Planning for the worst in the world’s coffee origins

What state will the world’s coffee plantations be in 10, 20 or 50 years from now? Drought stricken? Disease riddled? Or simply blossoming? Luis Fernando Samper, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), says there’s no point in waiting for the worst case scenario. It’s a matter of acting now or suffering the consequences. “They (the farmers) are already experiencing problems in the field, and many of them had coffee leaf rust attacks that almost destroyed their livelihoods. We are all learning and investing for the future,” Samper says. “We have to prepare for the worst case scenario. That means we have to offer as much assistance to plantations as possible and it’s exactly what we’re doing.” In early 2012, the FNC, an organisation representing over 563,000 small coffee growers; and Cenicafé, the FNC’s National Coffee Research Centre, announced their plans to prepare for a worst case scenario that could effect Colombian coffee farms over the next 20 to 30 years. According to Cenicafé, farmers risk seeing excessive levels of rainfall, reduced sunshine, low temperatures, high humidity and a high intensity and frequency of La Niña events. La Niña is the extensive cooling of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. It is the sister event to El Niño, the unusual warming of ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. La Niña conditions in Colombia and much of Central America can increase the incidence and severity of diseases such as rust leaf. Excess moisture in the soil can cause yellow colouring of leaves and roots, possibility killing the plants. “Climate change is not just a single thing, it can be many things in different regions,” Samper says. “There is not just one single solution to all coffee growers. People assume [climate change] means warmer and drier weather conditions, but it’s not necessarily the case in the tropics.” Colombia, the world’s second largest producer of Arabica coffee beans, is the coffee growing region most at risk of La Niña because of its varying climatic zones and close proximity to the equator. Colombian regions most at risk of La Niña are between 3 to 7 degrees north latitude, altitudes between 1200 metres and 1800 metres, temperatures over 21.5 degrees  Celsius and areas that receive on average 2500 millimetres of annual rainfall. Samper says Colombian coffee farmers are asking for help to adapt to the difficulties they are currently facing. In response, the FNC are working to turn Colombian coffee agriculture into a ‘climate smart activity’. “Because of noticeable climate changes in Colombia, we (FNC) came up with the concept of more active climate solutions that would help farmers adapt to the changing conditions and conserve their plantations,” Samper says. According to a report by Cenicafé in 2011, average rainfall in Colombian coffee growing regions was 35 per cent above the historical average, which has contributed to a 44 per cent increase in rust disease. The heavy rainfall has weakened the flowering of coffee plantations, eroded coffee soils and compromised roads. The production harvest declined by 20 per cent between March 2011 and February 2012 to 7.2 million 60-kilogram bags of green Arabica coffee compared to 9.3 million bags in the same period a year prior. To help prepare coffee growers for climate change, the FNC has started planting resistant coffee varietals. The rust-resistant Castillo and its seven regional strains developed by Cenicafé are replacing Caturra and Colombia varietals. In 2011, 170,000 hectares of coffee trees were replanted with rust and pest-resistant trees, an action Samper describes as “no small feat”.  “That’s an all-time record for us that shows how dedicated we are to investing in our plantations,” he says. “Without support, [the farmers] would not have the capacity to renovate or plant new trees, that’s for sure.” The Castillo tree also increases productivity by 17 per cent compared to Caturra and Colombia varieties. Up to 9500 Castillo trees can be planted per hectare in certain areas. Its large bean size, short stature and greater density will keep crops profitable and competitive. “Focusing on regional solutions such as replanting resistant Arabica varieties has been a large and important project here in Colombia,” Samper says. “Plant arrangement is vitally important to maximising productivity, it’s all about control.” Samper says coffee areas with plants over nine years of age must be renewed with resistant varieties and adequate crop density. According to a Cenicafé report, the portion of the 450,000 hectares renewed since 2008 will help increase production to expected levels nearing 14 million bags in 2014.  The preservation of coffee farms attacked by rust is an expensive venture. Samper says in 2011 the FNC supported farmers with about US$25 million of fertiliser and fungus control.“The biggest cost, which we are currently investing in, is renovating coffee trees with rust resistant varieties,” Samper says. He notes the FNC plans to continue the rapid rate of replanting for the next few years. The cost for an individual farmer to renovate a hectare is around US$3400. Last year the FNC helped finance US$400 million with the help of local banks and Colombia’s government. Samper says these are significant amounts that people often overlook. “The loss of productivity, however, far outweighs the cost of altering systems,” he says. Preserving the health of plants from pests remains a cultivation challenge to many Colombian coffee farmers. As temperatures change, so too will the incidence of diseases such coffee leaf rust and coffee berry borer. Replanting resistant varieties and rust control through fumigations is one way to eliminate rust. To tackle berry borer, the FNC suggests the process of ReRe, harvesting the coffee as soon as it’s ripe and not leaving overripe and dry beans on the tree or ground to prevent the spread of berry borer. Samper notes that managing weeds without herbicides will allow for a sustainable soil resource and will soften the negative impact of large bouts of rain and soil erosion. According to Cenicafé, nearly half of Colombian coffee agriculture is under some degree of shade. This is a necessary procedure for the protection and conservation of humidity because of rain cycles followed by long dry spells. Samper says that high shade density can prevent crops from achieving maximum productivity under these conditions. He says sufficient shade handling is the key to maximising productivity. Seventy shade trees per hectare and adequate handling through regulation and pruning can produce a productive crop. Samper adds that appropriate coffee nurturing with the use of fertiliser at the right time is also essential for productivity. In an editorial released on the Café de Colombia website ahead of the 76th National Congress of Colombian Coffee Growers in 2011, Chief Executive, Luis Munoz Ortega, noted a loss of nearly 100 days worth of sunlight in a year, equivalent to 20 to 30 per cent less solar energy needed for photosynthesis. In data provided to the National Congress, research showed the temperature on average dropped 0.8 degrees. “This might not be much in human temperature, but for a coffee tree, it’s huge,” Samper says. “The number of sun hours has dropped 15 per cent, trees have less solar energy and less yield as a result.” To continue monitoring the changing climate patterns and coffee production on farms, the FNC’s Extension Service (ES) supports coffee producers with social, economic, technical and environmental programs. This service plays a large part in educating farmers and giving early warning signs about changing climate changes in different regions. The ES carries out follow-ups for at least 2500 plantation plots in Colombia and educates producers about the effects of rust and berry borer. Samper says early warning about the impact of climate change is the most powerful action they can take, allowing the FNC to design controls for the correct handling of plagues and diseases and provide recommendations to producers. “We are educating growers and making available digital devices so that we can deliver information,” Samper says. He notes the biggest challenge in implementing climate solutions is accessing up-to-date data relevant to different regions, processing it and making it available to growers in a usable form according to their circumstances. “These are challenges as well as opportunities to collaborate with new partners in a very significant endeavour,” Samper says. Scientific research focused on climate change remains one of the most powerful methods of controlling patterns that could affect the productivity of Colombian coffee farmers. To assist with monitoring, the FNC has provided farmers with 4000 tablet PCs to record local climate information, input costs and other variables that would help measure their effectiveness, productivity and sustainability indications such as rainfall patterns and harvest days. Samper says while the solutions will take time, many producers have shown their enthusiasm by taking computer classes so they are equipped to use the technology provided. “Connecting with farmers is vital to the success of the solutions and establishing relationships will help us support them in the long run,” Samper says. In addition to the web connected PC tablets, sixty computer centres have been set up in Colombian towns, providing internet and assisting farmers to use these new technological methods. A number of Cenicafé’s meteorological stations are spread across Colombian coffee growing regions to focus on the dynamics of weather factors. “We are investing an additional US$3.4 million dollars in having additional meteorological stations and connecting them in line so that information can be processed faster,” Samper says. While Samper notes the new climate initiatives will provide some reassurance for farmers, he says the solutions won’t fix the problems of all Colombian coffee growing communities yet alone coffee origins the world-over. However, he’s confident the group is making a good start. “We believe we will have better informed and productive coffee growers whose plantations will be using up-to-date data so that adequate and on-time measures can be taken on fertility, inputs, plagues and diseases,” he says. “We do have the ability to improve the standard of living and improve the lives of farmers and their families. At the end of the day we need to do whatever we can to assist our coffee growers.” Regardless of timeline, Samper says the important thing is that they’ve already started planning ahead for a variable climate in the future. “We are making changes to ensure we sustain the future of professional coffee growers,” Samper says. “One of the most important things is that we have the infrastructure to make things work and that we can advise coffee growers what they can and should be doing. At the end of the day, it’s a puzzle that has to be solved.”

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