The Norman Transcript

Business

June 1, 2014

Coffee rust reaches new heights in Central America

FRAIJANES, Guatemala — For years, Hernan Argueta’s small plot of coffee plants seemed immune to the fungus spreading elsewhere in Central America. The airborne disease that strikes coffee plants, flecking their leaves with spots and causing them to wither and fall off, failed to do much damage in the cooler elevations of Guatemala’s mountains.

Then, the weather changed.

Temperatures warmed in the highlands and the yellow-orange spots spread to Argueta’s plants. Since the warming trend was noted in 2012, the 46-year-old farmer said his family went from gathering a dozen 100-pound (45-kilogram) sacks of coffee beans each month to just five.

Now, Argueta is among the region’s thousands of coffee farmers fighting the fungus called “coffee rust” in hopes they’ll continue to supply the smooth-flavored, aromatic Arabica beans enjoyed by coffee lovers around the world. But with no cure for the fungus, and climate conditions expected to encourage its spread, they are bracing for a long, hard battle to survive.

Argueta, like many farmers, is replacing his old trees with new coffee plants that better resist the rust, and cutting back existing trees in the hope they’ll spring new foliage. It will be two to three years, however before the new plants produce the bright red cherries that hold the valuable beans. Argueta has had to seek out construction jobs to get by. “Now we have had to find other lines of work,” he said.

Coffee rust first hit Central America in the 1970s. For decades, coffee growers simply coped with the blight and lower yields. But as rust spread to the highlands, the problem demanded action. Last year, Guatemala declared a national emergency, with officials estimating rust had affected 70 percent of the nation’s crop.

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