Creating Coffee Varieties & Varietals

Have you ever wondered how coffee varieties and varietals are created? Maybe wondered how much time it takes to create a tree that is resistant to drought, disease, or various environmental occurrences? After a trip to origin, Trading Assistant Signe Owen has the answers! She shares how a facility in Machado, Minas Gerais has used agricultural genomics to protect the livelihood of their trees and ensure sustainability of their agricultural systems.

About the Facility

coffee varieties facility

Located in the Southeast region of Brazil is Machado, Minas Gerais. Machado is actually the highest arabica producing region in the world, producing 14-15 million pounds each year. When you factor in robusta, a total of 30 million pounds of coffee are produced from this one region!

In Machado lies Campo Experimental de Machado, a facility of A Empresa de Pesquisa Agropecuària de Minas Gerais (EPAMIG). EPAMIG was founded in 1974 with the purpose of developing research and experiments related directly and indirectly to agriculture with the aim of becoming the main instrument for carrying out agricultural research activities in the region of Minas Gerais.

While there, we spoke with Gilmar Cereda, who has been in the agronomy and genomics field for 48 years. Gilmar works with farmers looking to improve their crops. For instance, one year a farmer may have lost half of their trees to rust and is now looking for plants that can withstand rust or are resistant to it entirely.

To help these farmers, EPAMIG creates coffee varieties & varietals specific to the farmers’ needs. This facility is the only one in Brazil that completes this process from seed to final stages. That being said, this specialized process takes 16 years (yes, 16!) to be completed. Each phase in the creation process takes four years and is outlined below.

The 16-year Process to Create Coffee Varieties & Varietals

Firstly, they receive the seeds from the laboratory, which is also located in Minas Gerais. The laboratory actually determines which trees need to be grafted together in order to generate a specific outcome. Though some farmers will go directly to the facility with requests like screen size or height adjustments, they’re told to head over to the lab for the creation process to begin.

Next, the seeds are put in small grow bags. There is a minimum of two seeds planted in each bag to ensure growth. The seeds stay in the bags for about six months as there needs to be a minimum of 4 leaves on each plant before being replanted in large grow bags. There are roughly 1200 seedlings per row. In this stage, the plant is not a varietal. In fact, it won’t become one until the tenth year!

coffee varieties

Once the seedlings are ready, they are planted in the ground to grow for about 2.5 years. Furthermore, the plants are grown around Brazil to see what environment will help them thrive the most. The facility will ultimately choose the 5 best growing locations for the specific plants. Their protocol is to plant 744 trees and divide them among a variety of farms around the country.

Following the period of growth, the trees can be harvested for the first time. Each tree yields about 1.5-2 pounds of cherries. During the third year, the trees go into the low cycle and produce almost nothing. While that may sound alarming, this is the natural bi-annual cycle of a coffee cherry tree.

The End of Phase 1

After 4 years, they pick the seeds from the trees that were the most successful and pull the trees out of the ground. The seeds of their choice go back to the experimental facility, and they restart the process by planting them in the original grow bags. The facility goes through all of these steps three more times, making for a 16-year process. When we asked Gilmar how often this process works, he was proud to say that they have a 100% success rate!

Final Thoughts on Creating Coffee Varieties & Varietals

This entire process is incredibly controlled and monitored from beginning to end. There are so many variables tested throughout the 16 years, such as what climate is best for each tree’s growth. They even test how much space should be between the trees by testing 8 different amounts of space! Although it seems like a very long process, it is by far worth it in the long run. Gilmar stressed that it is easy to find chemical solutions to environmental problems and diseases like rust. However, applying chemical solutions takes labor, which can often be uncertain, and applying these solutions also has environmental consequences. Alternatively, creating a genetic resistance is more reliable and sustainable in the long term.

coffee varieties

The overall goal and expectation for these trees is higher and results in more consistent production, productivity, and resistance per tree. Gilmar has also concluded that it is more efficient to have more trees per area that produce a little less than less trees per area that produce more. This facility and program are government funded and completely organic. No pesticides are used, and natural, underground irrigation is used instead of man-made irrigation. Pictured above are the coffee fields at the facility currently growing experimental varietals!

This visit was incredibly informative, and it was truly a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the creation of coffee varieties & varietals. I look forward to seeing more of what comes out of this facility and how they’re able to improve the lives of coffee farmers in Brazil!