But although it is one of the best-run farms in
The disease was once a rarity in high-altitude areas like TarrazÚ. But a changing climate and new varieties of the fungus have opened the door to the scourge here. It coats leaves with an orange-colored powder.
Skeletal, roya-stricken trees stand not far from TarrazÚ's perfectly tended, Spanish-style villa, which houses visiting coffee buyers and dignitaries.
"It's amazing to see how destructive it is," Kramer said.
But the damage is much worse elsewhere: Among Costa Rica's mostly small coffee farms, a majority have been touched by the fungus, and some farmers report losing more than half of their crop. In poorer countries such as
The roya crisis, experts say, lays bare the underlying fragility of the coffee supply chain, which is straining under the weight of climate change, poverty and a vulnerability to new diseases because most coffee trees in this region descend from a few trees brought from the Old World centuries ago.
Experts fear it could be the first of many crises to come, threatening supplies of quality coffee even as countries from
The epidemic, despite raging for two years, has not hit large roasters such as
Ironically, the same global coffee surplus that shielded large roasters made coffee so cheap that it undercut Central American farmers' ability to combat the disease.
Prices have nearly doubled since the beginning of this year due to uncertainty about a drought in
A crippled crop
Hemileia vastatrix, as the coffee rust fungus is scientifically known, is not a new problem. It devastated Southeast Asian plantations in the 19th century. Since appearing in
But the persistent bout that appeared in 2012 is unprecedented in the region. Experts say the culprits include climate change's disruption of weather and rain patterns, as well as chronic underinvestment in renewing coffee plantations and in creating rust-resistant hybrids. Warmer weather and new varieties of the fungus also brought the disease to highland farms, which had to learn from scratch how to control it.
About 55 percent of
That harvest season, about 374,000 workers saw their livelihood taken away by the scourge, the organization said.
Hacienda La Minita is one of
Coffee pickers lucky enough to get a gig there get paid about
So far La Minita has fared better than many neighbors -- mostly thanks to extreme vigilance.
"It starts on the underside of the leaves, you can't see it," said
The perpetual checking of hundreds of trees can't stop. The alternative is dire: If nothing's done about it, the fungus can turn a lush coffee tree and its precious load of coffee cherries into a drying husk in two weeks.
Small farmers have borne the brunt. Fabio PÉrez, whose family owns a farm near the quaint mountain town of Atenas, in
In the 2012-2013 harvest, the farm produced 160 bushels of coffee -- and this year it yielded 60. "That's where we felt the impact of roya," he said.
PÉrez expects to see a similar poor yield this year and next . Some farmers are replacing diseased trees with rust-resistant varieties, but renovation is too expensive for his family's farm, he said.
Whether those trees are pruned or replaced, production won't resume for a few years.
Production shortfalls from roya, mixed with two years of low prices, killed the hopes of many small producers and put a stop to investment, threatening future crops, said
The fungus epidemic has added to the challenges that already strain
"There's disillusionment," Peters said in an interview at the institute's headquarters in downtown San JosÉ. "Producers are not motivated," he said. To help farmers fight back, the Costa Rican government has made available a
The thin months
Gerardo DÁvila Salazar, a 25-year-old picker at La Minita, says that "when the harvest is good" and at its peak, he can pick up to 15 or 17 baskets per day -- earning between
But in an interview in the midst of the harvest season last December, DÁvila said he was picking only between three and four baskets a day.
The so-called "meses flacos," or thin months of seasonal hunger that
Rogers is trying to convince fellow roasters to participate in a program to give free coffee trees to farmers who have seen their livelihoods wrecked by the rust. But it's been an uphill battle, he said.
"Those countries are important to us," Russell said in an interview.
At a farm
Others also envision eradicating the plague by increasing the genetic diversity of coffee -- and replacing sick and vulnerable trees with varieties more resistant to the fungus.
It's an expensive effort -- it costs about
Schilling and other experts say that work should have been done decades ago, but chronic underinvestment stemming from market volatility made it impossible. In the end, roya's blight has helped demonstrate the urgency.
In the meantime, it's those roasters and importers who have the strongest relationships with farmers, that will be able to claim the highest-quality beans as they become scarce, says La Minita's Kramer.
"We've been getting calls for the past couple of months from people who weren't doing business with us. Now they're like, 'Can you get us anything?'" Kramer said. "It's too late."
Ángel GonzÁlez: 206-464-2250 or email@example.com. On
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