* Seasonal winds arrived earlier, lasting longer than usual
* High mortality rates for flowers, small pods
* Exporters see output shortfall of up to 200,000 T
By Ange Aboa
SOUBRE, Ivory Coast, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Extreme temperatures and dry, dusty conditions in Ivory Coast, the result of the most severe Harmattan winds in three decades, will lead to a sharp drop in cocoa output from the top grower’s upcoming mid-crop, exporters and farmers said on Tuesday.
Ivorian cocoa arrivals at the ports were trailing last year’s record crop by just 30,000 tonnes by the end of January, according to exporters estimates. But exporters and analysts said the April-to-September harvest could be reduced by 125,000 to 200,000 tonnes from the more than a half million tonnes produced last season.
“We haven’t seen this for 25 to 30 years. This Harmattan is one of the strongest and the consequences are terrible for the cocoa harvest,” said one pod counter.
“The question isn’t if output will fall, because that is a fact. The real question is by how much. We won’t see (production) top 300,000 to 350,000 tonnes,” he said.
The Harmattan winds, which blow down from the Sahara each year, arrived earlier than expected in late November and have intensified in the last week, just as many farmers had hoped they were coming to an end.
“We’re really worried, because the length (of the Harmattan) is exceptional and the impact will therefore be major,” said an Abidjan-based exporter. “Our researchers estimate that we could be down 30 to 40 percent on last season’s (mid-crop) volume.”
Two other exporters gave similar forecasts.
A Reuters journalist travelling through Ivory Coast’s southwest and centre-west regions - responsible for about 70 percent of total production - found that most plantations had been heavily affected by the poor weather conditions.
A large portion of flowers and cherelles (small pods) that appeared on trees in November and December had not survived into late January, he observed.
The Harmattan, which coincides with Ivory Coast’s main dry season, can block out sunlight and provoke low nighttime temperatures. In recent weeks, cocoa growing regions have also seen high daytime temperatures, compounding the winds’ capacity to do damage.
“My plantation won’t produce because all the flowers and cherelles (small pods) died before they grew,” said Florent Djigui, who farms five hectares of cocoa near Soubre and claimed to have had a strong main crop harvest.
Very few green pods were visible on plantations, an indication of a timid start to the mid-crop, whose smaller beans are generally purchased by grinders for processing into products including cocoa butter, powder and liquor.
“Everything is dead,” said Diomande Coulibaly, a farmer near the town of Meagui. “The cherelles have dried out on the trees and the wind has caused the flowers to fall off. Even the leaves have fallen off due to a lack of rain.”
During the Ivorian dry season, intermittent showers are nonetheless needed to ensure mid-crop development. However, farmers complained that no rainfall was recorded in January.
“We’ve reached the point of no-return in our hopes for normal weather and production conditions,” said the head of a San Pedro based exporter. “We’re now in an even more complicated phase with a Harmattan that is continuing and intensifying.”
Editing by Joe Bavier and David Evans