How can data collection be used to improve coffee production?


When we discuss the evolution of data usage in the coffee industry, we often focus on the impact for roasters and coffee shops. And while that is certainly important, more and more producers are using data technology to benefit coffee production.

Historically, coffee farmers – especially smallholders – have had a distinct lack of access to modern methods of data collection. This, in turn, can make it difficult to identify ways to improve their farming and business practices.

So, with a growing focus on democratizing access to origin data, how do we hope this will shape the future of coffee production? And how can access to data collection be extended across the Bean Belt? To find out, I spoke with PRF Colombia panelists Ricardo Pereira and Nicholas Castellano. Read on for their insight.

You might also like our article on the evolution of technology in the coffee industry in recent years.

Why is collecting data at origin so important?

Throughout the coffee supply chain, data collection is an essential part of communicating and improving coffee quality. This can range from monitoring and re-developing roast curves to understanding the impact of temperature stability on espresso extraction.

But while roasters and cafes generally have better access to data, producers have historically relied on more traditional means of data collection, primarily by taking notes on paper.

Fortunately, that is starting to change. Now more than ever, access to data platforms designed for coffee production is becoming more widespread – but why is it so important?

Ricardo Pereira is the COO of green coffee trader Ally Coffee. He was also a speaker on the PRF Colombia Coffee production and technology: how data improves production and business sign.

“Data collection should be the foundation of business planning,” he tells me. “Producers need to see their farms as businesses, so they need to plan farm management the same way as any other business.

“Collecting and reviewing data can help growers make better decisions, in terms of which varieties to plant, when to process their coffees and what type of processing method to use, for example,” he adds.

For example, data might show that certain varieties may be better suited to different plots of land on a farm, or that specific processing methods might result in higher taste scores under specific conditions.

Ultimately, without modern data collection methods, producers may not be able to track and examine these variables, meaning a potential opportunity to manage or increase coffee quality is lost. .

Ricardo, however, explains that collecting data for coffee growers is much more than that.

“It’s also about understanding and collecting data on the true costs of running a farm, so farmers can know if their business is profitable,” he says.

Furthermore, with many small coffee farmers around the world operating at subsistence level, there is a greater need than ever to find ways to increase and diversify their income.

Ally Coffee Ethiopia coffee buyer Rahel Mulat inspects a data collection label on a drying table at METAD's Gedeb Halo Beriti washing station in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

What types of data are most relevant to producers?

There are a large number of data points that can be collected along the coffee supply chain. But an important part of optimizing data collection is understanding what information each actor in the supply chain needs, including coffee farmers.

Nicholas Castellano is a digital marketer at Cropster and co-host of the Coffee and Technology podcast. He also participated in the PRF Colombia panel.

Nicholas explains what types of data are important to farmers so they can add value to their coffees.

“For growers who process and dry their own coffee, post-harvest data — such as soil pH levels, temperature and moisture — is critical,” he says. “Using this data, they can assess whether temperature or humidity levels are optimal enough to perform the drying phase, for example.”

According to the International Coffee Organization, the optimum moisture content for green coffee should be around 11%, although there is no official standard. Generally, moisture content levels outside of a range of 10% to 12% will result in loss of quality.

He explains that software such as Cropster’s Origin allows growers to access a range of data points efficiently, helping to streamline farm management.

“[When obtaining and recording more data]growers can make adjustments to their farming practices, while still being able to manage and verify coffee quality during harvest,” says Nicholas.

“They can assess and record coffee quality early in the harvest, as well as cup coffees to record scores, flavor notes and overall profiles,” he tells me. “If the quality is below expectations, farmers always have the option of changing variables to improve quality, whether that means letting the cherries ripen longer or trying different techniques during fermentation and drying.

Natural dried coffee with a thermometer for collecting and monitoring temperature data at Finca Santa Elena in Antioquia, Colombia.

Quality control and scalability

For farmers, an important part of data collection is focused on coffee quality assessment.

“If you have good soil conditions and agricultural practices at a high level, [among other factors], you will have good quality coffee,” says Nicholas. “Recording and using data is more about maintaining that quality.

“Having access to data helps you maximize post-harvest quality as much as possible,” he adds.

There are endless variables to consider when growing coffee, from how much sunlight the plants should get to how much irrigation water or rainfall they need. The same goes for post-harvest processing techniques; farmers need to control these variables as much as possible.

“By having data at their fingertips and analyzing at a larger scale, farmers can potentially maximize their yield and perform post-harvest processing with even more precision,” says Nicholas. “It will only serve to improve the quality of the coffee.

“Some software may include yield calculations,” he adds. “So based on how many plants farmers have or how many cherries they harvest, the technology can estimate how much parchment or green coffee they will have.”

Ultimately, using data to improve yields – while maintaining quality – will help growers increase their profit margins. Plus, with data collection and analysis software, they can be better equipped to understand where those profits are coming from and where they can be reinvested.

However, while data collection is undoubtedly important for coffee production, it needs to be both accessible and scalable if farmers are to use it successfully.

That said, there are signs that accessibility will increase; one key sign in particular is the proliferation of mobile apps targeted at coffee production.

According to Statista, it is estimated that around 7.7 billion people will have access to smartphones by 2027, which will include many of the 125 million people who depend on coffee production for their income.

Thanks to smartphone technology, more small producers will hopefully have better access to modern data collection software.

Tracking drying data collection points at Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia.

How can data technology in coffee farms improve sustainability?

When we talk about sustainability in the coffee industry, we often talk about traceability and transparency, which largely focus on where the coffee comes from and how it was produced. This puts a large part of the responsibility on producers to provide as much information as possible.

Ricardo explains how transparency and traceability in the supply chain must go both ways so that farmers also have better access to data throughout the supply chain.

“Transparency is a two-way street, not just a one-way street,” he says. “It’s reciprocal and shouldn’t be something only roasters demand.

“Producers should also ask roasters what is happening along the supply chain,” he adds. “Ally Coffee collects data on where most of the value is kept throughout the supply chain, [which can be useful for farmers to know].”

Much of the value in the coffee supply chain is retained by roasters and coffee shops through the sale of roasted coffee or coffee drinks to the end consumer. Thus, price transparency data can help people in the industry understand where we can potentially address equity issues to improve the long-term sustainability and profitability of players at each stage of the chain.

“If we have transparency from start to finish in the supply chain, we can encourage more meaningful conversations,” says Ricardo. “We can make the coffee industry more sustainable, not only for consuming countries, but also for producing countries.

“If we don’t support people at the origin and ensure better access to data collection technology, education and opportunities, fewer people will be interested in coffee production,” adds- he.

Coffee drying with a moisture meter at Hacienda Casablanca in Santander, Colombia.

Democratizing access to coffee production data is clearly a way to help farmers improve coffee quality and yields. However, beyond supporting producers to assess and analyze farm performance data, it can also be used to better understand their cash flow and where to invest profits.

Ultimately, however, farm-level data collection goes far beyond quality, yield and profitability figures. When we consider it as part of the bigger picture, it is clear that this will be an important talking point when it comes to creating a fairer coffee supply chain.

Did you like it? then read our article on how coffee farmers can leverage data.

Photo credit: Ally Coffee

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