Editor’s note: We got an overwhelming response from the article by Chad Trewick, “Rust on the Rampage,” in the April+May issue of Barista Magazine. The topic of coffee-leaf rust and the devastation it’s causing in Central America is one we are all just starting to talk about because unfortunately, coffee-leaf rust will continue to plague the coffee industry—specialty in particular—for many years to come. We at Barista Magazine intend to continue covering coffee-leaf rust, the research that is being done to combat it, and the effects it will have on our industry in both the short and long term. Recently, Patrick Huges of Union MicroFinanza, a non-profit that works with farmers in La Union, Honduras, contacted me to discuss points not yet addressed in recent coffee-leaf rust news, and I welcomed his input. Below is the first of two articles from Patrick; the second will appear tomorrow here on Barista Magazine’s blog.
Coffee Leaf Rust Recovery: A 2- to 5- Year Process?
By Patrick Hughes
As I am sure you have heard, coffee-leaf rust (CLR) is a huge problem right now for Latin American coffee growers. The ICO estimates losses of $500 million this year in Latin American countries, and many have declared states of emergency. However, many reports say that it will only get worse. IHCAFE, the Honduran Coffee Institute, estimates that losses will double next year; the ICO estimates that 50% of plants will be affected this coming year; and the minister of agriculture of Guatemala predicts that it will take 15 years to return to pre-rust production levels.
But, most reports don’t explain why this will be the case. Upon first reading these reports, this phenomenon seemed counter-intuitive to me—the rust affects leaves of a coffee plant, which in turn affects the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and produce coffee. But those leaves are shed and re-grown yearly. Aside from re-contamination, how could harvests be worse this coming year? How could it take 15 years for farms to fully recover? After spending time on different farms and talking to farmers about the issues they face today, I want to develop some of the long-term impacts that CLR can have.
Long-term damage to plants
First, CLR directly affects coffee leaves, but the damage it causes can spread through the plant. In my time visiting farms, I have seen four basic cases:
In the worst case scenario, the lack of nutrients killed the plant. This is most common in plants that had large potential harvests, which caused them to leach nutrients from their stem and roots in an attempt to ripen the coffee on its branches. In this scenario, the plant must be uprooted and new seedlings planted. These new plants will not produce a harvest for three years, and may not reach pre-damaged levels of production for four to five years.
In the next case, plants sustained damage to the point where they lost their productive capabilities, but did not die. This is most common in older plants which were not properly pruned prior to being infected by CLR. In this case, the plant must be stumped (cut down leaving only a stump, from which new vertical shoots will sprout) and allowed to re-grow. A plant in this scenario will not have any harvest this year, and will slowly grow its productive abilities to pre-damaged levels as the new plant grows over the next two to four years.
In the third case, plants sustained significant damage, but retained some productive capabilities. These plants lost a large portion of their leaves, and a lack of nutrients caused some branches to die, even though the plant still lives.
A plant in this scenario will have new growth this year on its lateral branches. However, coffee cherries only form on year-old growth, meaning they will harvest between 10-50% of last year’s harvest in the current year. Next year, they will have a slightly below average harvest. And the following year they will begin to produce as before being affected by CLR.
In the final and best case, plants sustained little to no damage from CLR. This means that either a farmer is keeping up with preventative care or, more likely, the plants are of a rust-resistant variety such as Lempira, which is common in Honduras. These plants were minimally damaged, didn’t lose many leaves to the disease, and will produce full harvests in the coming year.
Most farms that I have seen include plants from all four cases, and treatment will need to be tailored to each plant for full harvest recovery. This means different pruning, fertilization, and preventative care for each of the plants (around 2,500 plants per acre).
All of the recovery timeframes above assume that farmers are well trained to treat their fields and prevent CLR damage in the coming year, which is far from true. Many farmers have gained little knowledge over the last year about CLR prevention, and even less about field recovery. Because of a lack of proper training, many farmers have chosen to uproot their entire fields and plant rust-resistant coffee varieties. These varieties generally require more nutrition, since they were developed to be fast growing and high yielding. If farmers do not have access to steady income or credit, these plants have a high risk of falling into disrepair and producing little to no harvest when they have reached a productive age. This leads into a few more factors that affect the recovery of damaged fields.
Off-farm factors to recovery
Beyond the agricultural aspect of farm recovery, there is an off-farm factor that will severely slow the recovery process for farmers affected by CLR: lack of money. Most coffee farmers have little off-farm income. As they go through the recovery process on their field, they will face several years of lower incomes, limiting the resources that they have to put into the recovery process.
Additionally, many farmers previously financed the purchase of fertilizer, payment of workers, and household expenses through banks and coffee buyers. Due to high default rates this past year and the increased risk faced by potential lenders, many banks and coffee buyers are severely limiting the amount of financing they will give this coming year. Without the money that they need, many farmers will be forced to recover small portions of their field; extending the time it will take them to return to previous production levels.
There is no easy solution to the fact that farmers in Latin America will face at least two to five years of recovery time from this year’s coffee leaf rust attack. However, considering the long-term damage that plants sustained and the financial constraints that farmers will face, Guatemala’s minister of agriculture may be correct in his prediction that it will take 15 years to recover from coffee leaf rust.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick Hughes co-founded Union MicroFinanza, a non-profit working with farmers in La Union, Honduras, in 2009. Unión MicroFinanza’s mission is to improve the economic capacities of impoverished rural communities by developing and applying the most advanced procedures and technology in microfinance. You can follow Patrick and Unión MicroFinanza online on Patrick’s blog.