If only I had a dime for every time we were asked this question! In hindsight, it is only natural, especially when we keep saying we are landscape agnostic and don’t mind working with any kind of soil as long as there is soil. To pick one of the most biodiverse, water-rich pockets in India as our first prototype of food, water and power security seemed like the easiest thing to do. But honestly, Poomaale has been a tough battle from day one and here’s why.
WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS.
Poomaale is located in Kakkabe Coorg just short of the Brahmagiri Range of the Western Ghats. These are the first set of hills that the monsoon hits. One has to experience them to really know what we mean. This season, we received approximately 7500mm of rain. That’s about 2.5 floors of rainwater. Considering our estate is a valley between three hills, imagine the deluge! With that kind of torrential rain hitting the earth, what keeps the soil together? How are the hills still standing? It is the forest that’s keeping it together. And where the forest has disappeared, the cracks are beginning to show in the form of landslides and floods.
As a firm, we have been very scientific in our approach at understanding this. The forest systems have around 7-8% carbon content in the soil. Every 1% carbon content in the soil increases its water holding capacity by around 750,000 litres per acre. At 8% carbon content, the soil is able to hold 6 million litres per acre, released gradually over time like a sponge. So while, in the Brahmagiri Range, water flowing down the hill slopes account for only 6.5 mt of annual precipitation, the coffee estates at its base have most of the water flowing down leading to erosion. Practically speaking, this is exactly why the Poomaale Estate has clear water in our monsoon streams while a few estates downstream, have muddy water. But how did we achieve it? For a start, we left half the estate wild, especially areas that were critical for ecosystem services – slopes, grasslands and stream beds.
Instead of growing just coffee, over the past 2 seasons, we have moved to a more diverse natural system and planted over 6000 plants to aid landscape diversity and supplement soil richness.
IN NATURE, DIVERSITY IS KING
The decision to diversify boiled down to asking, ‘Can we diversify gradually without compromising on the economic health’. From small experiments in a few 100 square feet to an entire block, we carried out different experiments to create gaps and plant other saplings. For a nutrition heavy plant like coffee, this meant taking a big hit on short term yield. While our neighbour was flooding urea into his soil and producing 20 bags per acre, we stayed content with just 2 bags per acre. Even over a 5 year horizon, our goal is to have around 3-5 bags an acre. What we really gain in the process are:
- Exponential pest resistance
- Crop diversity like oranges, jamun, jackfruits, figs, avocadoes, tubers, etc. which protect us from the risk of fluctuating coffee prices
- Long term preservation of ecosystem services
And by building our brand around it, Bewild Coffee hopes to be a value multiplier to bring us to the same financial health as our neighbour if not better.
DO A LITTLE LESS, BUT DO IT A LOT BETTER
We wanted to pick our battles. The estate was primarily Robusta coffee, while most retail coffee is a blend of Arabica with a touch of Robusta. Our inexperience with Arabica and its supposed lack of immunity to pests prevented us from doing so. Instead, we decided to develop a good tasting variant using just Robusta and only our Robusta. By focussing on the story behind the coffee and how we are adding to the soil and the ecosystem every single day, our goal is to create a new appreciation for responsibly grown coffee. Our new range of Bewild Coffee in 7 variants are being appreciated widely by our early adopters and hopefully will pave the way for economic viability.
All said and done, coffee, once introduced as a tree that is capable of growing in the canopy of dense jungles, has over the centuries, created a wall of estates that are miles away from the diversity that the Western Ghats are known for. Very few estates are willing to go sustainable in a true sense. We genuinely believe that we have to look beyond animal sightings and solar panels as a measure of how ecologically sensitive we are. It is high time and the cost of not going green is too high to rule that out as an option.