Intercropping coffee: How can it benefit farmers?

Jacob Klave
October 5, 2023
intercropping coffee, benefits of intercropping coffee, Biota Coffee, sustainable coffee farming, MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant

Biota Coffee is dedicated to helping farmers learn about intercropping coffee to help control pests and lower the risk of disease. As a finalist for the 2023 Circular Economy Grant, Chief Operations Officer, Zachary Latimore explains how the brand is making regenerative agriculture accessible to smallholder farmers who otherwise would lack the financial or educational resources to move away from conventional, chemical agriculture methods.

Within the specialty coffee industry, there is a lot of time spent discussing the soil the crop was grown in. For instance, information about the growing region and altitude, as well as the biodiversity of the farm or the soil mineral composition, can be found on coffee bags. 

This is because certain flavour notes in coffee are often attributed to different regions simply because of the type of soil it has. Notably, many people consider nutrient-rich volcanic soil as one of the best-growing conditions for coffee.

The rising demand for coffee has forced many farmers to clear land of its native fauna to make room for large plantations. Additionally, the coffee is often grown in tightly packed rows in an endless cycle, sucking nutrients from the soil. 

In addition to over-cultivation, rising global temperatures are increasing the number of droughts and flash floods. More so, the ever-present threat of plant disease and pests can quickly lead to the extinction of many coffee varieties, as well as halve the amount of suitable land for coffee cultivation

The historical use of intercropping goes back as far, if not farther, than the known cultivation of coffee itself. 

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What is intercropping coffee?

Intercropping refers to growing two or more crops together. It is a practice that has saved and maintained many industries, and it could very well help secure the future of coffee.

Biota Coffee was started in 2021 in the hopes of restructuring the coffee supply chain. The brand aims to make the industry more sustainable and beneficial to all those involved in each step. 

Essentially, Biota Coffee helps farmers cultivate better crops. “Our approach is three-tiered,” Zachary explains. “First is the agronomy and environmental side, second is finances, and the third tier encompasses the quality of it all.” 

The brand works with coffee farmers to see what the farm needs: what native flora would benefit the crops most and what nutrients farmers should add to the soil. Then the team determines the finances, the tools required, a budget, and whether the farmers can afford these changes. 

When working alongside coffee farmers, Zachary explains that the brand follows a ‘routine’. “The first step is to make a diagnosis. From there, we develop a plan depending on where the farmer wants to be on the scale. Then, we implement that plan accordingly, starting with the more long-term changes first.”

For farmers to begin intercropping coffee, Biota Coffee has to determine what the soil needs. There are plenty of tools that measure different aspects of soil health. The main parameters that are measured are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and the soil’s pH level. 

Once these are noted, the best plants for intercropping are selected and introduced to the farm. Beyond this, any other soil based adjustments can be planned. 

intercropping coffee, benefits of intercropping coffee, Biota Coffee, sustainable coffee farming, MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant

How does intercropping coffee benefit the farmer?

Now that Biota Coffee has determined how to help the soil, it can turn its attention to the farmer.

“Beans and legumes are effective nitrogen rebuilders, while flowers attract pollinators,” Zach explains. However, it can be pointless to plant beans if the farmer doesn’t want to sell them, or if the community has no demand or use for them. More so, flowers are lovely, but it can be a waste of funds if the farmer lacks the contacts to sell them.  

It’s all about what is profitable for, and preferred by, the farmer.

Once this is all determined, Biota Coffee begins making changes, starting with those that take the longest to implement. For example, farmers who want large trees to shade the coffee will have to source full-grown trees or grow their own. 

But what does intercropping do for the coffee, the farmer, or the soil? Zachary says a lack of understanding of the topic is common. “At times, we’ve even struggled to find farmers to work with because many fear that any kind of organic or sustainable practice would have a detrimental effect on their yields.”

Part of Biota Coffee’s initiative is to educate the farmers on the benefits of intercropping coffee, as the list is almost endless. Intercropping and agroforestry improve soil quality by stabilising the minerals in the soil and preventing erosion. 

Additionally, the presence of trees allows for diverse habitats that promote biodiversity. Shade trees can also help with climate regulation to the point of positively affecting local weather patterns and protecting crops from severe conditions. Well-established farming systems conserve water by reducing runoff and enhancing the water quality of surrounding water bodies. 

Monoculture farming, or single crop production, has been shown to increase plant diseases and pathogens. More so, it exhausts the soil of its nutrients, destabilises soil moisture, and increases water runoff. 

Intercropping can also provide farmers with a second source of income. Studies on intercropping coffee with bananas show it to be only financially beneficial. “It takes between 3 and 5 years for coffee to mature,” Zachary says. “However, intercropping with corn can be a 6-month payback.”

“That used to be how coffee was farmed up until the 80s or so, with the Green Revolution,” Zach commiserates. The Green Revolution introduced modern technologies to farming. Singling out high-yield varieties, tractors, fertilisers, and pesticides led to increasing crop yield and hammering out harvest after harvest of the same crop.

intercropping coffee, benefits of intercropping coffee, Biota Coffee, sustainable coffee farming, MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant, custom coffee bags, custom coffee packaging,

Coffee packaging that promotes the exploration of specialty coffee

Biota Coffee’s unique work is reflected in its coffee packaging. “We felt that no one else is doing what we are doing in specialty coffee,” Zachary says. “We felt this incredible sense of exploration and adventure, so we wanted our packaging to reflect that.” 

He explains the brand wanted “to do something spacey.” Biota’s fully recyclable coffee bags depict astronauts bounding through ‘alien’ vegetation, holding a steaming cup of coffee. The colourful graphic stands out on the brand’s white coffee packaging while also allowing the logo to shine through. The back of each coffee bag has a brief brand story and encourages consumers to “brew the change [they] want to see in the world.” 

It’s important for players along the specialty coffee supply chain to realise that coffee relies on so much more than the brewer and the filter. The barista handing a drink to the consumer is the very last step in the chain of thousands of hands.

Sustainable practices need to be at every step, not just recycling the cup after the coffee is finished. For coffee to survive, a collaboration of all parts must be made to create and uphold a system of production that is continually improving, not only, the product, but also the planet.

Get to know the finalists of the MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant. Read our exclusive interview with Tim Whitson, the director at Firelight Coffee, about the brand’s coffee bag return programme. 

Images by Biota Coffee

For more information on recyclable coffee packaging, contact our team

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