Coffee or Cocoa?

No, I’m not offering you a hot drink. I’m thinking about how certain subjects will seem to come up several times together, in an oddly serendipitous kind of way.

A while ago, I got to thinking about how coffee is grown, and I had an idea (about which more in a minute). I set out this idea on linked in, had a few brief comment exchanges and thought little more of it. Quite by chance, a few weeks later, someone approached me via email, asking if I thought coffee would be feasible for urban ag/VF. Then just a few days later, I got another one. Neither of these seemed to be connected to or even aware of the other. A little odd, but life is that way sometimes.

The idea hung around in my brain, but I didn’t really do anything much with it. Then just yesterday, I had an email from a guy I’d never spoken to, asking me whether I thought Cocoa could be grown in VF. This of course, took  me back to the coffee idea and, now, here’s me setting out that idea I had, which is more or less applicable to both coffee and cocoa equally.

Now I’m going to be absolutely clear here from the outset: neither of these will work in VF, because they are both trees. That presents engineering and cost challenges for VF that would make economic viability all but impossible. Even more importantly, trees ARE vertical farms, and vertical farming vertical farms is just redundant.

However, I have advocated in the Regrowth Book (and many times in this blog no doubt), that vertical farms, retrofit into ex-industrial buildings, should be surrounded by community gardens/urban farms. One form those could take is trees. Although they would have some impact environmentally (reducing the heat island effect for example), the primary benefit of these community growing spaces would be – as the name hopefully suggests – social benefit to the community in which the VF is placed. Moreover, it is unlikely that such community growing would have major economic benefit, simply due to lack of scale.

My original idea for coffee, was based around these assumptions. Since the social impact was my primary context and driver, I started by thinking about the people where coffee is grown. Many people leave rural areas like this, for the big city. Those people often end up being part of marginalised communities, one way or another, with all the social impacts that implies. So what if they could grow coffee in the city?

Being able to grow coffee this way, in an urban area, could be a great way to reconnect people to their heritage. Going further, if it were successful, a cultural and geographical exchange system might be possible, connecting and reconnecting communities much more directly. And of course on top of that, there would be all the social benefits to health and mental well being that come along with urban farming for marginalised people and communities.

Looking in terms of economics, it might be possible for a local product to command a premium price. Operated via a community interest company (CIC) or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or something similar, this could be enough to make the project financially self sustaining. That would mean little or no reliance on grants or other such funding streams, which are a constant headache for small projects.

One other thing that struck me, was that I read the coffee plant/tree takes 3-5 years to be mature enough to produce harvestable fruit. But once it is mature, it can easily produce fruits for 50 years! Cocoa trees are remarkably similar, taking 3-4 years to mature and lasting up to 60 years. So here we have plants that can cross generations, offering yet more social value.

So, in short, neither of these are going to be grown in VF, and neither are likely to make anyone a millionaire in an urban setting (not even close!). But they can potentially offer great social benefit and could be at least economically self sustaining.


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