San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Coffee farmers struggling, but prices are high

Mollejones is a small, typical Costa Rican farming town. It has one grocery store, two sodas (small eateries) and a single intersection. It is also prime real estate for growing coffee. Or at least it used to be, before a barrage of recent rains and tropical storms wiped out much of the crops.

Located in the southern canton of Pérez Zeledón, Mollejones is home to 240 families. Most work in coffee production, an industry that employs nearly 200,000 people across the country, plus an additional 125,000 temporary workers during harvests (TT, Aug. 20).

Protecting himself from insects and other elements with a traditional coffee farmers’ outfit, which includes a brimmed hat and rubber boots, Amado Leiva clings to a steep, slippery hillside as he drops ripe, red coffee berries into his basket.

Leiva grew up in a small cottage down the road and has worked these same coffee fields his whole life. He has seen a veritable roller coaster of the coffee industry’s ups and downs.

This year, despite high coffee prices, less than ideal weather conditions have made life hard for coffee farmers like Leiva for the second year in a row.

The Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE) originally projected an output of 1.66 million bags of coffee this year, but in November it lowered projections to 1.61 million bags, a drop of 3.5 percent. One factor was September rains and cloudy weather, which caused an epidemic of “ojo de gallo” (Mycena citricolor), a dreaded, yellow plant fungus that causes leaves to fall and exposes coffee berries to the elements. The berries, in turn, are more likely to rot. Ojo de gallo has caused headaches for farmers throughout the region this year (TT, Nov. 5).

Now, after the destruction from Hurricane Tomás, ICAFE has lowered its output projection again, by an additional 8 to 9 percent.

“It will be about the same production as last year,” ICAFE Executive Director Ronald Peters told The Tico Times this week. “We were hoping for an increase of 12 to 13 percent, and instead we now predict an increase of only 3 to 4 percent.”

Leiva estimates that he, like other farmers in Pérez Zeledón, lost about 10 percent of his crop this year.

“Throughout this whole year, the coffee ripened, turned black and fell off the plant,” he said.

Yet Leiva and his hired workers kept picking coffee, hoping ojo de gallo would be the last of the season’s troubles. But earlier this month, a low-pressure storm system turned into Hurricane Tomás and pulled Pacific storms into the region.

For five days, Leiva was forced to stay in his house, unable to pick his coffee. The storms not only knocked ripe coffee berries from the plants, but they also turned the area’s hilly fields into a muddy slip-‘n’-slide, causing landslides that wiped out entire farms and damaged local roads.

Leiva’s farm was safely out of the mudslides’ path, but trucks that collect the harvest were forced to take alternative, and much longer, routes.

“There were days when the collection trucks didn’t even show up,” said Leiva. “All that coffee sat and fermented. By the time [the trucks] arrived, it wasn’t good enough to export anymore, so we had to sell it for local consumption.”

The losses spell hard times for small farmers like Leiva, who depend on a successful harvest for their livelihoods.

ICAFE’s Peters, on the other hand, sees a bright future for Costa Rican coffee. With similar crises occurring throughout the rest of Central America and in Colombia and Brazil, coffee prices are at about $2.10 per pound, up $0.90 from last year. ICAFE expects those prices to stay high for two or three years.

“It won’t be the same level of production that Costa Rica has had in the past, but we’re going to have stable prices for several years,” Peters said.

“There are always climatic events. If there isn’t too much rain, then there are droughts. But with these prices, I think that the challenges we’ve been facing will encourage farmers to regenerate their coffee fields and recover some of the productivity that was lost this season,” he added.

In the meantime, the Labor Ministry transferred 3 million (about $6,000) to the National Emergency Commission (CNE) to mitigate the disaster’s effects by subsidizing 5,500 small farmers who lost their entire harvest, according to officials from Casa Presidencial.

Farmers like Leiva, who will likely see none of the CNE money, continue to harvest and hope to make ends meet.

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