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Originally published May 24, 2014 at 8:03 PM | Page modified May 25, 2014 at 12:53 PM

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Local firm’s coffee farm struggles to fend off fungus

Central America’s coffee production is being decimated by a fungus called roya. Experts say the crisis, exacerbated by climate change, poverty and underinvestment, could be the first of many pinching the world’s java supplies at a time of growing demand.

Seattle Times business reporter

What is roya?

Roya, or coffee rust, is the result of a fungus that attacks leaves and creates bright yellow and orange spots. As afflicted leaves fall, coffee bean production suffers and the plant can die. The fungus, Hemileia vastratix, thrives in Central America amid changing weather patterns.

The roya zone

Click to see full graphic | Central American countries have seen their coffee crop plummet as a result of roya, a fungus that's deadly to the coffee plant and that thrives amic changing climate patterns in the region.

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TARRAZÚ, Costa Rica — The Hacienda La Minita coffee plantation has it all: world-famous beans, a commanding view of this tropical highland valley, and the careful attentions of a deep-pocketed owner, Renton-based specialty coffee roaster Distant Lands.

But although it is one of the best-run farms in Costa Rica, it hasn’t entirely fought off roya, a parasitic fungus that’s wreaking havoc on Central America’s coffee crop.

The disease was once a rarity in high-altitude areas like Tarrazú. But a changing climate and new varieties of the fungus have opened the door to the scourge here. It coats leaves with an orange-colored powder.

Skeletal, roya-stricken trees stand not far from Tarrazú’s perfectly tended, Spanish-style villa, which houses visiting coffee buyers and dignitaries. Roya has claimed a fifth of the farm’s production, says Russ Kramer, president of the Distant Lands unit that oversees the farm.

“It’s amazing to see how destructive it is,” Kramer said.

But the damage is much worse elsewhere: Among Costa Rica’s mostly small coffee farms, a majority have been touched by the fungus, and some farmers report losing more than half of their crop. In poorer countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, the fungus has been even more devastating than in Costa Rica.

The roya crisis, experts say, lays bare the underlying fragility of the coffee supply chain, which is straining under the weight of climate change, poverty and a vulnerability to new diseases because most coffee trees in this region descend from a few trees brought from the Old World centuries ago.

Experts fear it could be the first of many crises to come, threatening supplies of quality coffee even as countries from Brazil to China brew more of the stuff.

“Roya is the canary in the coal mine,” said Willy Foote, CEO of Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund, at the recent Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)’s conference in Seattle.

The epidemic, despite raging for two years, has not hit large roasters such as Starbucks because it coincided with a global surplus of coffee production elsewhere, in places like Brazil and Southeast Asia. But its tremors are beginning to be felt in the coffee-obsessed Pacific Northwest, since it coincides with consumers’ increasing demand for a wide variety of flavors in their high-end coffee, as well as exotic beans sourced from unique regions.

Ironically, the same global coffee surplus that shielded large roasters made coffee so cheap that it undercut Central American farmers’ ability to combat the disease.

Prices have nearly doubled since the beginning of this year due to uncertainty about a drought in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of the commodity. But the hike came too late to avert roya’s woeful impact on many farmers and their workers.

A crippled crop

Hemileia vastatrix, as the coffee rust fungus is scientifically known, is not a new problem. It devastated Southeast Asian plantations in the 19th century. Since appearing in Central America in the 1970s, it had been kept in check with fungicides and other methods.

But the persistent bout that appeared in 2012 is unprecedented in the region. Experts say the culprits include climate change’s disruption of weather and rain patterns, as well as chronic underinvestment in renewing coffee plantations and in creating rust-resistant hybrids. Warmer weather and new varieties of the fungus also brought the disease to highland farms, which had to learn from scratch how to control it.

About 55 percent of Central America’s coffee-growing lands have been affected by rust. In the 2012-13 harvest, it claimed more than 19 percent of the region’s production, causing about $500 million worth of damage, says the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, an intergovernmental organization based in Costa Rica.

That harvest season, about 374,000 workers saw their livelihood taken away by the scourge, the organization said.

Extreme vigilance

Hacienda La Minita is one of Costa Rica’s most storied coffee farms. Its sought-after beans sell for about $5 a pound, compared with approximately $2 per pound for arabica coffee in commodity markets. That premium helps pay for worker housing as well as free, in-house medical and dental clinics, a rare perk in these mountains.

Coffee pickers lucky enough to get a gig there get paid about $3 per basket of coffee cherries, a third more than workers at neighboring properties and nearly double the minimum set by law.

So far La Minita has fared better than many neighbors — mostly thanks to extreme vigilance.

“It starts on the underside of the leaves, you can’t see it,” said Ricardo Herrera, the Costa Rica-based general manager of Distant Lands International. “To check well, one has to lift the leaves. One must be always peeking under the leaves, checking.” Herrera, who in December led a reporter through La Minita, said coffee rust is responsible for a 15 percent uptick in labor and fungicide costs.

The perpetual checking of hundreds of trees can’t stop. The alternative is dire: If nothing’s done about it, the fungus can turn a lush coffee tree and its precious load of coffee cherries into a drying husk in two weeks.

Small farmers have borne the brunt. Fabio Pérez, whose family owns a farm near the quaint mountain town of Atenas, in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, says production there plummeted by more than half because of the disease.

In the 2012-2013 harvest, the farm produced 160 bushels of coffee — and this year it yielded 60. “That’s where we felt the impact of roya,” he said.

Pérez expects to see a similar poor yield this year and next . Some farmers are replacing diseased trees with rust-resistant varieties, but renovation is too expensive for his family’s farm, he said.

Whether those trees are pruned or replaced, production won’t resume for a few years.

Production shortfalls from roya, mixed with two years of low prices, killed the hopes of many small producers and put a stop to investment, threatening future crops, said Roland Peters, head of Costa Rica’s Coffee Institute, which oversees the country’s coffee industry.

The fungus epidemic has added to the challenges that already strain Costa Rica’s coffee industry, such as urban sprawl and high labor costs compared with the nation’s less-developed neighbors.

“There’s disillusionment,” Peters said in an interview at the institute’s headquarters in downtown San José. “Producers are not motivated,” he said. To help farmers fight back, the Costa Rican government has made available a $40 million fund.

The thin months

Roya is having an enormous impact on coffee pickers, mostly migrant workers who are paid by the basket. The combination of rust and abnormal rain patterns means it takes more time to fill up a basket with prime coffee cherries.

Gerardo Dávila Salazar, a 25-year-old picker at La Minita, says that “when the harvest is good” and at its peak, he can pick up to 15 or 17 baskets per day — earning between $45 and $51 at La Minita salaries, an amount that well exceeds minimum wages for unskilled workers.

But in an interview in the midst of the harvest season last December, Dávila said he was picking only between three and four baskets a day.

The so-called “meses flacos,” or thin months of seasonal hunger that Central America’s coffee-farm workers tend to endure after harvest season, are extending from four months to “a period of nine months” as a result of roya’s impact, said David Piza, of Sustainable Harvest, an importer of high-quality coffee, speaking at the SCAA Symposium in April.

Fragile networks

Roya is also fraying the supply chain carefully built by some specialty roasters — a bad thing at a time coffee drinkers are becoming more discerning and demanding a wider variety of beans, sometimes from exotic, single-estate origins.

Peter Rogers, of San Francisco Bay Area coffee roaster Rogers Family Co., said last year his company could buy only half of what it expected from a farm in southern Mexico with which it has a decades-long relationship. And this year that amount will again be cut in half, he said.

Rogers is trying to convince fellow roasters to participate in a program to give free coffee trees to farmers who have seen their livelihoods wrecked by the rust. But it’s been an uphill battle, he said.

Starbucks’ executive vice president for global coffee, Craig Russell, says the company hasn’t suffered any shortfall in supply stemming from roya, due to the abundance of coffee elsewhere in the world market. Nevertheless, the disease remains a big concern as it threatens countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala where Starbucks has long sourced high-quality beans and with whose producers it has struck deep relationships.

“Those countries are important to us,” Russell said in an interview.

At a farm Starbucks bought last year in Costa Rica, the company is researching new varieties of coffee trees that could enhance resistance to roya.

Others also envision eradicating the plague by increasing the genetic diversity of coffee — and replacing sick and vulnerable trees with varieties more resistant to the fungus.

It’s an expensive effort — it costs about $8,000 to renovate a coffee-growing hectare, or about 2.5 acres — but it’s picking up steam, says Tim Schilling, head of World Coffee Research. With backing from the coffee industry, the Texas-based nonprofit seeks to breed stronger, disease-resistant coffee trees.

The U.S. Agency for International Development in May announced a $5 million partnership with World Coffee Research to fight rust; the agency says it has committed a total of $14 million in efforts to eradicate the plague.

Schilling and other experts say that work should have been done decades ago, but chronic underinvestment stemming from market volatility made it impossible. In the end, roya’s blight has helped demonstrate the urgency.

In the meantime, it’s those roasters and importers who have the strongest relationships with farmers, that will be able to claim the highest-quality beans as they become scarce, says La Minita’s Kramer.

“We’ve been getting calls for the past couple of months from people who weren’t doing business with us. Now they’re like, ‘Can you get us anything?’ ” Kramer said. “It’s too late.”

Ángel González: 206-464-2250 or On Twitter: @gonzalezseattle

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