Market Reports

Is the Honduran coffee boom over?

It was all going so well for the Honduran coffee industry. After the last record harvest, which surpassed even the most conservative forecasts, some analysts had started suggesting the country could hit 6 or even 6.5 million bags in the 2012-13 crop year, up from 5.5 million in 2011-12. Although a little too optimistic, considering the fact that many new planted areas weren’t set to start production, it shows the hope seen in this Central American nation. Then came rust leaf disease, which hit Central America this year with an estimated half a billion dollars in revenue loss, and around 441,000 direct job losses. Honduras, sadly, has not been spared. The country has been hit just as hard as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, which have borne the brunt of the onslaught. “We don’t believe that exports in the 2012-13 harvest will reach more than 4.2 – 4.4 million bags because of rust, so we are talking about a significant impact on our production,” Victor Molina, General Manager of the official Honduran Coffee Institute (Ihcafe) tells Global Coffee Review. Ihcafe had initially forecast another bumper crop of 5 – 5.5 million bags, with the potential for up to 5.7 million bags. These latest figures, therefor, are by all counts disappointing. Production plans of 6 – 7 million bags by the 2014-15 harvest are today nothing but a faint dream. Reports from across Central America confirm the dire outlook will likely persist for at least two, perhaps four, years. Both established and new producers in Honduras’ coffee sector are counting their losses. “It’s not just the old areas that have been hard hit, but a lot of the new areas have also been hit, even if not as severely,” says Juan Jose Osorto. A former Manager of Ihcafe, Osorto worked with the government’s research institute back in the 1960s when Honduras first started to study rust disease and how to control it. “Of course the farms which have new coffee are generally better maintained, and if the plant is in a better state and with adequate levels of nutrition, it will also do better against rust,” he says. “But many of the people who got into coffee planted the old varieties like Catuai and Caturra. They have a better cupping profile but are not resistant to rust.” Honduras currently has around 308,000 hectares of coffee for the 2012-13 crop year, of which 275,000 hectares are in production, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This was up from 285,000 hectares in 2011-12, when 255,000 hectares were in production. Overall, this represents an increase of 37,000 hectares of new coffee in the past five years. Ihcafe puts the production area a little lower, at 272,000 hectares. This includes 15,000 hectares of traditional land cultivated by small coffee growers that has been fully renovated and replanted thanks to a government-financed renovation program. The project was launched in 2010, and is looking to renovate 50,000 hectares by 2020. The Honduran government has been financing annual replanting of 5000 hectares, boosting tree density to at least 5000 trees per hectare from an average of 1500 in areas not renovated, according to Ihcafe. A decade ago, Honduras already had around 240,000 hectares of land cultivated with coffee, according to Ihcafe, which attributes the main rise in production to improved yields. Honduran coffee growers have gradually brought productivity up to an average 19 – 20 bags per hectare in the 2011-12 cycle, up from 8 – 9 bags in 2005-06, according to Mario Ordonez, Technical Manager at Ihcafe. Visible industry interest is helping the country’s producers stay on track. For 10 years, the country has had an intensive focus on specialty coffee and Honduras has established itself as a reliable source of mild washed Arabica in the wake of the Colombia production crisis. In the face of the rust attack, this has led to many private companies now coming to Honduras’ rescue. “As with many crises, there is lots of information available about Roya [coffee leaf rust disease], but it’s difficult for farmers to discern what is really useful,” says David Griswold, CEO of Portland-based coffee importers Sustainable Harvest. Last month, the company launched a disaster relief effort to help organic coffee farmers in Latin America, with a major part of the program concentrated in Honduras. Other companies like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cafe Moto, Cafe Mystique, Dillanos and the Coffee Trust foundation have also announced projects in Honduras. “Our goal with the Roya Recovery Project is to work with the industry to help farmers make well-informed decisions so they recover as quickly as possible from the devastation,” says Griswold. The Rust Recovery Project is launching a series of tools and training manuals on best practices for certified organic farmers. These farmers are posed with a special challenge, as they can’t use chemicals and have been the most exposed to the infestation and spread of coffee leaf rust. Industry officials like Osorto agree that organic farmers have by far been the hardest hit. “All the coffee farmers here are very concerned, but the organic farmers really don’t know what to do,” says Osorto, who is a coffee producer himself. “They have mostly old coffee and old varieties that should have been replanted a long time ago which have no resistance level to rust.” With the 2012-13 coffee crop in Honduras already down at least 1 million bags, and the impact of rust expected to continue to worsen in the next harvest, farmers and authorities are working on bringing the outbreak under control. The outlook for Honduran growers, however, may be a little better than for most Central American growers. Honduran coffee growers can retain some hope for a more speedy recovery process than in the rest of Central America thanks to the government’s proactive role in the country’s coffee industry in the past five years. As a result, coffee losses may be brought under control in Honduras more quickly than in other countries. “People are getting desperate. Some are trying to sell their farms both because of the rust issue as well as the low prices that don’t show any signs of improving,” says Osorto. “We still do have some areas left that will start to enter production in the next few years. In my opinion we should still be able to get a harvest of about 4.6 million bags next year.”

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend