UPDATE May 19th, 2014:

Many news sites have recently picked up the story of the coffee rust epidemic. To help our customers to better understand what this means, we are re-posting Jeff’s Trip Report from El Salvador, originally published on February 20th, 2014.
  

San Salvador, El Salvador

As always, when I arrived in El Salvador, the weather was perfect. Temperatures were in the mid-70s with a slight breeze; a nice time to source coffee in mid-January when the temperatures are generally below freezing in Kansas. I was feeling good, embracing a positive attitude for greeting my friends and coffee producers in this small Central American country. I had high hopes our Direct Trade Farms hadn’t suffered too much with the roya outbreak of 2012. But it didn’t take long to learn it wasn’t going to be a joyful trip this year.

Our producers are experiencing anywhere from 40-70% loss of crop due to roya in 2014. Most will survive the loss, but it will hurt.

 

What is Roya?

from Wikipedia

Hemileia vastatrix is a fungus of the order Puccinilaes (Previously also known as Uredinales) that causes coffee rust, a disease that is devastating to coffee plantations. Coffee serves as the obligate host of coffee rust, that is, the rust must have access to and come into physical contact with coffee (Coffea arabica) in order to survive. First discovered in Kenya in the mid 1800’s, the disease has now spread world wide.

 

Finca Las Mercedes

Lucia observes the roya at Finca Las Mercedes

Lucia observes the roya at Finca Las Mercedes

Fortunately, our producers have responded aggressively to the crisis and are cutting trees that can’t be saved. At Las Mercedes they were in the early stages of renovation of the farm and had thousands of seedlings ready to be planted. This helped keep the damage caused by roya to a minimum as they cut, replaced, and treated new trees months before harvest. They are also aggressively diversifying their crop with multiple coffee varieties that are more resistant to roya.

The seedlings at Finca Las Mercedes

The seedlings at Finca Las Mercedes

To complicate the year for Las Mercedes, volcano San Miguel erupted in late December and again in early January, leaving a coating of ash on parts of the farm. For precaution, Lucia Ortiz, operating family member of the farm, is harvesting and then pre-washing all coffee cherry before it is processed or depulped. With these measures and more, she limited the damage to roughly 40% of the harvest being lost.

Volcanic ash on the trees at Finca Las Mercedes

Volcanic ash on the trees at Finca Las Mercedes

On a positive note, typically the year following a stressful event like roya, the trees respond by absorbing nutrients and producing a high-quality cup profile. Even as the volume will be down, I anticipate an excellent quality crop.

 

Las Brumas COE Winner #1 2013

Las Brumas farm, owned by Ernesto Menendez, is very high in the Apaneca llamatepec Mountain range and wasn’t badly affected by roya last year. This year the fungus seems to have traveled with the wind and made its way to the higher elevations. Fortunately Ernesto was ready and had treated his farm months before the harvest to prevent extensive damage. We anticipate another quality cup profile from Ernesto this year after a promising early harvest cupping.

Roya at Finca Las Brumas

Roya at Finca Las Brumas

Harvest with a view of the volcano at Finca Las Brumas

Harvest with a view of the volcano at Finca Las Brumas

 

Finca Los Planes

Finca Los Planes was hit hard, but again, not as bad as it could have been. Most of the damage was contained to the bourbon variety section of the farm as the trees were old and the roya fungus hits hardest on older trees.

Roya at Finca Los Planes

Roya at Finca Los Planes

Sergio is working aggressively with his staff to harvest the coffee so he can begin another round of pruning trees and treatment as needed following harvest. That will allow for next years harvest to rebound.

Sergio and Isabel observe the harvest at Finca Los Planes

Sergio and Isabel observe the harvest at Finca Los Planes

The treatment for roya is generally made using one of four chemicals 1. Alto 2. Opera 3. Opus  4. Amistar  These treatments have shown effectiveness at killing or controlling the fungus. Treatment cannot be done during harvest for fear of contaminating trees and perhaps most importantly the coffee cherries. All treatments are done on the farms months before harvest is ever started. Once harvest has started, you can only watch as the roya progresses and be prepared to act when harvest is concluded.

At lower elevations, cutting shade and diversifying trees is helpful. At higher elevations, where it is cooler, shade is important to keep temperatures down during the heat of the day.

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As an overall evaluation for our producers in Central America, I’d say they were not lucky, but rather smart and prepared to act to avoid the worst of the crisis. Which is why we work with this select group of producers. They are smart, skilled farmers and love what they do. When we offer you, our clients and friends, an outstanding coffee, it is done with a tremendous amount of work and love with care for the farm, the family, the environment and the people. No decision is taken lightly. These are trying times for producers, but even in these times, they are optimistic and positive and look forward to the changes that this crisis will bring. The next 2-3 years should be full of excitement to sample new varieties of coffee trees and growing and pruning methods. And that is what makes a good farmer tick – the challenge.