The harvest at Cloud Forest Coffee Farms is in full swing right now. The timing is unusual, because most other growers in Northwestern Ecuador have already completed their harvest. Cloud Forest Coffee Farms are at a higher altitude, and the coffee cherries ripen later. This suits Cloud Forest’s Brian Krohnke just fine, since he can hire experienced pickers whose work at lower altitudes is finished.
In 2010, when Brian and his partners began planting coffee trees in the Tandayapa Valley, about an hour outside of Quito, other growers warned them that they were planting at too high an altitude for good results. But planting at a higher altitude was just one of the rules they broke. Another was planting on land that had been worn out after years of use as a cattle pasture. Ranchers had used slash-and-burn methods to clear the forest for cattle grazing and now the topsoil was giving out. But Brian and his ornithologist friend and neighbor, Juan Manuel Carrion, saw the chance to conduct a great experiment.
Could the worn-out pasture, bordering Juan Manuel’s Tambo Quinde nature reserve, near the Mindo Cloud Forest Reserve, be restored to the diverse ecosystem it once was? And to make it more interesting, could they restore the forest AND grow premium quality coffee at the same time?
The idea was that a coffee farm could fund on-going restoration of larger and larger tracts of land. Economically, that made sense. And coffee trees grow naturally in the shade, so it also made agricultural sense to plant coffee among the restored cloud forest trees, if the soil could be improved enough for healthy tree development. The problem was that the partners had no instruction manual or established protocol for the project.
Not only is Cloud Forest Coffee Farms a great experiment, it’s a long-term one. Brian expects it to take 20 years or more for the replanted land to reflect the natural biodiversity of the area. As for the coffee farm and the warnings that coffee wouldn’t grow well in the Tandayapa Valley … Brian had been in the coffee business for more than a decade as a broker and exporter. He noticed that many of the winners of regional cupping contests in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru originated at higher altitudes – 6,000 feet or more – and he began thinking that this might be part of a formula for growing outstanding coffee.
The first trees planted in 2010, included fast-growing nitrogen-fixing species to begin re-creating the cloud forest canopy. Then, slower-growing hardwoods were added. Once those were established, coffee trees were planted beneath the taller canopy. Brian’s team continues to experiment with tree spacing to get the right amount of dappled shade for the coffee trees.
Five years into the experiment, in 2015, Cloud Forest Coffee Farms had its first commercial crop. Each year in the future will be larger, as another year’s plantings mature. I tried the 2015 crop and it is delicious. I’m looking forward to this year’s crop. The team is about halfway through the harvest, which will continue through August.
Follow the harvest and the results of this great experiment at www.cloudforestcoffeefarms.com.