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A letter from Central America #2 : Roya and the future of coffee growing in the region

In January our co-founder and coffee buyer Steve Simmons travelled through Central America to forge new and closer relationships with the region's coffee farmers. In this article Steve reflects on his conversations with coffee growers about the legacy of the recent outbreak of Roya throughout the region.

"Travelling throughout the coffee growing regions of Central America we encountered varied levels of optimism about the future. Most of the coffee farmers we visited talked openly about the impact of Roya, the fungal leaf rust disease that has been affecting production levels throughout the region. 

A fungal disease that destroys foliage on coffee plants and cripples fruit production, the reasons for the rapid spread of Roya in the region remain somewhat of a mystery. Some researchers and farmers theorise that changes in rainfall levels and temperatures at particular times in the year, possibly as a result of climate change, are the major factors. While Roya has been present in the Americas for over 40 years, with a long history in many other growing regions around the world, the most recent outbreak has been particularly devastating for some regions. El Salvador is one of the hardest hit, while in other countries, coffee growers sense that they are through the worst. 

In a perfect storm of events, El Salvador appears to be at the bottom of the curve.  Farmers admit that response to Roya has been sluggish, which has allowed it to take hold and reduce production to a mere 800,000 (60kg) bags.  Ten years ago El Salvador produced between 3 and 5 million bags.  Unfortunately this, coupled with a recent change in government who are unwilling to invest more resources in coffee research and disease prevention means that the recovery may take a while.  We toured Procafe, a government funded research facility facing uncertain financial times, and observed their experiments in hybrid varietals resistant to disease. Quality coffee is still available in El Salvador, but is perhaps a little harder to find. 

In Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica the effect of Roya has been more successfully contained.  Farmers in these nations have worked together at local, regional and national levels to proactively remove diseased plants and employ selective spraying.  This strategy appears to have worked. Production levels show signs of returning to earlier levels and farmers across Panama and Guatemala were positive about the future - some predicting in excess of a 30% increase in the 2014/15 harvest yield.

While Panama has been less affected by Roya, the country has experienced significantly inflated land values that have tempered growth in coffee production.  Nonetheless, Panamanian coffee farmers are making good incomes on the back of the nation’s reputation for high quality, boutique coffee. The country is stable and safe, creating an environment where farmers can communicate, share ideas and easily share their passion with roasters and the wider industry.

Costa Rican farmers have also been proactive in fighting the disease – but now find themselves under pressure from other factors as well. Residential development and urban sprawl is, particularly in areas around San Jose, slowly swallowing land that has traditionally been used for coffee plantation. Nowhere was this change better exemplified then at Tres Rios. Where once the beneficio (processing plant) was surrounded by coffee estates, these have now been replaced by buildings and roads, resulting in a juxtaposition of rural and urban infrastructure.  It is quite amazing to drive 5 minutes down the road and be in the middle of a coffee plantation!

According to our host, Gonzalo (himself a farmer with a plantation hosting over 500 varietals of coffee!), many farmers have sold land or chosen to pursue interests other than coffee. Production in Costa Rica is half of its peak in the 1990s and 2000s. While it can no longer be assumed that the younger generation will automatically take over the family business, an enthusiastic portion are pursuing agronomy studies and bringing new skills to the family farm. This was perfectly exemplified at Tres Hermanos, where the family has established their own micro-mill and is now processing their own coffee cherry, rather than simply selling the picked fruit to a separate mill. This added level of production at the farm ensures better value for farmers and a more traceable product for roasters.

Despite the lingering effects of Roya, across all 4 countries we visited coffee farmers are showing an enthusiasm for experimentation with new varietals and processing methods with a view to creating higher quality, more stable production. Encouragingly, farmers and researchers are enthusiastic and forward thinking in developing solutions to disease, climate change, and production to meet an increased demand for the best possible cup. All of which bodes well for us, the humble coffee drinker."

- Steve Simmons

Stay tuned for more from Steve about his trip throughout the region - including an upcoming feature about Santa Felisa Estate in Guatemala. We will be serving a number of exciting coffees from Santa Felisa in the coming weeks including a Geisha varietal microlot. 

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