Central America takes stock of rain damage to coffee

 Too early for clear estimate of damage
    * Blocked roads could complicate harvesting
    * Excess moisture could spread fungus
    By Alex Leff
    SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Central America
coffee growers are counting their losses after two weeks of
rainstorms have felled coffee trees, ruined roads and
threatened to spread fungus on plants.
    The rains have already killed more than 80 people in the
isthmus, where the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,
El Salvador and Costa Rica all produce high-quality arabica
beans contributing to global supplies.
    The rains are still coming down, and national coffee
associations in Central America say it is too early to estimate
total damage from problems hitting farmers as they gear up to
begin harvesting.
    Damage to crops and slowed exports can pressure coffee
prices, which have been volatile in recent days with December
arabica futures KCc1 on ICE tumbling 2.3 percent on Monday
after hitting the highest in three weeks at $2.4355.
    The harvesting season in Central America and Mexico, which
together produce more than one-fifth of the world's arabica
coffee, begins in October and comes to a close in September.
    In Costa Rica's southern growing regions, heavy downpours
knocked ripe cherries off trees and caused road damage,
complicating the transport of freshly picked beans to mills for
export processing.
    "We've already had nine days of uninterrupted rain and the
coffee is ripe. Too much rain makes the berries swell up full
of water and burst, and then they fall off," Hernando Urena,
manager of Costa Rica's national coffee cooperative federation,
told Reuters.
    The southern coffee regions like Perez Zeledon and Coto
Brus account for 20 percent of Costa Rica's 1.2 million 60-kg
bags of annual exports.
    Specialty coffee region Tarrazu could have lost up to 5
percent of its crop and losses will rise if rains continue,
said Ricardo Zuniga, local agronomist of farming cooperative
CoopeTarrazu.
    "It's been days without seeing the sun, diseases are
starting to spread," Zuniga said.
    FUNGUS EXPLOSION
    In Honduras, which this year passed Guatemala as Central
America's No. 1 coffee producer, officials say the storm
severely damaged highways, cutting off isolated towns and
killing at least 13 people.
    "If the rain keeps up, we could see coffee falling from
trees but the biggest worry right now is serious damage to
infrastructure," said Victor Molina the head of the Honduras'
national coffee institute, IHCAFE.
    "We are urging the government to fix the roads quickly so
that we don't lose a significant amount of coffee."
    Honduras is expecting to export a record 4.6 million 60-kg
bags of coffee in the 2011/12 growing cycle.
    Similar worries are looming in Guatemala, which says it
will have an official estimate of damages later this week.
    Luis Arimany, owner of a coffee farm in Santa Rosa on
Guatemala's Pacific coast, where recent rains flooded entire
communities, said he has lost roughly one percent of his mature
crop just weeks before he begins harvesting.
    "Fungus has exploded in the last week," Arimany told
Reuters. Arimany plans to fumigate his farm and if the weather
clears, he hopes to recover part of his moldy crop.
    Luis Osorio, the technical secretary of Nicaragua's
national coffee council Conacafe, said between 3 to 5 percent
of the country's crop could be damaged, although it was too
soon to make a complete assessment.
    The region also grows sugar for export and Honduras
reported flooding in some cane fields. But industry officials
are not yet sure if there will be drop in output

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