Coffee cultivation: Vietnam model is not suitable for Kodagu planters
Though the coffee planters in Vietnam do not follow eco-friendly cultivation practices, the planters in Kodagu have to take notice of the fact that from nowhere, this small country in South-East Asia has emerged as the largest producer of Robusta coffee and the second largest exporter of coffee in the world.
A delegation from Karnataka, which included former Chairman of the Coorg Planters’ Association, Mr K.P. Uthappa, recently visited Vietnam to study the phenomenal progress achieved by Vietnam in coffee production.
According to a report prepared by the team from Karnataka, Robusta coffee still accounts for almost 97 percent of total coffee production, although Arabica production is slowly increasing due to the expansion of growing areas in the provinces of North and Central Vietnam. Vietnam is the largest robusta coffee producer in the world, accounting for 35% of the world production.
In the last 25 years, the area of coffee in the entire country has increased from from 40,000 hectares to 500,000 hectares, and the production has gone up from 22,400 tonnes to a phenomenal 1,046,500 tonnes.
Vietnam’s production is characterized by the attempt to pursue an intensive high-input strategy. Intensive farming by using more fertilizer and water is a risky method. Robusta coffee growing in the Central Highlands has very high yields, more than two tons per hectare on average and four to five tons of green coffee beans per hectare for a large area.
In order to get higher yields, farmers have cultivated coffee intensively using the following methods: Cutting down shade trees to take full advantage of the solar energy to maximize production; using more chemical fertilizer (organic fertilizer is rarely used because there is no organic fertilizer producing tradition in the coffee producing area). A small amount of low quality micro-organic fertilizer is used instead of organic fertilizer such as cow-dung, green manure or compost; Increasing watering in the dry season (650 litres are usually needed for each coffee tree each time with a frequency of once every 20 to 25 days).
Through government encouragement, the cultivation of coffee transitioned from large plantations to large state owned farms and finally to small farmers with an average farm size of 1.2hectares. Accompanying this shift toward small plot land ownership, the Vietnamese government dismantled the system of state farms and progressed towards a market beside economy, which in turn stimulated an exponential increase in coffee cultivation area and output.
Coffee was originally brought to this area by missionaries and by the 1890’s. The majority of coffee trees originally brought into Vietnam were of the Arabica variety; however after World war II the Hemileia Vastarix attacked the Arabica plants and depleted the output from 64.5% in 1945 to 1.7% in 1957.The only coffee to survive this disease was the Robusta variety. After this disease eliminated nearly all of the coffee plants in Vietnam, the French colonial administration rescinded their encouragement of coffee cultivation and instead suggested that its inhabitants concentrate on annual crops such as rice.
After the end of French colonial rule in 1954, most of the Vietnamese coffee cultivation remained in large plantations. The new Government in Vietnam also encouraged coffee cultivation, yet they did not desire to limit cultivation to only plantations. In the late 1970’s, the government provided incentives of clear and fertile land to induce the ethnic majority to migrate to the less populated high land region. The government’s promotion of coffee was much more successful than the French colonist’s attempts as seen in the increase in the population density in the highlands from 3 persons per sq km in 1940 to 77 persons per sq km in 1997.
The coffee planted in Vietnam is mainly of the Coffee Canephora variety of Robusta. The main coffee growing areas are the basalt red soil areas in the Central Highlands and other provinces in the south east such as Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc, Ba ria Vung Tau, etc. Coffee has also spread to the North from Huong Hoa (Quang Tri), Phu Quy (Nghe An) of the Central Vietnam to Son La, Dien Bien of the North West of Vietnam with Arabica coffee. Most of the coffee plantations in the Western Highland are situated at an altitude of 500 to 700m. The high differences in temperatures between day and night result in high quality and good aromatic flavor.