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347. Coffee rust: On the farm

The coffee rust epidemic in Central America has been widely covered in industry and mainstream media.  But for all the ink that has been spilled on coffee rust, there has been relatively little information about its social and economic impacts at the household level on coffee growing families.  Fortunately, that information gap is beginning to narrow.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is one company that been hard at work in recent months surveying its partners in the field to get a better handle on the impacts of coffee rust on the growers and farmworkers in its supply chain.  (While visiting with farmers in Honduras, they shot this stirring video.)

Colleen Popkin is the Supply Chain Community Outreach Manager for Coffee at Green Mountain.  She has been coordinating the company’s survey efforts, which have reached 111 of the company’s supply chain partners to date.  Green Mountain will present the data is has collected during a panel discussion on coffee rust at the SCAA Expo on Friday.  Today, Colleen speaks with the CRS Coffeelands Blog about the survey.

  • What were your expectations – and perhaps your biggest fear – going into the survey?
    I hoped that we would receive up-to-date and candid responses from our supply chain partners about their perceptions and concerns from an on-the-ground perspective.  My biggest fear was that we would set expectations that we would be able to fix those problems.
  • What did you find out?  How are farmers in your supply chain being affected by coffee leaf rust?
    We discovered that farmers in our supply chain, from Mexico to Peru, were experiencing coffee rust at significantly higher rates this year than in previous years.
  • What are they doing to limit the impacts of rust on their coffee production?
    There were many common approaches shared in the survey: measures to treat roya, such as fungicides or organic treatments, shade management, and phytosanitary controls; measures to strengthen the plants ability to resist the fungus, such as fertilization or compost regimens, pruning and cleaning; and measures to contend with lost trees, such as stumping and establishing larger nurseries for renovation.
  • What other coping strategies are families employing in response to rust?  Do you see evidence that farmers will be relying more on non-coffee crops and perhaps even non-agricultural activities, for income moving forward?
    There were several detrimental coping strategies mentioned in the survey, which reflected the severity of the issue on producer families: taking children out of school, migrating away from the farm, going into debt, and rationing food to name a few.  Those farmers that mentioned other sources of income (for example, staple crops, vegetables, cacao, bananas) were able to cope better, and I believe that roya could present an opening for farmers to re-focus on diversification opportunities that would supplement their earnings from coffee.
  • Were you able to get a sense from the data about whether there are specific groups of farmers that have been consistently less affected by rust than others?  If so, are you able to understand what they might be doing differently that has made them less vulnerable?
    From the survey results, there were three variables that seemed to be indicators of less vulnerability: (1) managing the farm following leading agronomy practices, including ongoing renovation of older plants; (2) using rust-resistant varietals; (3) applying rust controls and prevention techniques, based on previous exposure to the fungus.
  • Were you surprised – either pleasantly or unpleasantly –by any of the survey’s findings?
    I was surprised by how the extent of this year’s rust epidemic seemed to catch experienced and attentive coffee partners unawares.  It happened so fast – several coffee managers said they thought the harvest was proceeding normally and then all of a sudden their members were reporting losses of 40%!  Rust is not new to the coffeelands, so I was surprised that warning signs were not detected earlier.
  • So what will you do with these data?
    Firstly, we have shared a summary of the results with others within the company and among our partners; while the free response and self-reporting format limits the statistically relevant conclusions that can be drawn, we feel that the survey provides insight into the very real impacts that rust is having on vulnerable coffee farming families.  Within our outreach work, the data have strengthened our resolve to continue funding food security projects that support household food production and livelihood diversification, which are two strategies which will help build resilience to shocks in the coffee system like la roya.

The SCAA panel in which GMCR will present the results of the survey is titled Leaf Rust: Testing our Resiliency as an Industry.  It is scheduled for Friday, 12 April 2013 at 10:30 am in room 252A.

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  • FEWS NET Special Report.
    The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) is a part of the United States Agency for International Development, the foreign assistance arm of the U.S. State Department.  FEWS NET constantly monitors hunger in about two dozen countries that are chronically food insecure or dealing with acute threats to food security.  The issue of seasonal hunger in the coffeelands may have been a revelation for the coffee industry beginning a few years ago, but in origins like Guatemala, the folks at FEWS NET have been talking about an annual hunger season for many years.  Last month, FEWS NET issued this special report assessing the consequences of the coffee rust crisis in Central America and the likelihood it could result in severe hunger oubreaks.  Read it!  If you pay taxes, you paid for it!

I was so impressed by my visit to Nica a few weeks ago.  Even the técnicos and agrónomos in the cooperatives have so little information, and hardly know how to advise the farmers as to how to respond.  The scale and scope of the roya infestation is just not something they have dealt with before.



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