I really didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived in Guatemala a couple weeks back. Much of the attention of the producers is primarily focused on the growing epidemic of ‘coffee leaf rust’ or simply ‘Roya’. Roya is a fungus that develops at the bottom of the coffee tree leaves and transforms the color of the leaves.
The fungus attaches itself to the bottom of the leaf and enters the plant through the stomata, blocking the exchange of gases and causing the leaves of the coffee trees to fall off shortly afterward. We all remember from biology class that without leaves, photosynthesis does not occur, and no photosynthesis means no new production. Roya fungus is always present, but producers are now dealing with an unprecedented epidemic. The causes of this epidemic are large and complex … and this may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Since the mid-80s in Guatemala, much of the coffee production has shifted from the large producer to a diversity of more small producers. The statistics I was given were that 20 years ago, 20% of the coffee producers produced roughly 80% of the coffee in Guatemala. Since then, there has been inverse shift to 80% of the coffee coming from smaller producers. I just want to go on the record saying that I do not have any concrete data for those figures, but these were numbers I got from two different exporters. So what does this mean? Much of the small producers simply do not have the resources to fight against Roya. There are copper-based fungicides and other chemicals (‘alta-diez’ and ‘alta-cien’) which help fight the rust problem; often too costly for smaller producers. I speculate that governments in Central America will start subsidizing fungicides for smaller producers.
So what’s going to happen now?
Producers simply have two choices: 1. They can take a hit from this year’s harvest (and presumably next harvest, too) and formulate a crop diversification plan. Or 2. They can plant sub-par varieties (such as Castillo, Sachimor, Catimor, etc.) and drive down the cup quality, while maintaining production numbers. With the market fluctuating like it has been, this can be a very difficult decision. I spoke with a number of our producers that have decided against planting lower quality producing coffee trees. Larger producers will (and should) start diversifying their crops. Better yielding plants, such as rubber, macadamia nuts, and sugar cane will eventually start replacing lower grown coffee. These crops can help fight against the devastation of coffee leaf rust and stabilize the ever-changing commodity market.
How does this affect our customers?
Coffee production is going to drop significantly. That is an undeniable fact. What we will end up seeing is higher prices in the form of price differentials, not so much from the commodity market. However, I don’t think we will see a significant drop in cup quality. The producers that we work with are all committed to their products; as is Metropolis. Despite the destruction caused by Roya, I’m confident that it will be an excellent season for Central American coffees!
For More Information:
For further exploration into Roya, Emma Bladyka (Science Manager of the SCAA) has written a great little piece about the history and science of the fungus.