When, What, and How of Coffee Picking



Beautiful Ripe Yellow Catuai


By Emily Haworth


All the trials and tribulations of coffee picking are very fresh in my mind. In this column, I plan to share the When, What and How of coffee picking. The coffee picking season is the busiest time of all for a coffee farmer. It is a season of early mornings ferrying coffee pickers to and fro and evenings spent waiting in line at the beneficios the processing plant where the  coffee cherries are sold.

The “When” of Coffee Picking

In Panama we have a single harvest per year. Here in the Boquete Valley our coffee harvest runs from October through February with peak harvests varying depending upon altitude. Here there are some farms still producing in March, mostly at very high elevations. That said, volume is very small and the pickers are now asking nearly three times what they were being paid at the peak of the season. The last beneficios is closing at the end of this week, in the middle of March. Most of the Northern hemisphere Arabica coffee is on a similar schedule.

  • High quality comes from the middle of the harvest or what we call peak harvest. A coffee harvest produces volumes of cherries on a typical bell curve. Slow at first, gradually picking up volume until you reach the peak, then dropping off again.
  • The peak generally represents the cherries in the middle of the tree, the middle of the branches. This means the first few picks of the bushes is not high quality. The same is true of the last few picks. The peak of the harvest is when the cherries are flourishing thickest and fastest.
  • During peak harvest the bushes can be picked every 8-10 days depending upon the weather. If it is sunny they ripen up faster. This way only the ripe cherries get picked. Each session is called a pass-through of the farm. It is done methodically starting and finishing in the same place. This is because each pass through itself can take up to a week, depending upon how many pickers are available.
  • Peak harvests vary by elevation. Higher altitude farms have later peak harvests. Because the harvest starts in the heavy rainy season and spans into the summer months, it makes quite a difference when the peak harvest occurs. If it occurs during heavy rain, there are more problems picking and more problems drying the coffee caused by humidity.

The “What” of Picking Coffee

It sounds so simple, pick only the ripe red cherries but this is really one of the most difficult things to achieve. Firstly, what is a ripe red cherry? Well, here in Panama it is a bright red cherry.  Some regions and coffee producers pick purple. We pick red.

  • A cherry that is past its best is called a grape and when roasted tastes winey.
  • A cherry that is picked when it is not really fully red, I have heard called something like a pimenton, and it tastes like a potato when roasted.
  • A green cherry won’t roast.
  • The cherries grow in whorls around the branches and the red ones are mixed up with not so red ones, pink ones and green ones. Even when I pick with no incentive to rush, I still get some non-reds. It is much harder than it appears.
  • Sometimes the weather gets in the way. When it rains very hard, and it often does at the beginning of the harvest as it is our heavy rain season, the cherries have a tendency to split and fall to the ground. If this looks likely, then we pick slightly green rather than lose the red ones to the grass.
  • The same thing happens if disease strikes the farm. We have a couple of fungal problems here in the Boquete Valley. Rojo is the name of a red rust-like fungus that attacks the leaves. Treating the coffee with chemical fungicide during harvest is not desirable and difficult to time. It should not be done during picking itself. A lot of farmers use fungicide, in fact most do. I have seen many product label violations, for example, chemicals being used within too few days of picking. Farmers are tempted to use fungicide because unless they do they run the risk losing both leaves and coffee cherries to fungal infection. Some farmers opt to pick what cherries are there regardless of their color. Even green cherries or dried up un-ripened ones can be sold at the local market.
  • Also, at the beginning and end of the harvest it is not cost effective to bring pickers in every 10 days, the frequency drops to 2-3 week gaps between each pass through of the farm. We tend to pick a wider range including partial reds and some purples. Most beneficios will accept this quality. However, cherries that are only partially red (not ripe enough) or deep purple (too ripe) do not make for good cupping scores within the specialty coffee realm. Only the perfectly red cherries are to be kept for high end coffee.
  • Availability of pickers can also affect the precision with which we pick. Currently, we are suffering from a picker shortage. Many Indigenous workers prefer to work in Costa Rica, just a short bus ride away. It is difficult to insist that the workers pick slowly and carefully as they get paid by volume and want to make money. Besides, they can always leave Panama and head to Costa Rica where their earning potential is higher. For some pickers the money they make during the coffee picking season is what they live on for the rest of the year.

To complicate matters further, yellow Catuai is very popular here. Yellow Catuai ripens yellow not red. So the final basket is not a clean red basket of cherries but contains both red and some ripe yellow ones as well.

The “How” of Picking Coffee

Yes, there is more than one way to pick a cherry. Although few farm owners have ever actually picked cherries themselves there are more opinions on this topic than anything else. This is one of the most challenging things for the owner of the farm. The owner wants a high quality pick, which fetches a higher price and tastes better in the cup. The custom is to pay coffee pickers by lata. A lata is a volume measurement but works out at approximately 30lbs of cherries. This year we have been paying $3 per lata, higher than ever before. If pickers are given an incentive to fill buckets then the tendency is to go as quickly as they can and they are not too selective in their picking. Quality is compromised.

A picker can pick between around 2-8 latas a day depending on how good they are. When I pick, I get closer to 2. Some of the Indigenous professionals regularly take much higher volumes.

As stated earlier, it is very tempting for the pickers to compromise quality and the plants to get volume. Here’s how we go about picking:

  • To pick right, you need to pick each cherry individually. Sort of pull it off the whorl, leaving behind the less ripe and unripe ones. This is time consuming.
  • It is sometimes faster to strip off the cherries in such a way that the little stalk that joins the berry to the branch is taken off with the cherry. This is a disaster as it means that there will be no flower coming from that leaf junction in the following year and no coffee. I know owners who will no longer grow the Caturra varietal because the bushes lend themselves to having their branches stripped by the pickers. They are short bushes with lots of sub-branches heavily laden with fruit. If they are stripped they are sensitive and will not grow cherries on those nodes next year, so you loose a harvest.
  • Similarly, some varieties of coffee bush are tall. Our coffee pickers are generally short. Indigenous Ngoble pickers, who are our main stay coffee pickers and workers, are generally very short maybe 5ft or less. Latinos are also a lot shorter than some of the larger bushes. Typica trees and some Catuai are around 8ft or more in height and require use of ladders. Sometimes pickers break the branches and the top of the trees to reach the fruit.
  • Pickers also want to pick from bushes that are densely packed with easy to find cherries.   They do not like Typica trees, which are not heavy cherry bearers. This slows them down. Typica trees are a double whammy of tall and low fruit bearing, which makes them extremely unpopular with pickers. This is a great shame as they are also one of the most delicious varietals. It is my favorite varietal in the cup.
  • Pickers do not want to bother with older trees, or immature ones, or any parts of the farm that are not heavily producing. They are apt to skip rows or lots to get into the richer pickings. This is where it is very important to have a foreman, preferably someone not related to the pickers to ensure fair play.
  • The pickers are also fairly fickle in their loyalties. Many have come away from the Comarca or reservation for the season to earn money. Their earning potential is their main concern. They are likely to come to you late in the picking season when the farms in Costa Rica are done with harvest because Costa Rica pays more than Panama. This may be after peak harvest at lower elevations. They then follow the peak harvest up the mountain where the fastest, easiest money is to be made and abandon farms at lower elevations early. As soon as a farmer’s peak harvest is over the pickers start looking for greener pastures and start moving further up the mountain.

All this means that if you pay by volume, which is almost a pre-requisite for attracting pickers, you also need to supervise the job very closely. For each crew of pickers you need a foreman. Every day when the bags are being counted you need to inspect for quality and pay close attention to each pickers habits.

The end of the picking day is important and sometimes a lengthy affair. Everyone gathers to have their sacks measured and receive payment. Sometimes this is very complex. I had one day towards the end of the harvest when we were picking red and green cherries. Each lata of green was one price and red another. In both cases they were not round numbers. I had to find an enormous amount of silver change and one dollar and five dollar bills to make pay packets for each person on a team of 15 or more pickers. I needed a calculator as it was quite beyond anything I could work out on the back of an envelope. I had to prepare all this in advance.

It is important to pay attention to each pickers sacks, especially early in the season and anytime you have new pickers. Look at the quality and provide feedback as needed. Feedback to the pickers is important. Sometimes it may mean having to fire a picker if there are too many non-reds or damaged trees in their pickings on a consistent basis.

Hopefully this helps to explain the complexity behind bringing you the reddest, ripest cherries for your Specialty Coffee fix. I believe that in the future some things will have to change in the way coffee is picked in Specialty Coffee regions. The current way of paying by volume does not encourage quality. Migrant workers are not loyal to the farmer’s business nor are they  vested in the farmer’s strategy for quality. Speaking for myself, it is also all a bit stressful – telling folks to slow down and choose coffee cherries carefully while paying them by volume is exhausting.

Following is a short photo essay showing you different types of cherries including some picking errors. Apologies for some of the photos not being quite in focus!


Tree in peak harvest / Here is one of our typical trees when the cherry are mostly at peak condition for harvesting. Note there are still many green cherries.


Mostly ripe whorls / Even the most ripe branches or whorls of cherry contain some green.


Rainy season picking / You can see there’s a mix here, including a lot of green splitting cherries


Splitting berries on branch


Improper pick

The Ngoble Indigenous coffee pickers of Central America are a fascinating people that was  almost completely destroyed by the Spanish invaders 500 years ago. An immensely strong and resilient people they live off the land and have a deep understanding of the natural world.