Farm: Various small farms working with ACOM quality improvement program
Processing: Fully washed & sun dried
Altitude: 1,500 metres above sea level
Owner: 50 farmers from Dung K'No village
Town / City: Dung K'No, Lac Duong District
Region: Lam Dong Province
Overall: Heavy bodied, apple, cashew
Jade Mountain Lac Duong Microlot (H1) - Vietnam
This very special and unusual microlot comes from 50 smallholder Arabica producers living within the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Mercanta is the only specialty importer able to offer this high quality, specialty microlot and one of the few (if not only) offering coffees of this quality from Vietnam. We are proud to be investing in sustainably grown and priced specialty-grade Arabica in a region with great potential for the future.
This microlot has been carefully selected as being of exceptional quality by our partner in Vietnam, who represents and provides support for several hundred small-scale Arabica producers throughout the Lam Dong province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Each farmer owns from 1 to 1.5 hectares, and most rely upon coffee as their sole source of income. This particular lot is the result of a village-based quality improvement program that has sought to move away from the middleman traders that characterise coffee trade in the region. Instead, the project works with various ‘group leader farmers’ from the village themselves (in this case, 4 individuals). Each represents up to 21 different small scale farmers from their neighbourhoods or families. The Lead farmers liaise with our partner, received training in best cultivation and harvest practices, and then carry these new skills back to their group. The project is an extension and intensification of previous agricultural extension work being done in the region.
The inhabitants of the area are K’Ho people, one of the many ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Dung K’no is a commune of about 300 people, for whom the main source of income is agriculture, with coffee farming as the sole source of cash income for most families. Farmers in this region started growing coffee up to 20 years ago, farming on very small plots (less than 2 hectares) and learning ‘on their feet’ year after year. Few, if any, have received any formal training, however.
Since 2017, our partner has begun working with the producers from Dung K'No, as the region has good potential for quality production. The engagement started with meetings, interviews & trainings to better understand producers’ concerns and needs, and from this a successful purchasing model was developed. In contrast to how much purchasing in the region is conducted, with collectors going from village to village, our partner agreed to buy coffee cherry directly from the villagers. The meant that staff members were on the ground daily during the harvest season to collect freshly collected cherries. Each lot submitted was checked individually with farmers (with lots of feedback), and cash was paid directly upon delivery.
Starting this year, as well, our partner is working with these same farmers in order to enable access to fertilisers and to advise on distribution and application, ensuring optimisation of production costs and good agricultural practices. Indeed, as most trees are quite old and resources are historically very constrained, fertilisation is one of the main challenges in the region. Most farms are under fertilised, and in the few cases where applications are made, there is a frequent imbalance of nutrients.
Old and under-fed coffee trees have less resistance to opportunist diseases and insects, therefore farmers have often faced dramatic production losses. The lack of knowledge or money for inputs is also part of the issue. Very few farmers have access to herbicides or pesticides and have not been given access to organic methodologies.
Aging plantations are another emerging problem; as the first years of a coffee tree are unproductive (hard to bear on very small plots), farmers usually choose to rejuvenate progressively by using shoots from old healthy trees for grafting.
Coffee trees are stumped at 20 to 25 cm using an angled cut (to avoid water accumulating and causing damage to the root). Several months after pruning, farmers in the program select the healthiest of the emerging shoots, pruning the remainder away from the plant. After this step, a strong Arabica shoot is selected to graft onto the established root (see ‘Top graft’ & ‘Insertion of graft’ below): farmers select only shoots/scion from their strongest, healthiest trees. The graft is then secured. This form of renovation by grafting onto strong, established rootstock helps the plants to achieve resistance to soil born diseases and increases tolerances to stresses. It also can increase yields per plant.
Harvest and Processing:
This lot, as mentioned before, comes from a sector of the quality improvement project that has been even further intensified. Rather than relying on assigned collectors, our partner has established collection points for cherry, which helps ensure a higher quality end product.
Farmers in the region are accustomed to pulping and sun-drying their own parchment. Drawbacks to this system, in addition to the labour required, are that the infrastructure is highly variable and often quite rustic. Furthermore, the weather in the region is highly unpredictable due to the mountains’ influence, and showers can rapidly deteriorate the drying product, resulting in moldy and fermented coffee.
Accordingly, in order to preserve the improved quality resulting from careful cultivation and harvesting, this coffee is centrally processed at our partner’s wet mill, where processing is managed with a scrupulous eye to detail and quality control.
At the individual collection points, each bag undergoes a stringent quality control (% ripe cherries, % damaged cherries, exclusion of old lots and any of unfit quality). Farmers are given a premium for the higher qualities delivered. At the end of each day, the day’s harvest is transported by truck from Dung K'No to Duc Trong wet mill (~90 km away). Cherries are unloaded into a water tank and are then delivered to a flotation tank to eliminate ‘floaters’ (empty cherries or insect-eaten cherries). The mill’s Penagos processing line is eco-friendly and known for its reduced water consumption. After the coffee is ecopulped, it is run through a demucilager and is then laid to dry in the sun. Wet parchment is delivered to patios or African beds next to the mill for sun-drying. Depending on the weather, drying can last from 4 to 10 days.
After processing, all coffee is cupped according to strict protocols, and lots are separated according to cup profiles with only the best profiles making it into the program’s speciality lots.
In addition to quality improvements, the program also takes social circumstances of farmers into consideration, funding a nursery school for local children so that their parents have time to adequately manage their coffee farms. The program has also developed an educational course designed to keep young people in coffee and gender awareness initiatives which improve women’s capacity to contribute to farming and business decisions within their families.
Environmental stewardship is an increasing concern in the region. Dung K'no commune is close to Lang Biang biosphere, where conservation strategy is being defined by a governmental board to plan for monitoring, controlling and valuing the region. Forest boundaries are measured by sky-monitoring, and bordering zones are defined for close surveillance or action. Forest rangers are assigned to different zones, and more global policies are discussed at provincial level. To complement these activities, our partner’s sustainable management team (SMS) leads sustainable certification trainings and verifications (CAFÉ Practice, 4C, RFA), as well as more general trainings on Good Agricultural Practices for farmers to improve cost effectiveness (inputs, shade trees), coffee quality and limit environmental impact. For a future sustainable coffee production, SMS is working on model farms to promote agro-forestry and optimized/safe use of NPK compounds. Training in agro-chemical use is also priority in a region where those products are not well-known. Awareness regarding deforestation will be in line with the local conservation strategy, as well.
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the 1800’s, and throughout the French Colonial period, Arabica was actually grown on many French-owned plantations. Nonetheless, due to a variety of political and economic factors (including a massive civil war and subsequent Communist prohibitions on private land ownership), Vietnam was slow to achieve any real relevance as a coffee producing nation. As of 1990, Vietnam was responsible for a tiny 1% of world coffee trade.
This had all changed by 1990, by which point Vietnam had reached its current place as the second highest producing coffee country in the world (after Brazil) – a result of heavy investment in coffee production made possible by the liberalisation of land ownership under Đổi mới reforms in the mid-1980s and World Bank/IMF policy recommendations incentivising farmers to produce coffee for export. The country’s story of rapid growth, however, left little room for high-quality coffee. Some 95-97% of the country’s production is Robusta, and although Arabica coffee production has been increasing in recent years due to the expansion in growing area and yield improvement, it still accounts for very little of the overall coffee production in Vietnam.
Coffee production in Vietnam is concentrated in the Central Highlands (80%), and the small portion of Arabica grown in the country hails almost entirely from the Lam Dong province, as does this microlot. The terrain here is largely what is locally called ‘Bazan Red land’ (red basalt soil) and offers the perfect conditions for growing coffee. This rich volcanic mountain soil, coupled with the highland elevations contributes to slow, even development of the coffee cherry and, ultimately, to a sweeter, better cup of coffee.