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The coffee variety conundrum: How Caturra vs. Castillo plays out all over the coffeelands

For my first few posts on Coffeelands, I’d like to explore a number of issues regarding coffee varietal development and farmer adoption. This week’s post will look at the undercard of the Caturra vs. Castillo bout.

Imagine you are buying a new car or truck.  You can research the different makes and models, look at independent reviews of reliability, fuel efficiency, crash test rating and then assess how each model might fit your needs, and finally, you can review your options for financing.  Now imagine that for the next 7 to 20 years, your family’s livelihood will depend on your decision. The need for sound, reliable data and careful analysis become even more important.

Now imagine you are a coffee farmer in the central mountains in Nicaragua.  Coffee leaf rust has turned your coffee plants into very expensive firewood. You need to dig up the dead, say their last rites and replant and renew your farm so that you can rebuild your family’s assets and income. What do you plant? Do you risk planting the same susceptible variety you’ve been planting for 20 years – a known commodity, yet with some real weaknesses that were recently exposed? Do you mortgage the future on a newer rust resistant variety, yet one that is rumored that it might be a bit light in the cup? How would you weigh the same type of information given in our car-buying example above? Is information available to you about resistance to diseases, predicted yields, level of fertilization/management required, acceptance to markets, seed sources or certified seed (that gesha is really gesha), or on potential sources of financing for renovation?


Castillo plants in a nursery in Beaumont, Haiti.


Sadly, for the majority of smallholder coffee farmers in Central America there are few sources of reliable information about the limited varieties that are available to them.  In his recent presentation at the 2015 SCAA Symposium and in a series of previous posts, my colleague Michael explored the varietal tradeoffs for farmers in Colombia – do they go high risk-high reward by planting Caturra (potential for high quality + price, yet susceptible to coffee leaf rust), or do they play it safe and plant Castillo (reputation for lower quality, yet rust resistant and heavily supported by the national federation). What is an optimal strategy for a farmer that would provide them with the highest income and minimize their exposure to risk? If the most rudimentary and simple equation to describe farmer’s coffee revenue = price X yield – how do we maximize this equation? This is not solely a Colombia problem. This is an issue for all coffee farmers, especially those replanting and renewing as they recover from roya.

In Central America, a few of the national coffee bodies have released their own rust resistant varieties – Obata in Costa Rica, ANACAFE 14 in Guatemala, Lempira in Honduras. These are new(ish) varieties whose individual quality characteristics are relatively unknown in the specialty market. However, they are Sarchimors, which means they are derived from an initial Arabica-Robusta cross (hibrido de Timor). The mixed breed parentage taints the relationship with the market for these cultivars, as they are rarely discussed in quality circles in the same breath as typica and bourbon. Yet, as the results have shown in the Colombia Sensory Trial – we should not rush to judge.

The farmer needs to balance yield, quality and risk and then select a variety that will respond to the type of management that the farmer could give.  Often times, the only sources of plants are local – a neighbor has some seeds of plants that survived the last crisis – or a farmer in the town next over obtained a sack of contraband “Lempira,” “Colombia,” that they are now reproducing.  Lacking sufficient information, imagine how you would begin to make the decision of what to plant?  A farmer can’t afford to kick the tires for 3 or 4 years before deciding.

This is why I’m really excited for what our partners at the World Coffee Research are putting together – the WCR Varietal Catalog will represent a comprehensive decision tool for farmers that can start to fill in the information gaps for the farmers in Central America.  The guide is scheduled for release later in 2015.

This will not be a complete solution.  There will still be issues of access to the material, financing and others.  Yet this represents steps in the right direction, opening the door and making this transaction a bit more transparent.  Maybe in the future, deciding on the future of your farm and your family’s livelihood can be made on the basis of knowledge, rather than from fear of what is not known.

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