Kenya coffee agency warns thrips could hit crop

* Thrips thrive in dry weather , rain could help

* Attack likely to worsen after cold season

By Mark Denge

NAIROBI, July 1 (Reuters) – Thrips, tiny insect pests that are hard to detect, may attack Kenya’s coffee farms this year and cut output, state-owned Coffee Research Foundation (CRF) of Kenya said on Friday.

Kenya is a relatively small grower but its specialty beans are famous for their high quality and are valued for blending with those from other countries.

The east African nation’s coffee crop is susceptible to pests and to diseases such as Coffee Berry Disease, which attacks during the June-July window when temperatures are low.

The foundation warned farmers that the new attack by thrips is likely to worsen when the cold season is over, probably in August. It did not say how much of the crop could be lost.

“The thrips have a potential to destroy crop though farmers may find it difficult to detect their presence due to their tiny nature,” Joseph Kimemia, director of research at Kenya’s Coffee Research Foundation (CRF) told Reuters.

“The tiny insects suck juices from the coffee leaves causing them to turn pale and we urge growers to be on the look out for such symptoms as well.”

Attacks by the green scales infestation and Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) disease are also likely to increase, the agency warned.

“If we could get some rains over the coffee growing areas in the coming weeks the effect of the thrips attacks could be mitigated because the insects thrive in dry weather. The rains could wash them off the crop leaves,” the agency said.

In the 2007/08 crop year, a major bout of the Coffee Berry Disease cut Kenya’s output by 23 percent to 42,000 tonnes.

The industry regulator, Coffee Board of Kenya (CBK), said it was monitoring crop in key growing areas for CBD.

“There have been no serious cases of CBD attack so far but we are closely monitoring the situation,” Loise Njeru, managing director at CBK told Reuters.

The CRF in 2010 unveiled a new coffee variety named Batian that is resistant to the two worst diseases plaguing the crop.

Researchers estimate Batian could cut production costs by up to 30 percent due to its ability to resist Coffee Leaf Rust and Coffee Berry Disease.

The Agriculture Ministry expects the country’s coffee export earnings to rise by 5-10 percent in the 2010/11 season due to good prices and improved output.

Separately, the operators of the country’s weekly auction said on Friday they did not plan a sale next week.

“We shall skip next week’s sale but revert back to the normal weekly calendar in the successive weeks,” Issac Muchomba, the secretary of the Kenya Coffee Traders Association (KCTA) that runs the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE),told Reuters.

“Though crop levels are still low we hope to do with little supplies that are coming through to sustain a weekly sale.” (Editing by George Obulutsa and Anthony Barker) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/)

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