Journey of coffee beans from Araku to Paris

Tribal farmers follow biodynamic calendar to raise speciality coffee that can retail up to ₹7,000/kg internationally

April 22, 2017 09:04 pm | Updated April 23, 2017 01:02 am IST - HYDERABAD

What’s brewing: Subba Rao, a farmer, at the coffee plantation in the Araku Valley.

What’s brewing: Subba Rao, a farmer, at the coffee plantation in the Araku Valley.

Nestled in the hillocks of the Araku Valley, about 60 km from the nearest railway station, beyond a mountain stream in the village of Cheruvupakula is the two-acre coffee plantation of Subba Rao.

Here, under the shade of silver oaks are waist-high plants that yield crimson red cherries from October, which will go into one of the most exotic coffees launched this year in Paris — some of them are already available in a Parisian café at Rue de Bretagne. One kg of the coffee, roasted and ground in Paris but produced by farmers like Mr. Subba Rao, retails for ₹7,000 at the café.

The 8,000 km journey of coffee beans begins in October when the red and crimson red trucks of Naandi Foundation navigate the unpaved roads in the hills and valleys of Araku to pick up the berries. The harvest from all farmers in one area is sorted and tagged with a coloured ribbon to organise beans from the same terroir (a word more commonly used by producers of wine).

“Harvest from one small area, which has been identified for producing a particular flavour and body, will be processed as one batch. There is a competition between farmers to harvest only the riper crimson red cherries, and not simply red cherries. We keep track of the cherries right from arrival at harvest at this unit to pulping, fermenting and drying till it is ready for shipping for roasting and grounding in Paris,” says Vinod Hegde, who oversees the field operations of Naandi Foundation.

Inside the processing unit is a small wooden box kept under lock and key. It measures the moisture content of the beans. “Too much, and the coffee will have a very short shelf life. Too little, and there will be no flavour. It will be like boiling wood. The moisture has to be between 9% and 11%,” says Mr. Hegde. At the godown, bags of coffee beans are stacked from the floor to the ceiling, which was blown off during Cyclone Hudhud.

“We watched Cyclone Hudhud battering Mulkarputi from our homes. There was very little damage in that village. But when we went to our plantation, almost all the shade-giving silver oaks were flattened and the storm blew away all the fruits and leaves just before harvest,” says Korra Arjun, a 40-something tribal farmer about the October 2014 cyclone.

Growing change

But now, the farmers narrate how their life is changing. “I sent three of my children to study in Vizianagaram. Two of them have completed B.Ed. They are sure to get a job soon,” says Subba Rao.

British civil servant N.S. Brodie (Guntur’s Brodiepet is named after him) introduced coffee to the hill areas in 1898. But the real change began when the State government-run Integrated Tribal Development Authority trained farmers and gave them coffee plants.

The Andhra Pradesh State Forest Development Corporation gave a fillip by distributing the coffee shrubs but after two years of buying back the beans, officials threw up their hands. The farmers now had coffee beans they could not sell.

Into this gloomy scenario, Hyderabad-based Naandi Foundation stepped in by creating a farmers’ collective. It also roped in the services of agricultural scientist David Hogg.

“In 2009, I got kidnapped by the CEO of Naandi to settle down in Hyderabad,” says Mr. Hogg with a laugh.

“I was dealing with farmers in India from the 1970s. I was asked this question: you are dealing with hundreds of farmers, why not work with us and help millions of farmers? And I could not say no.” Mr. Hogg shuttles between Araku, Hyderabad and other locations.

Now, there are 10,500 farmers spread over 850 villlages in Araku that are a part of the farmers’ collective. In 2009, the first ‘Gems of Araku’ festival kicked off, and coffee from the region got noticed.

To raise the yield and bring in more farmers, Mr. Hogg and his team evolved a visual communication strategy of using videos to help the tribal farmers. They also handed them an easy-to-read biodynamic calendar to follow the instructions.

“Araku is known for organic coffee, but we are now aiming for a niche certification, called the Demeter Certification for agricultural produce. Europe is willing to pay a premium for that,” says Mr. Hogg.

All the houses in Cheruvupakula as well as the hundreds of villages networked by Naandi have a yellow and black biodynamic calendar on the walls. “Where there is a down arrow, I have to take care of the roots and where there is an up arrow, I have to take care of the upper part of the plant before spraying it with biodynamic fertiliser or pruning,” says Ganta Harischandra over a break from the India-Australia cricket match he is following on his small TV.

“Instead of silver oaks, we are now planting fruit trees for shade,” says Mr. Hogg. “We have planted 6,000 hectares of fruit trees that will further enhance the life of farmers. Most of them want to plant mango trees.”

Carbon footprint

The tree plantation drive is partly an outcome of Europe’s pledge to lower its carbon footprint, and the creation of a carbon trading market. About 12 European companies, such as Danone, Schneider Electric, Michelin, Hermès, SAP and Firmenich, created Livelihoods Fund to improve lives in rural areas as part of a carbon credits programme and pledged €50,000. Mr. Hogg and his team used this money to create a fruit tree canopy for the coffee farmers of the Araku Valley. The biodynamic calendar shows moon phases as well as other astronomical symbols that help the farmers decide which part of the plant should be treated during a particular day and time of the month.

“Much of the communication is visual. We are creating videos that help the farmers follow our advice,” says Mr. Hegde of Naandi.

“They show cinema and I just obey what is shown to me. Earlier, we would harvest when the cherries became red, now we wait for them to ripen further. We get more money for that,” says Jetti Chinnappa.

What she will do with the money? “I will educate my children,” she says. But Ms. Chinnappa says she has not yet seen the money she got for her produce this year. It’s deposited in her bank account but she says she does not know how much she received.

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