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What Is a Coffee Plantation?

Terry Masters
Terry Masters

A coffee plantation is a farm where coffee bean plants are grown and the beans harvested for sale. Coffee is a high-value crop with significant economic value. It is consistently listed as one of the top three legal exports worldwide every year. As a result of its prominence as a commodity, growing and processing coffee beans on plantations has had a tumultuous history with regard to the human rights of workers and to the environment. More than 90 percent of the coffee plantations around the world are located in developing countries, highlighting — and in some cases exacerbating — many economic inequities because industrialized nations are the primary consumers of the product.

Coffee can be farmed from seeds or from seedlings. A coffee plantation typically will use one or the other and intercrop the coffee with other food crops, such as beans, corn or rice, until the harvesting matures. Coffee bean plants produce either Arabica beans or robusta beans. Arabica is considered the more refined crop and comprises about two-thirds of the worldwide production on plantations. Robusta is the more bitter bean and has a higher caffeine content, but it is the hardier plant. It costs less to maintain a robusta crop, and that savings is passed down the economic chain, making robusta the cost-effective choice that is used in bulk settings.

Whole coffee beans.
Whole coffee beans.

Farming coffee is more labor-intensive than other types of major food crops. Beans must be picked, processed, dried and roasted on a coffee plantation — tasks that do not lend themselves well to automated solutions. This is one of the reasons that coffee plantations were a historical venue for forced labor and slavery. Even though forced labor technically is no longer an issue in the modern agricultural world, the majority of plantations are located in developing countries where there are extreme disparities between what farm workers earn for a living and what people who consume coffee earn for a living.

Coffee bean plants are grown on a coffee plantation.
Coffee bean plants are grown on a coffee plantation.

The coffee plantation is also a hotbed of environmental sustainability issues. Many plantations are located in countries where people don't have enough fresh water to drink, yet coffee production uses a very high amount of water. There also are significant issues regarding the way coffee is farmed, with the more sustainable but expensive practice to shade-grow the plants. Environmental groups consider coffee plantations part of the front line in the fight for sustainable farming practices, because coffee is one of the world's most significant crops.

Brazil hosts the largest number of coffee plantations, with Vietnam, Indonesia and Columbia following behind. Arabica coffee is produced on plantations in Latin America, Eastern Africa, Arabia and Asia. Robusta is farmed in western and central Africa, Southeast Asia and in some parts of Brazil. In addition to the distinction in the type of bean plant grown on these plantations, there are regional differences in soil and processing that affect the coffee's taste. These differences are reflected in the varieties of coffee, such as Java, Kona and Columbian.

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    • Whole coffee beans.
      By: Feng Yu
      Whole coffee beans.
    • Coffee bean plants are grown on a coffee plantation.
      By: foto76
      Coffee bean plants are grown on a coffee plantation.