Colombia: Perking up coffee production
Coffee producers in Colombia are seeing increasing profits as their product garners higher prices on international markets, but the threat of another rainy season threatens to put a damper on 2012 production levels.
There’s both good news and bad news when it comes to Colombia’s 2011 coffee figures, which were recently revealed by the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC). The good news is that coffee growers in the region experienced a 13% increase in income over 2010, primarily due to significant increases in the international price of coffee.
One of the main reasons coffee is fetching high prices on international markets, however, is a decrease in supply. Production in Colombia fell by 12% last year, from 8.92m, 60-kg sacks in 2010 to a little more than 7.8m bags in 2011, a figure that lags behind the FNC’s end-of-year projection of 8m, 60-kg sacks.
This decrease is primarily attributed to the heavy rains Colombia has experienced over the past two years. The 2011 rainy season, which normally runs from April to November, was deemed to be one of the worst in Colombia’s history, resulting in severe flooding and mudslides throughout the country.
These unusually heavy downpours are believed to be the product of La Niña – a term used to describe a climate pattern that includes lower than normal temperatures over the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean. La Niña normally affects Colombia once every five to six years, though it has done so more frequently in recent history.
Meteorologists and other scientists have linked La Niña’s increased severity to climate change, which is also believed to be the cause of the increased temperatures and humidity that have further damaged Colombia’s coffee crops.
The New York Times reported that temperatures in Colombia’s coffee growing regions have increased by one degree in the past 30 years, and even doubled in some areas. While a change of one degree may seem minor, it can drastically impact the coffee plant, which requires crisp, cool air to grow – a defining characteristic of Colombia’s Andean mountain ranges until recently.
Colombia’s declining coffee production is also the result of a poorly timed crop renewal programme. Since 2009, Colombia’s coffee growers have been replacing weaker varieties of the plant with hardier versions, which are meant to withstand plant diseases that occur in higher temperatures and humidity. In 2009, 70,000 of the country’s 900,000 ha of coffee were replaced and 117,000 ha were replaced in 2011.
While the aim of this programme is to develop long-term sustainability, initially these new plants will not produce for a period of two to three years. The new 2009 crops began production last year, while the new crops planted in 2011 are not likely to be ready before 2014.
According to Peter Baker, a senior scientist and coffee expert at CABI, a UK-based agricultural research group, “Colombia embarked upon a major renewal plan at what turned out to be a bad time. It was bad luck. No one could have predicted this.”
“Diseases such as coffee rust, a fungus that kills the plant, were not common for many years, so growers chose to cultivate varieties that are more susceptible to the disease but believed to have superior taste,” Baker told OBG. “Many farmers decided to please their roasters instead of heeding the FNC’s warnings.”
While organisations such as the FNC and CABI are looking for ways to sustain Colombia’s coffee production into the future, at least for the moment coffee growers can take comfort in the commodity’s international value. The price of coffee per pound is up 75% over last year, according to the International Coffee Organisation.
Going forward, in addition to pushing for hardier bean varieties, the FNC also seeks to emphasise Colombia’s potential as a producer of high-quality, specialty coffees. In a recent statement to local press, FNC’s manager, Luis Genaro Muñoz, highlighted rising international demand for the specialty coffee that currently makes up 50% of Colombia’s total coffee exports.
Colombia’s coffee growers seem determined to keep pace with demand by at least attaining the production levels of their pre-2009 glory days. However, they are being realistic about the possibilities.
Muñoz added that even with more favourable weather conditions, he does not expect production to increase dramatically over the next year. For the moment, Colombian coffee producers can only hope to maintain the status quo as they anxiously await the start of the 2012 rainy season.