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Earth Sense: Professor finds difficulties of growing coffee beans in Georgia

POSTED: May 17, 2014 10:20 p.m.

If there is one characteristic that college professors have in common, it’s curiosity.

The desire to experiment and to learn new things is what drives research and discovery. When Richard Stafford, Ph.D., a professor at Georgia State University, got a set of green coffee beans, he asked himself: “Why isn’t coffee produced locally in Georgia?”

So he put them in potting soil to see if they would germinate. Sure enough, half of them did. What followed was years of experimentation, and many surprises along the way.

“I learned quickly that coffee is a very demanding plant. It wants a constant temperature range between 60 and 80 degrees, so growing them in the ground is out of the question. Even a standard greenhouse won’t do. I had to specially design an environment that allows for just the right amount of shade, airflow from the sides, and moderate sunlight from the top.” 

If you’re thinking about ordering a greenhouse kit and potting soil now, hoping to beat the red brand and the blue brand in the supermarket at their game, hold on.

“To start with, it takes four years for a coffee plant to produce beans. Mine are reaching that age now, so there should be a harvest possible next year,” Stafford said.

Only a small belt around the globe is naturally suitable for coffee production. That’s the part of the tropics where temperatures rarely change.

Don’t imagine the tropics to be deserts seared by blasting heat. Deserts are found in the subtropics.

The tropics are regions of plentiful rain, with moderate sunshine because the skies are cloudy most of the time. The world’s highest coffee producers are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Ethiopia and Honduras.

Georgia isn’t likely to ever get on the list.

“Even if you keep the greenhouse moist, too much humidity is harmful to the plants as well,” Stafford said. “In addition, they like higher elevations, somewhere around 3,000 feet. So the deck is stacked against us. But like the Wright Brothers with their experimental airplane, I simply want to show that with enough care, something that was thought impossible can be done.” 

When his plants produce beans, Stafford will still have plenty of work ahead: picking, pulping, washing, and drying.

Considering the careful scientific attention his now 90 plants are receiving, Georgia may well see its first production of what he named “Yonah Coffee” in 2015.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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