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Field trip Central America February 2013

Costa Rica and beyond

Costa Rica calling Simon, I headed off at Sunday 3.30am only to have the flight delayed from London by 90 minutes! Then my travelling companions got bumped off the connecting flight in Madrid. On arrival in San Jose I met up with 3 other members of our party. Our bumped colleagues joined the following day via Miami completing our group of 6.

We travelled through Brunca, West and Central Valleys visiting coops and farms for 4 days. Then 4 of us moved  to El Salvador concentrating in the mountainous region of Apaneca/Illamatepec where the premium coffees hang out. Then it was only 2 of us who ventured on to Guatemala where we concentrated in the Atatenango, Antigua and Fraijanes regions.

Security issues are getting worse as prices go lower and other trade becomes more interesting. Travel was not as free and easy as 2 years ago.

Roya is here – in a “morphed” tougher version – make no doubts about it.

Hemileia vastatrix (Roya) is a fungus of the order Pucciniales (previously also known as Uredinales) that causes coffee leaf rust (CLR), a disease that is devastating to susceptible coffee plantations.

Some farms are spraying up to 6 times since the fungicide is only working for 14 days instead of the usual 45 days. Heavy fertilising is taking place. We saw various levels of pruning from sanitary to stumping – the sound of the chainsaw was common. The bourbon trees have been hit the hardest some looking totally dead. Catura, Catuai, Sarchimor appear to fare better.

Sadly, there are farms looking like a skeleton collection. Some farmers are leaving coffee. They’ve had enough. They’re throwing in the towel as they cannot make ends meet and prices remain below cost of production – a small holder of 2 hectares is really struggling financially and bigger farmers are waiting to sell the land for property development. Some believe the trees will come back on their own accord – unlikely.

Most of the crop is harvested so the impact this year is limited somewhere between 15-40 % predominately affecting the lower altitudes harder. But fears are of a bigger drop next season. It depends if Roya comes back in the rainy season in May-July affecting the new leaf growth – of course without leaves the tree cannot function and it will not be able to bear cherry.

Some areas have been affected by Antracnosis which is a root rotting disease, due to the rains from previous season. Both of these diseases see cherry failing to ripen and so the increase of greens is expected. These unripes should be processed separately but they will likely find their way into the system – so HB and SHB coffees will see a drop in quality. Single estate coffees should hold up.

It is also worth noting that sales of Fairtrade this year have dropped by double figures – in some cases by as much as 40% yet the sales of speciality and Rainforest are still holding. I believe that part of this is to do with the global economic climate and the other is to do with the demands of certification and change of marketing structures.

Time to think

Whilst we sit in our offices worrying about what to buy, what price to pay and how our blends will be affected, spare a though for the producers who will see very tough financial and mentally challenging years ahead. Plus, they actually care for their trees in a way that they find it disturbing to see what is happening. Some will go out of business. Some areas will not see coffee growing again for quite a while.

It is not all doom and gloom. Some trees were showing leaf buds. Some farmers had already been regenerating their farms, with younger/stronger trees and different varieties fighting the Roya. Some are not dependent upon coffee so will continue to strive. Effective fungicides will be found. But it is not an issue to be taken lightly.  Some great coffee is still coming from our suppliers, but we’re not talking HB quality or price.

Visiting the farms, meeting the workers and dining at the homes of our suppliers really makes you appreciate the relationships which have been built up over the years and emphasises the fact that coffee is not just about coffee, but people as well.

Almost forgot – Monte Carlo took the 1st place in the beer tasting and the Zacapa rum came a close second – well done Guatemala !!