August 14, 2023

Why is soil health so crucial to regenerative agriculture in coffee production?


Now more than ever, climate change is one of the most pressing issues affecting the future of the global coffee industry. A 2023 study suggests that climate conditions which reduce coffee yields have become more common over the past four decades – resulting in “ongoing systemic shocks” to coffee production.

In line with this, demand for more socially and environmentally responsible coffee has never been higher. Supply chain actors and stakeholders, as well as consumers, understand the importance of growing, buying, and drinking sustainable coffee.

A large part of environmentally responsible coffee production revolves around regenerative agriculture. There are many sustainable farming practices included under this term, including leveraging agroecological knowledge and principles and reviving natural ecosystems.

Another key factor related to regenerative agriculture is soil health – which ultimately dictates overall coffee quality. Without healthy soil which contains the right level and balance of nutrients, as well as having the optimal structure and biology, producers will be unable to grow high-quality coffee.

So what can farmers do to improve and maintain soil health, and why is this so important? To find out, I spoke to several industry professionals at Yara, a nitrogen-based fertiliser manufacturer and distributor.

You may also like our article exploring regenerative agriculture in coffee production.

A coffee farmer inspects green cherries.

What is regenerative agriculture?

There is no formal definition of regenerative agriculture. However, the term was first used by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s to describe more holistic aspects of organic farming. Some of these practices, which can also be used in all types of agriculture, include:

  • Restoring soil health
  • Protecting local environments and wildlife
  • Promoting biodiversity
  • Conserving water

Maria Silvia Tonti is the Vice President of the Centre for Competence for RA and Carbon at Yara

“We define regenerative agriculture as a systematic, outcome-based approach to adopt the best sustainable farming practices that positively affect nature across five recurrent themes: climate, soil health, resource use, biodiversity, and prosperity,” she says. “Regenerative agriculture has an inclusive approach that applies to all crop and farming systems and respects the need to be context specific in agriculture.”

Ultimately, implementing regenerative agriculture practices should also support farmers to increase both quality and yields. Additionally, it should also improve their resilience to climate change.

Victor Hugo Ramirez-Builes is the Senior Scientific & Coffee Specialist at Yara. He explains why soil health is an integral aspect of regenerative agriculture.

“Healthy soil is essential for the growth of healthy coffee plants,” he says. “If soil has low fertility levels, as well as low pH (high acidity) and water retention capacity, it will limit the growth and productivity of high-quality coffee.”

White flowers on a coffee plant.

Why is soil health so important?

First and foremost, we need to understand what soil health actually means.

“Good soil health can be defined as soil conditions which allow the growth and development of healthy root systems,” Victor explains. “This can be achieved if the soil is fertile, as well as having low acidity levels, proper water retention, and good distribution between the macro and micro ‘pores’ that allow for proper water drainage and retention.

“Proper soil health also allows for the mineralisation of any organic material which is added to, such as green manures,” he adds. “Also, soil’s resistance to erosion generated by rainfall is an indicator of its health.”

There are many key aspects of regenerative coffee production. Soil health, however, plays a crucial role for a number of reasons.

Miguel Andres Amado is the Business Development Manager at Yara in Colombia.

“Improving soil health is one of the most effective ways to maintain plant productivity in the long term and increase adaptation to changing environmental factors,” he says. “There is a strong correlation between the plant-soil relationship and crop productivity.”

On top of this, healthy soil also has the ability to sequester more carbon. This reduces coffee producers’ environmental footprint and improves their resilience to climate change.

To improve soil health and quality, there are a number of applications that coffee farmers can use, including fertilisers.

Simon Pogson is the Director of Soil & Analytical Services at Yara.

“Balanced crop nutrition, combined with good agricultural practices, is crucial to the regeneration of soil health and the natural activity of soil biology,” he tells me. “However, over-application of fertilisers or using fertilisers that increase acidity levels can harm the soil’s biological population and reduce soil health, as well as damaging soil structure, nutrient cycles, and water management.”

A farmer waters coffee seedlings in a nursery.

What can coffee farmers do to improve soil health?

One of the most effective ways for producers to improve the health of their soil is to apply high-quality fertilisers.

“Fertilisers play a crucial role in adding essential nutrients to soil that coffee plants need,” Maria explains. “When coffee is harvested, a significant amount of nutrients are taken from the soil, so if nutrients are repeatedly extracted without being replaced, the soil’s capacity to provide nutrients to coffee plants also diminishes.

“This can also lead to soil degradation, and reduce coffee yields and quality,” she adds. “Replenishing soil with deficient nutrients ensures it remains fertile and supports healthy coffee cultivation.

“The supplemental microbes also help to mitigate the presence of nematodes and diseases, which thereby reduces the need for harmful chemical products,” Maria continues.

Applying fertilisers at the right time, however, is also key. Soil must be well-drained, ideally have a pH level between 5.2 and 6.3, and have the right balance and volumes of nutrients. Some of these include:

  • Nitrogen
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Sulphur
  • Zinc
  • Boron
  • Other micronutrients, such as copper, iron, manganese, chlorine, nickel, molybdenum, and cobalt

Supporting producers

In order to get the best results from using high-quality fertilisers, it’s important for producers to have access to the right resources.

Yara’s analytical and digital tools ensure that farmers can take a more precise approach to nutrient management,” Maria says. “This is key to preserving and enhancing soil health.”

Disseminating and sharing knowledge and best practices are important to improving soil health, too.

Kaio Dias is the Coffee Leader at Yara in Brazil. 

“Our digital tools and agronomic knowledge help generate more accurate recommendations for fertiliser use from the right sources at the right time, in the right place, and with the right dose,” he explains. “Yara’s NossoCafé Program in Brazil, for instance, is designed for producers to get the best results from their coffee in different growing conditions. 

“In 2022, our studies showed that by adjusting the recommended potassium levels in the soil, farmers could collectively reduce use of this nutrient by more than 80,000 tonnes per year,” he adds.

The NossoCafé Program also provides producers with fertilisers which are best suited to their individual needs, as well as offering different solutions for both arabica and conilon (or robusta). The programme also recognises and celebrates Brazilian producers who are implementing more regenerative agricultural practices. 

Sergio Petrachi is a coffee producer in Brazil, who also won the 2022 NossoCafé Quality Contest Sustainability Award. He tells me about some of the sustainable practices used on his farm.

“We apply compost produced with waste from our farm, such as cattle manure,” he says. “We also provide our workers with proper salaries, learning opportunities, and accommodation, as well as maintaining nurseries for native trees and reforesting the banks of local streams and springs.”

A coffee professional pours green beans into a roaster.

Benefitting the entire supply chain

Ultimately, the benefits of improving soil health can extend far beyond coffee production. Along with other variables, when soil has adequate nutrients and a healthy amount of microbes, both coffee yields and quality can increase.

Theoretically, this means producers can receive more money, and invest more back into their business. Moreover, roasters can source higher-quality coffee – ensuring demand for more sustainable specialty coffee is met.

However, one of the most crucial factors to consider is improving the coffee industry’s resilience and adaptation to climate change. According to the Coffee in the 21st Century report from Conservation International, by 2050, the coffee industry will need to produce between 4 and 14 million additional tonnes of coffee per year to meet rising demand.

Unless coffee producers can significantly increase yields per ha, this means they will need to double the size of the area under coffee cultivation by 2050. And while there is more land available to grow coffee along the Bean Belt, maintaining and promoting soil health is one of the first steps to scaling production.

“Coffee is a perennial crop, and farmers can harvest each plant for 20 years or more,” Kaio says. “However, this requires proper planning and soil preparation before planting, as well as during cultivation.”

The role of gender equity

Women can account for up to 70% of labour in coffee production in certain countries. In light of this, sharing knowledge and best practices to improve soil health with them is essential.

For example, Yara’s Champion Program in Colombia – which has an exclusive initiative focused solely on women – teaches coffee farmers how to implement more regenerative agricultural practices, as well as using water and fertilisers more responsibly.

Participants also receive mentorship and access to Yara’s resources and online platforms. Members of the programme are also encouraged to participate in a competition which assesses quality standards in line with the Coffee Quality Institute’s protocols.

“Partner coffee producers can approach Yara’s agronomists located in more than 50 countries and get precise nutrient and fertiliser recommendations using our digital farming, analytical, and agronomic tools,” Victor says.

A farmer sorts ripe coffee cherries on a farm.

With the threat of climate change becoming more and more prevalent, there is a shared interest across the global coffee industry to find more sustainable ways to adapt to and mitigate its effects.

One of the most effective methods is to measure, manage, and improve soil health. As a result of this small but important step, coffee producers can create a more resilient supply chain in the long term.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on environmentally sustainable coffee production & profitability.

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Yara is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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