Nestled in the Sahyadri Mountain Range of the Western Ghats near Chikmagalur, Karnataka, lies Ratnagiri Estate. ‘Ratnagiri’ means ‘Pearl Mountain’ in the local language, and the estate gets its name from the dense growth of silver oak trees around the farm. These trees not only give the mountainside a silvery hue but are also instrumental in providing the cover that is required to produce top quality shade grown coffee.
The estate currently belongs to Ashok Patre, and has been run by his family since its inception in 1927. The densely forested land was bought by his Grandfather, who then spent the next 15 years clearing it up and building a legacy while he planted coffee shrubs. Ratnagiri estate is probably one of the few coffee estates in India that was not planted by Englishmen during the ‘British Raj’. The legacy continues today with the estate producing some of the finest specialty coffee in the region.
Patre took over as the owner of Ratnagiri Estate in 1989 and continued to run the farm the way his predecessors did, for about a decade. In early 2000, he noticed an increased interest in specialty coffee production, and there has been no looking back since. Over the last 20+ years, Patre has worked relentlessly to increase farm production and coffee quality by replacing traditional farming practices with modern agricultural technology. Changes to the farm include, but are not limited to, installation of stainless steel tanks for anaerobic fermentation to ventilated greenhouses for drying, tiles instead of concrete to prevent acid formation during fermentation, a dry milling facility and, an ECOpulper that reduces water consumption by 65%. All of this has succeeded in making the specialty coffee that Ratnagiri Estate has to offer a very popular choice in markets both at home and abroad. Today the estate is a self-sufficient, vertically integrated farm where every activity right from the harvest to fermentation, drying, wet and dry milling, and vacuum packing happens on the farm.
A variety of factors contribute to the remarkably flavorful coffee that the estate produces. To begin with, it is located at a higher altitude than a lot of the surrounding farms. This means the coffee takes longer to ripen - about 45 days more than farms at lower altitudes. This slow ripening is a big factor that contributes to the flavor of the bean (think flavourful slow cooker meals). In addition to this, the coffee shrubs are interspersed with pepper and orange trees that are said to add a unique flavor to the soil.
The coffee grown here is completely organic, with the help of little or no use of organic pesticides / fungicide. In fact everything on the estate is geared towards coexisting with the current ecosystem. The shade trees are maintained at about 100 per acre to ensure that sunlight penetration is kept at 50%. This not only helps conserve soil moisture during times of scanty rainfall but it also provides an ecosystem for the wildlife of the rainforest to thrive. The strict shade to sunlight ratio also minimizes the growth of fungus while maintaining optimal sunlight levels for photosynthesis. However, not all fungus is bad. Ratnagiri estate actually uses 3 types of fungi to eliminate pests from the coffee shrubs. The soil also gets its moisture from two freshwater streams that run through the property. These streams adhere to strict environmental guidelines that are set forth by the quality and pollution control board. In addition to this, Patre works closely with an agronomist from Australia to continuously improve soil conditions, primarily with the timing and dosage of their fertilizers. This has led to a significant increase in production over the years.
The farm employs about 160 workers engaged in various activities that depend on the requirements of the season. They work six days a week. This number increases considerably during harvest when seasonal workers are brought in from the surrounding areas. Patre ensures that all his workers are well taken care of. Labor laws are strictly followed, and his workers are also provided with housing and medical benefits. In addition to this, Ratnagiri Estate has adopted a local lower elementary school and funds most of its requirements.
Patre has a deep commitment to his surroundings and while Ratnagiri Estate has moved into modern times, everything on the estate coexists in perfect harmony with the flora and fauna around it. Tigers, leopards, pumas, wild dogs, sambar deer and elephants are often seen passing through the estate peacefully. The estate is also Rainforest Alliance certified and hopes to set a good example for future generations as a ‘near perfect farm’ with its innovative processing protocols. With all of this and more Patre hopes to truly put India on the map as a contender for specialty coffee.