Coffee Harvesting: The Selective and Strip Methods

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Even if you always try to improve your coffee by controlling the roast, grind, and brew, it’s not enough if you won’t consider the important moment that defines its unique quality.

The character of coffee you brew every day is defined by many factors. One of them that you shouldn’t disregard is the harvest method. Your desired coffee quality will depend on what harvest method is implemented.

Probably most of us would think that post-harvest is the easiest factor in the journey of making our cups. But in reality, it’s one of the most difficult parts of coffee production that requires workforce, topography, and equipment availability to select the best coffee.

In this article, we’ll delve into the process of post-harvest operation and understand how it impacts coffee production. Here, we will briefly discuss the two methods and their advantages and disadvantages to every type of coffee producer.

When is the Right Time to Harvest?

Focus understanding coffee harvesting methods

The right time to harvest the coffee cherries is when they reached their appropriate maturity. The harvest period should be done as early as possible to avoid the over-ripening of fruits.

If you can’t recognize a ripe coffee cherry, it is a small red cherry-like fruit with a waxy or shiny appearance. They are firm and deep-red or dark-red that grow in bundles along the branches of the coffee tree. 

It all starts when the coffee tree reaches its maturity. At this point, it will begin to flower. After several months, the tree will start introducing pinheaded green cherries. Then, these unripe cherries will ripen after 7-8 months. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the coffee cherries are already good for picking after 8 to 9 months of flowering and developing.

Well, I guess it will depend on the type of coffee and in the region where the trees are grown.

But what matters is the ability of the coffee tree to produce ripe cherries in a matter of time.

So, at this phase, the cherries can be harvested and further processed in either wet or dry methods to produce raw green beans. After the green beans have been produced, it’s then ready to be roasted to develop the flavor that we want. And this is the time to make a great cup of coffee at home.

How Many Times Harvesting Operation Takes Place?

Well, this question is a bit confusing. I guess it depends on the situation. There are two conditions to how we can address it. 

Generally, most countries harvest coffee once a year. But sometimes, it depends on where the coffee plants are located. The thing is, both the climatic condition and the geographic location of the place contributes to the flowering of the coffee tree. And we all know that the harvesting season will depend on how often the flowering will occur.

For example, the climatic conditions in Colombia are so suited to growing coffee that it’s feasible to harvest cherries twice a year. The same position in Brazil where primary and secondary harvest takes place. That is because, in countries near the equator where the dry season is not that remarkable and prominent, both the flowering and harvest season can occur twice per year.

Although harvest times are sometimes not as predictable as they used to be, seasonality is there to keep farmers updated as possible. 

Moreover, the other situation is in the entire harvest season. Let’s further elaborate on it. We’ve said that most counties harvest coffee once in a year, and that is during the dry season. In some countries, harvest occurs from September to March. Then how often do farmers harvest during those months?

In our case, we harvest the same coffee tree several times due to factors that affect effectiveness. For example, we harvest the coffee from October to December. But we do it twice or thrice due to the non-uniform maturation of coffee cherries. It means we only pick the ripe cherries in October, then wait for another month for the unripe fruits to ripen. If there are still unripe left, we have to wait again, and again until every piece of cherry is removed from the tree.

For others, it might be the opposite. In larger plantations, they do it at once in order to control the processing, drying, warehousing, and shipping in a single flow. For example, some producers harvest the cherries using the stripping method when almost 75-80% of the crop is completely ripe. In that case, they don’t have to wait anymore for the unripe cherries to ripen.

Harvesting Operation

Technically, the picking of coffee cherries can be done in four ways of. But generally, the two basic systems is what usually implemented nowadays: the stripping and selective picking. 

Although both methods have different ways on how they operate, still the main goal is to harvest the coffee according to its maturity indices. That means it is essential to pick only the ripe cherries, which are shiny, red, and firm to the touch to ensure that good quality coffee is obtained.

Strip Harvesting

A mixture of both ripe and predominantly ripe cherries is being picked in this method. Where all of the cherries along the branch are stripped off at once. Usually done with either a mechanical stripping device or mechanical harvesters.

They may have different ways on how to operate, but what most important is their common goal. After all, the physical picking of cherries is done with the help of both device and the machine. 

If you need a faster and more economic approach to harvesting cherries, then strip harvesting is highly recommended. 

Strip harvesting can be performed in at least three different ways. But in this article, we’ll generally consider it as mechanized manner.

  • Advantages

The advantage of strip harvesting is that it requires less time and labor to complete. You don’t have to employ a bunch of workers on your farm, which means it will reduce the harvest cost. In addition, since the machines pick the coffee quicker, it makes farmers work at ease while working. And since we’re talking about the machine, this equipment can perform 24 hours a day.  

This is designed specifically for bigger farms. Nowadays, where coffee productions become larger and larger, producers need an advancement that is much more efficient. Bigger farms have greater responsibilities. They need it to sustain and ensure that a smooth workflow is maintained.

For example, since you have a large farm, you should maximize the time spent during harvest season. You can’t do that with selective picking, especially if you’re just having limited workers. The longer it takes for the ripe coffee cherries not being processed, the more it will backfire in the processing stage. Once a cherry reached its maturity you need to pick it as soon as possible. Else, in just a matter of time, the cherries will become over-ripe and fall from the branch. 

In other words, the mechanized system is a faster and more economic method. Most producers believe that seasonality is great, and they’re investing in a more fast and efficient approach to have fresh coffee products throughout the year.

  • Disadvantages

The major disadvantage is normally the mixture of both ripe and not so ripe coffee cherries, which will definitely affect the quality of the overall product. Since this is a result of harvested coffee cherries with different maturation stages, expect it to offer an astringent and lower coffee flavor. In other words, the unripe green cherries, mixed with the others, will make the coffee more bitter.

Moreover, although this method is effective, however, it is less friendly to the coffee trees. If farmers don’t know how to use it properly, it may cause excessive damage to both fruit and plants. Since it involves vibration, there’s a chance that it may affect and minimize the yielding of the coffee tree.

And lastly, of course, it does not apply to all farmers. Some can’t afford and some don’t really need it. We do know that the use of the machine can lead to a greater investment financially. Imagine if you were just a small coffee farmer that produces limited quantity, then how much more if you’ll use a stripping device. That will just result in lower crop yields since under-ripe coffee cherries are discarded during post-harvesting.

Focus understanding coffee harvesting methods

Selective Harvesting

Only the ripe cherries are being harvested in this method. Whereas the unripe fruits are left on the tree.

Coffee growers or workers will inspect and pick only the ripe fruits from the tree one by one, without using any devices – only bare hands. In other words, selective harvesting is where you manually pick the ripe coffee cherries.

This process is repeatedly done, as well as to pick as many ripe fruits as possible to maximize production. Even though it takes time, it’s still worth it to harvest all the viable coffee available.

This is indeed highly recommended method as it’s what the specialty coffee industry prefers. So, if you’re aiming for higher quality and targeting the specialty market, then selective harvesting is the best for you.

  • Advantages

The advantage of the selective harvesting method is that only the ripest coffee cherries are being picked and produced. While the unripe ones are left of the tree for further maturation. 

And since only ripe cherries are picked, you can assure that only the best quality is obtained. Of course, ripe coffee cherries give a pleasant and lovely flavor to your cup that suits your preference. A flavor that is sweet and fresh at the same time because the fruit had given enough time to develop its natural sugar.

Also, it’s best suited for small coffee farmers with limited plantations. Of course, given the fact that not all coffee cultivars can afford machines for easy harvesting, it’s also not that practical to invest in something that’s unnecessary. Unless if it’s badly needed.

Besides, this method will ensure maximized productivity as well as quality. If you’re a small-scale in the industry, you want to produce as much as you can to increase your profit. And if you’re one of us that values every single cherry that comes out of the coffee tree, then you’ll see the relevance of the selective picking approach.

  • Disadvantages

Selective picking is common in most countries, even larger producers implementing it on their farms. However, not all the time, it’s beneficial. It has its own downside also. In other cases, there are exemptions to this.

In other words, those who can afford are sometimes the ones that can highly pay off to this. Selective picking is more expensive than you think due to the intensive labor involved. One major disadvantage is that it requires a lot of work, forcing people that can only work for minimum wage. Thus, it takes quite some time to do.

I remembered back then picking cherries when I was still young. Our farm is just limited to one area, good enough to produce at least a half-ton of coffee cherries. And of course, we don’t need hiring workers just to pick the fruits. Just me, my siblings, and my parents are already enough to keep going. That’s why I hate it! I’m not having fun either. I’m so bored of repeatedly picking cherries all day. It’s okay if all the fruits along the branch are ripe uniformly so that I can just strip it at once. But unfortunately, it’s not.

So, going back, what if it’s a larger field? You will absolutely employ many people to increase efficiency. That’s why we’ve mentioned that there are exemptions. Sure, more jobs are provided on the farm, but in return, producers are the ones to suffer. In addition, the workforce is limited due to the declining availability of pickers nowadays. 

Besides, that’s only the area of harvesting. How much more if you add the cost of processing, drying, warehousing, and shipping? That’s a lot of expense, I guess. That why most large coffee producers heavily invest in mechanized harvesting systems. 

Focus understanding coffee harvesting methods
Credit: Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence via Facebook

Harvest operation should be taken sincerely. Therefore consider some of the procedures and essential practices such as:

  • Newly harvested cherries should not be mixed with any of the previously fermented harvested cherries to avoid deterioration of the entire batch.
  • Coffee cherries should be placed in clean harvesting containers prior to the segregation or selection process.
  • Harvested cherries should not be placed in direct contact with the ground.
  • Harvesting containers that are made from non-toxic materials should be used.
  • Proper cleaning and disinfection of reusable harvesting containers and tools should be implemented.
  • Harvested cherries that are heavily bruised, damaged, or over-ripe should be segregated and should be disposed of if necessary.

Why Should We Only Pick Ripe Cherries?

In the world of specialty coffee, the importance of only using ripe coffee cherries impacts the entire coffee experience. The ripeness also plays a major role in the quality of the coffee.

We only pick the ripe cherries because, just like any fruit, if it’s fully ripened, it produces a flavor that is more superior. We’re considering the amount of mucilage, sugars, and other substances in the fruit. If the fruit is ripe, it has more sugar content. But if the fruit is immature, it has less sugar content.

With that being said, cherries that have reached optimum maturity provide a sweeter and more consistent coffee flavor. And on the contrary, using unripe or immature cherries in the entire coffee supply chain will result to poor quality beans.

That is because picking unripe fruits could potentially give you low-grade coffee, having broken or even defective beans. And more defective beans will be disqualified from specialty coffee status.

Besides, underripe and even over-ripe cherries will add an unpleasant taste to the final coffee flavor. The coffee that is made of unripe cherries could give you a taste that is full of bitterness because of their unbalanced, inconsistent, and complex compound. 

After all, it’s common sense that we only pick the ripe and leave the unripe for further maturation. Just like any fruit.

Which Method is More Productive?

Since we’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of both methods, then it’s hard to tell which is more effective nor efficient. It may depend on the farmer or producer’s situation. Sure, the main goal is to produce the best quality with a reasonable quantity of coffee. But if you’re going to put your feet in their shoes, you may find it challenging as there are some factors you need to consider. What they need is having a productive method without sacrificing too much time, money, etc. 

Most farmers can’t utilize and maximize their production because of the method by which they harvest the coffee cherries. Let’s compare hand-picked with mechanized coffee harvesting. You can already tell that manually picking the coffee cherries requires extensive labor and a lot of time. In that case, you tend to harvest the same coffee several times, which makes it less cost-effective in the end.

On the other hand, some producers harvest the cherries using the stripping method when almost 75-80% of the crop is completely ripe. Sure, maybe stripping is suitable and cost-effective for them, at least the percentage of maturation of coffees are almost fine. However, you will sacrifice the quality of the coffee. Remember that mixtures of ripe and unripe cherries will result in being low-quality. Unless you’ve separated and discarded the unripe or overripe cherries perfectly. 

In that case, what does productivity nor effectivity really means to them? We can’t avoid that any harvesting methods have both positive and negative outcomes. So, what farmers need to look at is the overall impact on their business. And what coffee picking method is best suited for their objectives or goals. 

How to Increase Efficiency?

Since Producers can’t avoid the bad side of these methods, what they need to do is maximize their efficiency. It means farmers should implement other actions to lower the expense, time, etc. As well as maintaining the good quality of their coffee.

For example, coffee producers may add the use of pulpers and optical sorters post-harvest in the strip coffee harvesting method. In this case, they can reasonably resolve the quality problem during further processing and aim for the best quality crop.

In addition, if farmers have the capability to invest more heavily in post-harvesting quality control, then they should build even a simple system that ensures a neat production.

We already know the problem of strip harvesting, then what should they do to at least overcome it? They can use water tanks to separate ripe coffee cherries from the rest of the batch. If they’re hardworking enough (which they are), then they can do it manually. 

In selective harvesting, trees should be planted on land with inclines, like farms in mountainous areas and volcanic regions. This helps the coffee farm remain efficient with its planting and harvesting practices. 

Final Thoughts

After all, what most important to farmers is to consider productivity as it’s what makes them more money. Sure, they should produce coffee as much as they can regardless of the method they’re implementing. But at the same time, they shouldn’t let the quality of coffee to suffer. Besides, productivity and quality cannot be fully separated. You need both of these factors to stay in the industry. 

Nowadays, to increase efficiency and maximize production without spending too much important kinds of stuff. It’s all down to hard work, dedication, and wise implementation of techniques that give a reasonable result. Although human performance is very important, farmers should still invest in innovations that offer successful results with minimal side effects. 

Like this Article? You Might Want to Read: The Ultimate Guide to Planting and Growing Coffee Tree.