How you can grow Arabica coffee this year

Saturday May 15 2021
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A group of farmers inspect an Arabica coffee garden in Paidha, northern Uganda. Photo | Michael J Ssali

By Michael J Ssali

Arabica coffee is one of the two types of coffee grown in Uganda, the other one being Robusta coffee. It is grown in high altitude areas such as the slopes of Mount Elgon and Mount Rwenzori and Muhabura. It also does well in the region of West Nile.

Background
Arabica coffee was introduced in Uganda from Ethiopia which is the most important coffee producing country in Africa. Arabica coffee is said to be of higher quality with less caffeine content than Robusta coffee which is native to Uganda.

Any farmer setting out to grow Arabica coffee must be interested in producing a good quality crop and should be prepared to regularly monitor the crop to ensure that good agronomic practices are followed.
Proper agronomy
It is important to get the right planting materials obtained from well-established nurseries that are recommended by Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA).

The holes should be about two feet deep and about eight feet apart (2.4 metres by 2.4 metres) and should be filled up with top soil preferably mixed with livestock manure some three months before actually planting the Arabica coffee plantlets. The plantlets should be well chosen.

They should be healthy with dark green foliage --- with at least eight leaves. The best time to plant is the beginning of a rainy season unless there is a provision for irrigation.

Mulching
To keep the soil moist around the young plant, put some grass (mulch) all around the young plant leaving some uncovered space of about six inches radius from the stem.
The danger in grass touching the stem of the young tree is that the grass can transmit disease or pests. If the farmer cannot get grass, any rotting material such as bean or maize plant residues can do.

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Applying fertiliser
Artificial fertilisers may be applied if organic manure cannot easily be obtained and they should be used according to manufacturers’ instructions, and after consulting the area agricultural services extension officer for guidance on what fertiliser to use.

It is recommended that fertilisers be applied in form of a line around the stem and in the area below the last leaves on the canopy since this is where most feeder roots are located. It is dangerous to put the fertilisers too close to the stem because usually the fertiliser can destroy the plant.

Avoiding soil-erosion
Since the crop is mainly grown in mountainous areas, the gardens are likely to be on the slopes with some risk of soil erosion when it rains.
The farmer should plant grass strips or dig contour furrows across the garden. Not all areas may have the needed level of soil fertility and the farmer is strongly advised to liberally apply livestock manure by burying it in holes about a foot deep between the coffee rows.

Intercrop with legumes, banana   
Weeds must be kept under control all the time as they may consume nutrients meant for Arabica coffee. However, as the farmer waits for the coffee to bear fruit he or she can plant such crops as beans groundnuts or even banana between the rows. The crop should be able to begin fruition in about two and half years after planting.

The bananas too should not be grown too close to the young coffee plants and separate manure or fertiliser should be preserved for them. Some of the crops such as soya bean and groundnuts are said to be nitrogen fixing and may add value to the soil. Bananas are a rather permanent food crop which the farmer may need all the time. If not well pruned and brought under control they could overtake the coffee with regard to soil nutrients consumption.

It is therefore advisable to plant 25 stems where 100 Arabica coffee trees are planted. Where no intercropping is done, the weeds may be dug out with the hoe or cut using slashes. Some people use herbicides but it is important to be very careful because they can kill the young Arabica coffee plants if sprayed over them. It is also important to use herbicides in their factory recommended doses.

Pests and diseases
The farmer will worry about pests such as white stem borer and black stem borers which can even kill plants two years old.  There are other pests including Antestia Bug and coffee berry borer. Keeping the garden free from weeds and spraying of recommended pesticides can be preventive.

The farmer should always have the phone contact of the area field agricultural services extension officer to consult him or her about any pest or disease issues.  The most common Arabica coffee diseases include coffee leaf rust which is manifested in the formation of yellowish spots on the underside of the leaves and eventual loss of leaves by the plant and shrinking and death of the coffee cherries.  The other common disease is coffee berry disease.

This causes the coffee cherries to turn black and unmarketable. It can attack at any time whether during flowering or even harvesting. All diseased cherries fall off. Extension officers are usually knowledgeable about what chemical remedies to apply and they should be regularly consulted.

Harvesting
Normally coffee is ripe and ready for harvesting some nine months after flowering, In Uganda coffee is hand harvested and only red ripe fruits must be picked. Some farmers dry the coffee cherries with the skin while others remove the fruit skin soon after harvesting and dry the beans, a process referred to as pulping.

Post-harvest handling
There are special pulping machines which can be used by farmers in their groups. After pulping the beans are immersed in water to separate low quality beans from good one and then washed.

The next exercise is to dry the coffee cherries or the coffee beans under the sun for several days until they are perhaps 12 per cent moisture content. Even during the drying process they are turned about to prevent fermentation of some of the underlying cherries.

Drying has got to be done on clean mats, hard clean surfaces such as concrete floors, or on clean tarpaulins and never on the bare ground where it can pick aflatoxin or foreign objects such as stones and other rubbish.

The harvested coffee should not be exposed to any bad smells and therefore domestic birds and animals must never freely walk over drying coffee spread out in the yard. As soon as signs of rain are observed the drying coffee should be removed and kept indoors or it may be covered with rainproof covers such as polythene or tarpaulins.
The bags of dried coffee should be stored in well ventilated buildings and placed on planks to prevent them from gathering moisture from the ground.

Diseases
The most common Arabica coffee diseases include coffee leaf rust which is manifested in the formation of yellowish spots on the underside of the leaves and eventual loss of leaves by the plant and shrinking and death of the coffee cherries. The other common disease is coffee berry disease. This causes the coffee cherries to turn black and unmarketable..

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