Brazil Coffee Farmers Face Difficult Harvest

Trees will bear a traffic-light-like mixture of ripe red, yellow and unripe green cherries but few growers can afford to harvest in multiple sweeps of the fields to avoid quality problems. They say the laborers needed are scarce and costly.

“It’s a very difficult situation for the farmers,” said Joaquim Goulart, an agronomist at Cooxupe, the world’s largest coffee cooperative in Brazil‘s main coffee state Minas Gerais.

Nonstop rain when trees were flowering late last year caused blossoms to open randomly rather than in the usual more synchronized fashion and the resulting coffee fruit is now set to ripen in the same uneven way.

“Probably this year we’ll have a harvest with a high proportion of green beans. We’ll have a lot of black beans and green beans and stinkers which are the worst defects in coffee so the producer needs to avoid this,” Goulart said.

But that will be more easily said than done. Coffee needs to be picked soon after it ripens to prevent it deteriorating so most growers plan to simply strip the branches bare and sift out the unripe fruit afterward.

RED FOR GO

“We won’t be able to do specialty coffee this year,” said Joao Batista Honorio, manager of the Fazenda Barreira coffee farm in the hilly Pocos de Caldas coffee region, whose office walls are cluttered with award certificates for high quality.

He said he was planning to spend 50,000 reais ($27,900) on a separator to sift the ripe red cherries from unripe green ones. The machine will help Honorio when it comes to sell as buyers cut prices for coffee containing some unripe beans.

The crop supply agency Conab estimated the forthcoming harvest at 45.9 million to 48.7 million bags in an estimate in January. If it hit the upper end of this range, that would make it the largest harvest since 2002, Conab said.

Conab’s figures are consistently a few million bags below the average industry estimates however.

The problem of uneven ripening is proving a problem throughout the main southeastern coffee belt, which includes Minas Gerais where more than half the country’s coffee grows, and Sao Paulo state next door.

But there are some exceptions.

“It will certainly be one of the best harvests ever,” said Vanduir Caixeta, commercial manager at Alto Cafezal farm based in the more northerly savanna part of Minas Gerais known as the Cerrado.

“The Cerrado region didn’t have so many problems,” he said, adding he hoped the area would turn out about 5 million 60-kg bags.

While rains upset the development of the crop in Minas, growers in its eastern neighbor, Espirito Santo state, have been despairing about more than two months of drought which only ended when rains returned a few weeks ago.

Local growers and meteorologists have given preliminary estimates for losses in the mainly robusta-growing state at anywhere from 10 to more than 20 percent and will meet with Conab in the coming days to produce a more exact figure.

Separate weather problems that spoiled a large proportion of last year’s coffee and the prospect of another difficult harvest this year have only added to despondency in the sector in general whose rising costs make it harder to make money.

“We are down about this. You can’t make high quality coffee and that means you can’t get a better price and make a profit,” said Ralph de Castro Junqueira, whose beans were voted Brazil’s best in the 2008 Cup of Excellence coffee competition.

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