Depending on the variety, it takes approximately 3 to 4 years for newly planted coffee trees to begin to bear fruit.  The fruit, called the coffee cherry, turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested.

Coffee blossomDue to the botanical characteristics of the coffee tree and the fact that coffee is often grown in mountainous areas, widespread use of mechanical harvesters is not possible and the ripe coffee cherries are usually picked by hand, a labour-intensive and difficult process.  The main exception is Brazil, where the relatively flat landscape and immense size of the coffee fields have permitted mechanization of the process.

The cherries must be harvested regularly or they will become over-ripe within 10 to 14 days.  Each tree will yield an average of 2 to 4 kilos of cherries and a good picker can harvest 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherry a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.  Unroasted coffee beans have a greenish colour and are therefore called “green” beans.

Whether picked by hand or by machine, all coffee is harvested in one of two ways:

Strip Picked - the entire crop is harvested at one time.  This can either be done by machine or by hand.  In either case, all of the cherries are stripped off of the branch at one time.

Selectively Picked - only the ripe cherries are harvested and they are picked individually by hand.  Pickers rotate among the trees every 8 to 10 days, choosing only the cherries which are at the peak of ripeness.  Since this kind of harvest is labour intensive, and thus more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer arabica beans. 

At the end of the day, each worker's harvest is carefully weighed and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work.  The day's harvest is then combined and transported to the processing plant.