Coffee in India is grown in slope terrain in the hilly tracts under shade trees. Majority of the farm work has been carried out manually. For the effective maintenance of coffee plantations in India, the annual requirements of labor for undertaking regular cultural operation is about 580 man days per ha in case of Arabica, 370 man days per ha in case of rain-fed Robusta and 435 man days per ha in case of irrigated Robusta coffee. The cost of labor alone constitutes about 60 to 70 % of the total cultivation costs in case of Arabica and about 55 to 65 % in the case of Robusta coffee depending on whether irrigated or not.
In recent years, shortage of laborers in coffee plantations is acute due to migration of workers to urban areas in search better living. The old generation of workers employed on the farms is retiring due to aging and the non-availability of young workers, especially skilled workers for caring out certain critical operations like shade lopping, weeding, tracing of white stem borer affecting plants; pruning etc. is affecting the coffee plantations seriously. Introduce mechanization to the possible extent to carry out field operations for improving the efficiency and productivity of labor and to reduce the cost of production. The mechanization, though difficult to achieve, remains a viable option to overcome the scarcity of laborers in the plantation sector.
In some countries like brazil, USA (Hawaii) and Australia, where coffee is grown in almost flat to gentle sloping lands in open conditions and the coffee cultivation has been mechanized to a great extent to bring down dependence on human labor which is very expensive in these countries. While in other coffee producing countries. Including India, coffee is essentially grown in hilly, undulating terrain and the operations are carried out mainly by human labor. In India, apart from growing in undulating terrain, coffee is grown under shade trees, which makes it further difficult to mechanize the farm operations.
Coffee Board is evolving long-term strategies and programmers to accelerate mechanization of coffee cultivation in India. One of the critical factors which help to introduce farm mechanization is to enhance the overall productivity and production without scarifying the quality.
Use of small portable machinery in existing plantations
The Central Coffee Research Institute has tried mechanization of farm operations within the existing setup of coffee plantations. Efforts were made using small hand operated machinery like pit diggers for planting coffee seedlings, weeding and harvesting. The suitability of these machinery in slope terrains of coffee estates in terms of improving efficiency and reducing drudgery of human labor was evaluated.
Pits Diggers/Post Hole Diggers
Digging pits is an important operation that is necessary for planting coffee seedlings, pepper and shade trees. Use of manual labor to dig pits is found to be very drudgery and time consuming. However, use of pits digger under normal conditions (deep soil without gravel or stones) was evaluated and the result was highly encouraging by saving 50% in terms of labor requirements and cost factor incurred over the same pitting exercise when taken up manually.
Weed management is one of the cultural operations in coffee plantation which is highly labor intensive and involves high cost and accounting for about 8 to 10% of the total man day requirement per year. Hence, it is necessary to improve the efficiency and productivity of the labor used for the weeding operations and to economize the overall cost of production. two types of weed cutters namely mechanical weed cutter/brush cutter and rotary mower are used to control weeds in coffee. Both the weed cutter are found to be economical by saving 50% of the cost over manual weeding. In terms of savings man days, mechanical weed cutter ensured a net saving of 8 man days ac-1. Among the two weed cutters, brush cutter is more efficient in controlling weeds in existing coffee fields, while rotary weed cutter is found be economic to trim weeds on road sides, working path and on flat lands in the coffee plantations.
Harvesting in coffee is done during specific period of year which requires nearly 30 to 40% of the overall labor requirement. The harvesting operation alone constitutes a major component (60%) of the total cost of production. The harvesting period is crucial and lot of demand arises for labor to carry out the harvesting operations since it is simultaneously done in all the estates. In this event, use of hand held, battery operated harvesting machines would be beneficial and efficient. The performance is found to be well by saving labor cost to the extent of 17 and 36% over manual harvesting of Arabica and Robusta, respectively.
Feasibility of mechanization of coffee operations in India
Mechanization of coffee estate does not refer to driving a tractor or large machinery in an estate. It is rather finding the means to carry out the farm operations smoothly and effectively utilizing minimum energy which is economic to the planter and improves the efficiency of the farm worker by reducing the drudgery. Further, mechanization requirement for Indian coffee plantation are different from other like Brazil, in view of growing in sloped terrain under shade tree canopy. The challenge is to ensure gradual mechanization with novel technologies to replace the traditional cultivation practices that have endured for centuries. To ensure efficient use of farm machinery, certain modifications to land terrain are needed in the existing coffee fields.
The Japanese Experiment with mechanization of citrus orchards in slopes
New farm path system adopted by the Japanese farmers in the steep sloped citrus orchards seems to be an example to be emulated for the mechanization of coffee estate operations in India. Professor Masahiro Miyazaki of shikoku National Agricultural Experiment station, Japan report that the mechanization of farm operations had lagged behind in the citrus orchards of Japan due to steep gradients and high-density planting making the use of machinery difficult and sometimes even dangerous. In steep sloped lands, construction of wide farm roads to facilitate large farm machines is not desirable due to the high cost involved, the danger of land slide and also the reduction in yield due to the removal of large number of plants while constructing the roads and other needed infrastructure.
A new estate/farm path system has been developed for the citrus orchards of Japan which essentially has three components namely (1) creation of farm paths, (2) designing small machines specially for movement in such paths and (3) mechanization of farm operations like management of weeds, shade regulation, spraying, fertilizer application, pest and disease control etc. The farm paths constructed for the movement of small machines include two kinds of paths, a work path which is one meter wide and a connection road with a width of more than 1.3 m. The connection road is like a back bone and to this back bone, work paths are laterally joined. To make sure that the machines travel safely along the paths, the slope (gradient) of the connection road should be less than 27% the path should have a turning circle with a diameter of 2 m, where the machines can turn round. The schematic diameter of the new path system being recommended for use in citrus orchards of japan is presented below. These farm paths also function as hillside ditches, intercepting run-off water. It is important to lay them to prevent erosion and to allow machines to travel smoothly.
Mechanization in already established blocks
To adopt large scale mechanization in the existing coffee plantation, there is a need to create working rows or narrow farm path along the contour (across the slope). These newly created farm paths improve the accessibility of every brush for farm operations like spray, fertilizer applications and transport compared to existing large plots and more beneficial. While doing so some coffee bushes may have to be removed but shade trees need not be removed. If shade trees are lying in the designated paths the contour paths can be laid around the shade trees. Specially designed, imported machines like ‘walk behind track’ rather than wheels, which are presently available in the Indian market can be successfully used in such in paths for spraying, fertilizer application, transport of inputs and harvested crop and other farm operations.
Mechanization in new plantations/replant area
Whenever there is an opportunity to completely (clean) replant a black or to bring a new land under coffee cultivation, efforts have to be made to modify the terrain of the land and planting designs to suit the movement of small tractors or rubberized track carriers. In certain cases the number of plants per unit area may slightly decrease compare to traditional planting. The modifications to land terrain and planting on the slope of the land terrain and planting designs would primarily depend on the slope of the land.
The suggested methods of land modification and planting designs for different field situation to enable mechanization are as follows:
In fact land to gently slope: flat lands and gently sloping lands do not require any land modification or land shaping. In such areas, adopting hedge row method of planting across the slope would be highly desirable. The most commonly adopted spacing for hedge rows is 1.8 n x 0.9 m (6×3 ft) for Arabica coffee. Because of closer spacing of plants within a row, stems of the plants are covered more and thus reduce the chances of white stem borer attack. When planted in hedge rows, it is advised to construct farm paths (about 3 m wide) between 4 and 6 hedge rows for facilitating movement of small tractors or walking behind type of rubberized track carriers etc.
In moderate slopes: In gentle to moderate slopes, contour farming/bunding is recommended at suitable intervals for minimizing erosion of top soil. Contour farming is the technique of growing crops ‘on the level’ across or perpendicular to a slope rather than up and down the slope. The rows running across the slope are designed to be as level as possible to facilitate planting operations on the contour. Contour farming is most effective on slopes above 10%. Contour farming is not well suited to rolling topography having a higher slope with maximum irregularity. The contour bunds fortified with earthen embankment can act as narrow farm path for facilitating movement of small tractors or walking behind type rubberized track carriers etc. These farm paths can be fortified by planting soil binding grasses like Vetiver, Paspalum etc., on the lower side. At the end of each farm
Path there should be a provision for connecting the farm paths, taking care that the slope of connecting paths not exceeding 15%. The area between two contour bunds can be planted with coffee either in hedge row design or paired row system, the coffee plants within a paired row can be planted in a zig-zig fashion, forming a triangle (triangle methods).