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  • Cost and yield versus quality

    If a coffee lacks the inherent quality to make it a best-seller capable of commanding premium prices, then most growers, and specifically estates, cannot tolerate low yields unless their input costs are low as well. Estates, especially when using irrigation, can optimize yields much more easily than can most smallholders. This can be done by planting high yielding and/or disease-free varieties, by increasing planting densities, or by applying larger amounts of inputs, especially fertilizer (although excessive use of fertilizer can result in thin, almost bitter liquors).

    There is an element of truth though in the often heard lament that such actions at times reduce quality, especially when taken to excess (for example very dense plant populations necessitating very high fertilizer applications). But the bottom line return from higher yields of medium to sometimes mediocre quality is, unfortunately, often better than that from lower yields of superior quality, even when higher prices are obtained. The market does not always like such comment but in recent years this has been particularly true, with many decent coffees selling, in real terms, at close to historical lows.

    Estate managers can usually take these considerations into account and so make relatively well-informed decisions. But when smallholders replant it is sometimes perhaps more a case of being recommended to do so, rather than a well-informed choice on their part. Yet for many smallholders it is not an easy matter to maintain the level of inputs required by higher yielding hybrids. In times of trouble, such as when prices fall, they run into difficulty and may finally end up with neither yield nor quality. Respect for the old adage that 'low inputs equal low yields but also low and therefore sustainable cost' has in the past kept many smallholders going but, as some would argue, perhaps it has also kept them poor.