Coffee Industry Struggles to Fend Off Fungus

TARRAZU, Costa Rica (The Seattle Times/MCT) -

The Hacienda La Minita coffee plantation has it all: world-famous beans, a commanding view of this tropical highland valley, and the careful attentions of a deep-pocketed owner, Renton, Wash.-based specialty-coffee roaster Distant Lands.

But although it is one of the best-run farms in Costa Rica, it hasn’t entirely fought off roya, a parasitic fungus that’s wreaking havoc on Central America’s coffee crop.

The disease was once a rarity in high-altitude areas like Tarrazu. But a changing climate and new varieties of the fungus have opened the door to the scourge here. It coats leaves with an orange-colored powder.

Skeletal, roya-stricken trees stand not far from Tarrazu’s perfectly tended, Spanish-style villa, which houses visiting coffee buyers and dignitaries. Roya has claimed a fifth of the farm’s production, said Russ Kramer, president of the Distant Lands unit that oversees the farm.

“It’s amazing to see how destructive it is,” Kramer said.

But the damage is much worse elsewhere: Among Costa Rica’s mostly small coffee farms, a majority have been touched by the fungus, and some farmers report losing more than half of their crop. In poorer countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, the fungus has been even more devastating than in Costa Rica.

The roya crisis, experts say, lays bare the underlying fragility of the coffee supply chain, which is straining under the weight of climate change, poverty and a vulnerability to new diseases because most coffee trees in this region descend from a few trees brought from the Old World centuries ago.

Experts fear it could be the first of many crises to come, threatening supplies of quality coffee even as countries from Brazil to China brew more of the stuff.

“Roya is the canary in the coal mine,” said Willy Foote, CEO of Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund, at the recent Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)’s conference in Seattle.

The epidemic, despite raging for two years, has not hit large roasters such as Starbucks because it coincided with a global surplus of coffee production elsewhere, in places like Brazil and Southeast Asia. But its tremors are beginning to be felt in the coffee-obsessed Pacific Northwest, since it coincides with consumers’ increasing demand for a wide variety of flavors in their high-end coffees, as well as exotic beans sourced from unique regions.

Ironically, the same global coffee surplus that shielded large roasters made coffee so cheap that it undercut Central American farmers’ ability to combat the disease.

Prices have nearly doubled since the beginning of this year, due to uncertainty about a drought in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of the commodity. But the hike came too late to avert roya’s woeful impact on many farmers and their workers.

Hemileia vastatrix, as the coffee rust fungus is scientifically known, is not a new problem. It devastated Southeast Asian plantations in the 19th century. Since appearing in Central America in the 1970s, it had been kept in check with fungicides and other methods.

But the persistent bout that appeared in 2012 is unprecedented in the region. Experts say the culprits include climate change’s disruption of weather and rain patterns, as well as chronic underinvestment in renewing coffee plantations and in creating rust-resistant hybrids. Warmer weather and new varieties of the fungus also brought the disease to highland farms, which had to learn from scratch how to control it.

About 55 percent of Central America’s coffee-growing lands have been affected by rust. In the 2012-13 harvest, it claimed more than 19 percent of the region’s production, causing about $500 million worth of damage, says the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, an intergovernmental organization based in Costa Rica.

That harvest season, about 374,000 workers saw their livelihood taken away by the scourge, the organization said.

Hacienda La Minita is one of Costa Rica’s most storied coffee farms. Its sought-after beans sell for about $5 a pound, compared with approximately $2 per pound for arabica coffee in commodity markets. That premium helps pay for worker housing as well as free, in-house medical and dental clinics, a rare perk in these mountains.

Coffee pickers lucky enough to get a gig there get paid about $3 per basket of coffee cherries, a third more than workers at neighboring properties and nearly double the minimum set by law.

So far, La Minita has fared better than many neighbors – mostly thanks to extreme vigilance.

“It starts on the underside of the leaves; you can’t see it,” said Ricardo Herrera, the Costa Rica-based general manager of Distant Lands International. “To check well, one has to lift the leaves. One must be always peeking under the leaves, checking.” Herrera, who in December led a reporter through La Minita, said coffee rust is responsible for a 15 percent uptick in labor and fungicide costs.

The perpetual checking of hundreds of trees can’t stop. The alternative is dire: If nothing’s done about it, the fungus can turn a lush coffee tree and its precious load of coffee cherries into a drying husk in two weeks.

Small farmers have borne the brunt. Fabio Perez, whose family owns a farm near the quaint mountain town of Atenas, in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, says production there plummeted by more than half because of the disease.

In the 2012-2013 harvest, the farm produced 160 bushels of coffee, and this year it yielded 60. “That’s where we felt the impact of roya,” he said.

Perez expects to see a similar poor yield this year and next. Some farmers are replacing diseased trees with rust-resistant varieties, but renovation is too expensive for his family’s farm, he said.