the rest of their coffee plantation, and helping to collect plant data.  One of the central outcomes of the trials is a global data set that will guide recommendations for a diverse range of farm and farmer types, so WCR and the partners select farms based on certain criteria in order to build a diverse collection.

Coffee nursery

The criteria include type of farmer, farm and trial size, ecogeography and growing system.

Where possible, WCR sources the seeds and seedlings for the trials from nurseries that have been approved through its Verified Program. In cases where a trial may need to source from a nursery that has not yet been verified, WCR will conduct a DNA analysis to ensure they are truly receiving the correct varieties. Appropriate coffee varieties are chosen for each farm based on some of those preceding criteria.

In a plot of nine quadrants, the trial evaluates three agronomic treatments over three varieties, with one of each representing the existing variety and agronomic practice as a control.

According to Knueppel, there are numerous agronomic treatments that can be tested in the trials, from spacing and hole size to shade and ground cover. “We work with the farmers to choose the treatments because they have a better understanding of their needs and challenges,” she says. “The treatments should be accessible and within the farmer’s level so that they could potentially continue them after the trial [is over].”

Monitoring happens over a five-year period, with growth, harvest and quality data collected in subsequent stages.

“With the varieties that we put into trials, I think the farmers are going to see fairly quickly – even in year one and two – that they are growing much more vigorously and quickly than their existing plants,” admits Knueppel. “Starting in year three is when we would begin to have some information on yield, coffee quality and profitability.”

In years two and five, WCR organises Farmer Field Days to showcase the trial plot to neighbouring farmers to demonstrate the ROI resulting from improved variety choices, agronomy treatments and plot management.

“Farmer Field Days will help us reach nearby communities [with this data], and a lot of times the partners are buyers of the coffee, so the message is also spread that way,” she says. “We want to get the resulting information out as wide as possible.”

That dissemination of information and related solutions is the ‘extension’ component Neuschwander previously spoke of.

This trial is about addressing this key component of transferring improved technologies to farmers, she explains. “A better plant isn’t better for all farmers in all situations, so how do you align what the plant can do with what different farmers need? And what are the barriers to uptake? At the end of the day it should be the farmer’s decision, but we have an obligation to present and deliver better options to them.”

The rich, robust sets of resulting data can be aggregated in a massive way across all the plots in all of these different agro-ecological conditions, countries, altitudes, etc., Neuschwander continues. “With a large enough data set, we can conduct some really sophisticated statistical analysis to see which components matter most in determining profitability.”

The first three plots were planted in 2016 in El Salvador and 19 more were planted in 2017 to bring the total to 22 trials across Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

By about 2019 the program will be producing data around harvest volume and profitability. But in the mean time, WCR and its partners have lofty rollout plans.

This year, more than 150 trials will commence across the remaining coffee-growing regions, in Central America, as well as in South America and Africa. By 2022, WCR hopes to have more than 1100 trial plots. GCR

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