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
In its April report, the ICO said the average price for coffee hit a two-year high — more than
The spread of rust has prompted growers to adopt new measures, such as "stumping," the practice of pruning trees of all infected vegetation in hopes of encouraging them to regrow with greater vibrancy. They are also using fungicides and installing shade covers, which appear to help keep the fungus at bay.
Rust also has hit farms in
"We have old, unproductive coffee plantations that haven't been pruned. In some case they're 40 years old," said
None of that will make rust go away, however.
"It's an issue of managing it, controlling it,"
"Even if you cut them back, the problem is that with the climate changes we are seeing — the rains, the droughts, the rust — basically, we are looking at the need to replant everything,"
With little government help, and her farms falling below the break-even point, she has had to lay off workers and lacks the funds needed to replant. And because the fungus spreads so easily, the cautionary steps have to be taken all together, or one farm will simply infect the next.
"Now, all the fincas are infected, and those of us who have made the effort to spray fungicides are left with problems by neighboring farms that haven't done anything," she said.
With many rural towns dependent on coffee production, observers fear widespread job losses. Producers in the Guatemalan highlands have lost, on average, between a third and 60 percent of their income in the last year, according to
Argueta, however, is not giving up. Just as he has "stumped" his existing trees, hoping to coax them to start all over, he is ready to begin anew.
On a recent day in Fraijanes, a town southeast of
"This variety is going to better," Argueta said. "That, in itself, is a blessing."
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