Farm: Blackburn Estate
Varietal: Kent and Nyassa
Altitude: 1,760 to 1,950 metres
Owner: Michael & Tina Gehrken
Town / City: West of Oldeani
Region: Karatu District
Blackburn Estate Natural - Tanzania
Michael Gehrken was born in Germany but has farmed at Blackburn for well over 20 years. He fell in love with East Africa when he first visited in 1971, aged 19, and in 1983 moved to Tanzania for good to renovate his parents’ farm. Back then, Blackburn’s coffee trees were entirely overgrown and a troop of baboons had moved into the main house
It was only in the late-eighties, when the government began to free up the market, that Michael started to explore farming coffee. Blackburn is now an award-winning estate, distinguished not only by taste but also by Michael’s commitment to ecologically-sound farming.
Blackburn is insecticide free – in other words, very close to producing fully organic coffee. In previous years, spot applications of insecticide were required to control against green scale. But since the introduction of bio-control with seven separate species of ladybird, this is no longer necessary. No tilling is carried out and weeds are controlled by careful and sparing application of glyphosate. A leaf mulch of organic waste materials from the mill is then spread between the coffee plants to prevent re-growth and to lock moisture into the soil, which serves to sustain the coffee plants during the dry seasons.
The farm is overshadowed by Mount Oldeani (meaning ‘bamboo mountain’) to the east, which stands at 3,188m and covers a total area of 455 hectares (1,124 acres). Furthermore, the estate lies along the southern border of the Ngorongoro Crater, a haven for wildlife and a UNESCO World Heritage site. In respect of this unique environment, Michael and Tina have set aside 80% of the estate’s land as wildlife preserve. With tracts of varied natural habitat, such as savannah, grassland and thick bush, animals are entirely free to wander beyond the unfenced park boundaries, and lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and many other species roam through the coffee and forest areas of the farm at night. There are also two large troops of baboons (numbering more than 100 individuals)- that occasionally roost overnight in the large mature trees at the north-west boundary of the coffee area - though efforts are always made to discourage these animals, as they eat the coffee
Around the farm, several small pyres of coffee parchment and red chillies are set on the windward boundaries of the coffee plots to deter elephants from damaging the coffees plants. Special bio-corridors have also been established to funnel the larger animals around the farm to the east and west.
The areas under coffee are located at an altitude of 1,760m to 1,950m. Coffee represents only around 75 hectares (16%) of the entire farm, though new areas of coffee are also being established on the eastern and southern fringes of the farm. These new areas will provide special pickings for micro-lots in the coming seasons.
Map showing land utilisation at Blackburn Estate
Natural coffees, such as this one, take much longer to process and come in later than some wet processed coffees. After drying, the coffee from Blackburn is sent for dry milling in Moshi and is packed in 60kg bags made of sisal, a coarse fibre similar to jute but made from the sinuous leaves of the agave plant. Jute bags are prohibited in Tanzania to protect the local sisal industry. The sisal bags are free of the characteristic odour of jute.
Blackburn organises donations for the health and education sector in Karatu district. Between 2003 and 2005, a dispensary just outside the farm was constructed with the help of the village and a rain water harvesting plant for the village was also constructed. In 2010, Mercanta and a leading South African specialty roaster sponsored much needed repairs to the local school after earthquake damage caused a dangerous crack in the building’s wall and roof.