Drip Irrigation, Less Financial Risk.
Graciano Cruz is a full-time specialty coffee farmer living at the foot of Volcan Baru, just few minutes from his main farms – Los Lajones and Emporium. Graciano has wealth of knowledge in coffee farming and we were fortunate enough to interview him on the subject of drip irrigation. Graciano was born and raised in Boquete, Panama. He graduated from the Escuela Agricola Panamericana Zamorano in Agronomics. Graciano is also an MBA graduate from INCAE, certified Q Grader, director of many coffee development projects, father of two sons, and a surfer. In this interview conducted at the Berlin Coffee Festival, Graciano talks to BH Dean of Studies, Jem Challender about the cost-benefits and challenges of converting a coffee farm to drip-irrigation.
Pictures: portrait of Graciano Cruz and his farm, Los Lajones Estate.
Jem Challender – You recently won the Brazilian Cup of Excellence [grower’s competition] with plants that matured at a much faster rate than normal. Could you tell us about how drip irrigation accelerates the growth rate of plants?
Graciano Cruz – What I would say is drip irrigation does not accelerate things, but more like if you put water to the plant in a more constant way, and you’re really precise with what the plant needs, you’re [dissolving] a lot of the characteristics of the terroir [into the water].
Remember, all of the bacteria, all of the microorganisms in the soil don’t move in the soil, but rather, they move in a water solution. All the nutrients move in water. If you don’t have water the plant cannot eat. It can’t have that symbiotic effect with nature. Which is all that universe of microorganisms working there, which the French people give the name of terroir to wine long ago.
We’re learning in coffee that maybe some of the same yeasts or microorganisms that you have in some other beverages, like wine. There are more coffee plants in the world than wine grapes. There’s more people depending on coffee. So, when you say that, just bring in the water factor with climate changes, for me the question is: Will that put limits on coffee production?
With the low prices, nowadays in the market, you have the Brazilian people who are still making money. Totally mechanised [farming practices], sometimes maybe too hardcore in the use of chemicals and fertilisers. I think all of these have to be in balance.
When you use drip irrigation, you’re feeding your plant with what it needs. And it’s a really short period of time that you have in every crop to give the right nutrients so that the plants can express their maximum potential.
JC – Are you adding nutrients into the water that’s in the drip irrigation?
GC – We’re beginning to do some tests, but in Brazil, it is the system.
We do foliar analysis twice a year, and soil analysis twice a year, or you can make foliar even more often and you’ll read it from what the plant is telling you what it needs. What she needs to keep growing in full.
With drip irrigation, you can save one to two years before harvesting. So, the [money and time invested in installing the] irrigation system can be paid off with the first crop.
JC – It would normally be five or six years?
GC – Normally is four/five years. Brazilians are really advanced at doing this; and I think in Central America some people are beginning to play with that but, in five more years I would say efficient farmers, and good farmers who have access to water can do something really good.
JC – Can you tell us about the cost-benefit, when you invest in drip irrigation?
GC – Investing in drip irrigation is like when you plant-when you invest in coffee farming, and you put a coffee plant you’re gambling for five years, until your first crop. In this way [if you use drip irrigation] you’ll gamble only for two or three years. So, your risk will be 40% less. It’s all about risk management. So, financial people, bankers, who finance coffee, should understand that. That’s a clear message for them.
JC – I understand some farmers might not have a reservoir that’s available?
GC – Yeah, you know? You have most of the coffee countries,
you have some rain and they’re in the tropical area, the subtropical areas, and we have to learn
how to harvest more water, in which I mean “harvesting water,” so you can irrigate your crops.
JC – Would that be localised small dams on people’s farms?
GC – Yes, I think it’s just collecting water from the rain and tanks and different systems. There’s also a lot of technology going on with the destandardisation of waters that are too heavy [in minerals] or different types of water.
JC – In Panama, is it possible to take water from the ground?
GC – From the ground, yes. You can get concessions over wells.
JC – And is it mostly the case that there’s enough natural rainfall that doesn’t need to be supplemented in Panama?
GC – If you collect the water from that rainfall — yes. If not, it’s a stress so it’s periods of upside down, years with good crop, less flowering. Here you can make a more uniform flowering, a more uniform crop.
JC – When you use drip irrigation, is it still necessary to restrict during the dry season to stimulate flowering?
GC – That’s normally what you do. Even with drip irrigation it’s easier to do it.Your blossom can be more located, inside [a more compact flowering period].
JC – How long would you normally restrict the irrigation?
GC – It depends on the weather conditions, but you can go from two/three weeks to a month and a half.
JC – That was great!
GC – You’re welcome, man. Thanks a lot.