Oranges, sugarcane and strawberries are crops synonymous with Florida agriculture. Could coffee be next?
While Florida isn’t likely to export coffee anytime soon, it could export groundbreaking research to the rest of the world — some of it being conducted on the Treasure Coast — to improve the global coffee industry.
Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are working with farmers and even artificial intelligence on multiple studies about growing coffee. From studying the flavors of different varieties to developing disease-resistant plants, they hope to discover advancements in coffee production techniques.
“We are working with a crop that is facing a lack of innovation,” said UF/IFAS research assistant Luis Felipe Ventorim Ferrão. “If we don’t innovate, we stay flat in coffee.”
Can you grow coffee in Florida?
The first question researchers want to answer: Can coffee survive in Florida?
Florida lacks almost all the ideal conditions for large-scale coffee production that countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica have in abundance. Coffee plants need specific soil chemistry, precipitation and tropical weather conditions with little risk of cold snaps. The ideal temperature range for coffee plants is 64-70 degrees, and even short periods in colder conditions can be potentially lethal to the plants, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The main challenge is the temperature and the weather,” Ferrão said, specifically “the freeze events we have here.”
Researchers spent a year growing 150 coffee plants of different varieties under controlled conditions in a Gainesville greenhouse, then this summer planted them in research fields in Fort Pierce, Gainesville and Homestead.
“Determining what will grow is the first step to identifying the plants most adaptable to Florida’s conditions,” Ferrão said. “Our follow-up questions will be to understand the behavior of the plant in these new conditions; then the flavor of what we can grow here in Florida; and finally, maybe most importantly, whether it can be profitable as a crop.”
The future of coffee
Ferrão and his colleagues have already accumulated large amounts of data about the genealogy of coffee, growing conditions and other aspects of coffee farming, but more research is needed. Still, he thinks Florida has the potential for specialized small-scale growers investing in agrotourism and small-batch roasts, like in California.
Large coffee plantations controlled by one entity are a thing of the past, with small farms now producing about 80% of the world’s coffee, Ferrão said. About 67% of that 80% is produced by the 94.5% of coffee farms that are smaller than 12 acres, he said. They can build economies of scale with partnerships and cooperatives.
Discovering better production strategies for them is more important than ever, with climate change worsening and creating unstable seasons and growing conditions, Ferrão said.
“We are talking about a crop that is consumed by over 2 billion people a day,” he said, with the U.S. being the No. 1 consumer.