I’ve just spent a week traveling in parts of Central America, visiting coffee farmers just as the coffee harvest starts in earnest in the high grown, quality producing areas. The season will continue until around February or March and some of the very best lots I’ll be picking up for Artisan Roast will be harvested in these latter months. It takes a couple of months to process and cure coffee before shipping so these purchases will arrive in Edinburgh come May or June.
Visiting farms a good six months before we’ll be roasting the coffee in Scotland might seem a bit strange, but it’s a great time to talk to farmers about their coming crop and to hear what their concerns are at the minute. Unusually high on the agenda for the farmers during my trip, and one of the topics that will come up a lot in 2013 is Hemileia vastatrix. It’s more commonly called coffee leaf rust or ‘Roya in Spanish speaking coffee producing countries and is one of coffee farmer’s biggest headaches. Basically, it’s a generic term for a group of around forty fungi that produces yellowy orange spores on the underside of leaves. This eventually makes the tree look rusty (hence the name) and once it sets in the plants defoliate and suffer dieback. The effects roll on for a couple of years or more because plants without leaves aren’t as healthy and don’t crop the following year anywhere near their potential.
Moisture is the biggest factor in leaf rust spread, followed closely by temperature. In the past many farmers in Latin America that grew high grown speciality coffee were mostly immune to the devastation leaf rust can cause because the temperature range needed for the fungus to thrive weren’t maintained. The fact that this is not the case now has led many commentators to take this as a good indicator that global warming is happening. It’s not uncommon to spot it on a farm trip but this year it’s different in severity and I was very surprised at how many people were talking about it, and also how widespread the impact is likely to be. Reports out of Guatemala are suggesting up to 50% of areas are affected and that El Salvador is likely to be suffering at least as much if not more. In Nicaragua I saw mixed amounts and I think the figure will sadly be not far behind that of its neighbours come the end of the season. It is hard to pin an exact number on what these accumulated losses will be, so I will hazard a ranged guess of between two and four million bags for the region.
Crucially for farmers the impact of roya stretches beyond a single season because trees that are badly affected don’t fully flower for the next coffee crop – the plants put their energies into survival rather than reproduction. This means that we could be entering a period of several years where the repercussions will be felt widely through Central America. If the damage is as wide as many expect whole economies will suffer as a result. Coffee is important to many of the countries through the region because it is a dollar earning export. Internally, it helps to financially sustain remote agricultural areas in many ways, other industries and services rely on a healthy coffee sector to sustain themselves, and for the often overlooked large migratory workforce of coffee pickers that works through Central America work will be very sparse for some time.
For Artisan Roast we’ll maybe paying a little more than usual for great coffees from the region because the farmers have to increase their costs to offset yield loss and apply more pesticides to prevent leaf rust taking hold of their farms – poorer farmers will be hit hardest by leaf rust because they can least afford the pesticide treatments necessary. This is the nature of sustainable direct relationships and comes at a time when the wider NY coffee commodity market is heading towards three year lows, setting a pricing level at a polar opposite to what the farmers hit by leaf rust need. For me this pricing disparity is a real reminder that a lot of the farmers who grow and process speciality coffee exist completely outside the structure of macro- economic coffee factors. It shows the true value of face to face discussion and negotiation, part of the reason I was travelling in December. I looked at securing coffee from Guatemala, and Nicaragua and one part of the trip I’d like to mention is that spent around the town of Dipilto right up in the north of Nicaragua in the region of Nuevo Segovia. The farmers around this area produce some of the country’s most highly regarded coffees. Consistently stunning they always place high in the Cup of Excellence programme for Nicaragua. Most commonly farms are small and grow the very contrasting Caturra and Maragogype varieties under the shade of indigenous trees. Processing varies from farm to farm but the result is often one of clarity, sparkling complex acidity and a veritable fruit bowl of flavours. I’ve long been a fan of these under recognised coffees and it was a pleasure, as ever, to spend time with the people who grow them. Once these lots are picked, processed and cupped I’ll let you know a bit more about the people, their farms and their methods for growing tasty coffee. For now, here's a few photos from the trip.
Ripening Caturra at Bella Aurora...
...and Ripe Caturra at Bella Aurora
Misael With His Pulper and Demonstrating Quality Control at La Divina Providencia