FRAIJANES, Guatemala (AP) — 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.
In neighboring El Salvador, the rate of infection is 74 percent, according to the London-based International Coffee Organization. In Costa Rica, it’s 64 percent; in Nicaragua, 37 percent; and in Honduras, 25 percent.
In its April report, the ICO said the average price for coffee hit a two-year high – more than US$1.70 per pound – as market watchers worried about production in Brazil, where severe drought is affecting the world’s largest coffee crop, and an El Nino weather pattern is expected to further hurt supply across the region.
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 Southern Mexico, which produces much of the region’s shade-grown coffee, and where the government is leading a sweeping replanting project.
“We have old, unproductive coffee plantations that haven’t been pruned. In some case they’re 40 years old,” said Belisario Dominguez Mendez, who heads up coffee issues for Mexico’s Agriculture Department. “Coffee rust is a good pretext to transform the coffee industry in Mexico,” he said, noting the government intends to replace about 20 percent of coffee plants each year, hoping to have them all replaced within five years.
None of that will make rust go away, however.
“It’s an issue of managing it, controlling it,” Dominguez Mendez said. “We have lived with rust for 30 years, and we will continue living with it for as long as we are around.”
In El Salvador, Claudia Herrera de Calderon worries over her family inheritance, two large coffee farms high in the mountains near the Guatemalan border. She has been stumping plants on the two parcels, which total about 500 hectares (1,200 acres) and spraying fungicides. But it’s not enough.
“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,” Herrera de Calderon said.
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 the United Nations. The National Coffee Association of Guatemala, known as Anacafe, says some 100,000 direct coffee jobs have dried up.
The United Nations is providing emergency food aid to 14,000 Guatemalan households that have lost income due to rust. Still, that’s less than 10 percent of the 160,000 homes estimated by the government nutrition agency to need such help.
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 Guatemala City, he and other growers lined up for new, rust-resistant seedlings that the government is handing out.
“This variety is going to better,” Argueta said. “That, in itself, is a blessing.”
Moises Castillo reported from Guatemala City and Marcos Aleman from San Salvador. AP Writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report