* Weather office sees 65 pct chance of El Nino
* Dry weather to boost coffee production
* But too much dryness could stoke worm outbreak
By Diana Delgado
BOGOTA, July 10 (Reuters) - Colombia’s coffee crop for the first half of 2013 is shaping up to be one of the best in years as drier weather and the possible return of the El Nino weather phenomenon may boost production, exporters and growers said.
After years of too much rain, good sunlight over the past six weeks has boosted flowerings, which could lead to a greater number of ripe cherries and help the country reach the 9 million 60-kg bag target for 2013, they said.
“The weather has been excellent. We are already having flowering throughout the whole province,” said Hector Falla, director of coffee growers for the Huila province, the country’s largest producing region.
Coffee plants need sunlight eight months before the harvest, followed by a period of sporadic rain, to help flowering.
The expected rebound in the world’s No. 1 producer of high-quality Arabica beans would follow years in which the Andean country missed production goals due to torrential rains brought by the La Nina anomaly, the sister of El Nino.
Downpours dragged down output to 7.8 million sacks in 2011, the lowest output in three decades. Production this year has been estimated to rebound to around 8 million bags, but historically Colombia has produced around 11 million sacks annually.
Colombia’s Ideam weather office said El Nino, which is a warming of water in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of South America, was already developing and there was a 65 percent chance it would occur.
For Colombia, that would result in less rain in the central and eastern coffee provinces. The rainy season runs from September to December, and El Nino would reduce the probability of torrential rains, which knock beans off trees and wash away roads that are the only way the product can get to ports.
Coffee plantations have already benefited from the Pacific warming as the dry season began in May, a month earlier than expected, boosting prospects of an improved harvest next year.
“If dry weather continues as Ideam is predicting, next year’s coffee output will be excellent and we’ll be able to reach the 9 million target,” said Juan Alvaro Arboleda, an exporter and grower in the northwestern province of Antioquia.
Ideam said El Nino, which occurs every three to seven years with varying degrees of intensity, could be moderate or weak because it began forming later than it did last time.
Under a moderate or weak scenario, next year’s harvest would benefit because coffee bushes would get ample sunlight. Dry weather in coming months with some showers will also help beans ripen.
Northeastern Valle del Cauca, the country’s fifth largest producing province, has had four separate flowerings since May, increasing the chances that it could produce as much as 700,000 bags next year, 40 percent higher than in 2011, said Camilo Restrepo, vice president of coffee producers there.
The main risk to farms would be too much dryness during El Nino, which may create a breeding ground for worms. Too little rain is also bad for the development of fruit.
Coffee plantations located between 1,500 meters and 1,800 meters, which amount to 44 percent of coffee hectares, can withstand as much as 30 days of sun without showers while it is around 15 days for the 30 percent of crops located between 1,200 and 1,500 meters, Arboleda and the federation said.
The last time Colombia was hit by a strong El Nino was between late 2009 through May 2010, creating a breeding ground for broca worms, which eat coffee kernels and damage beans.
The broca problem, which first appeared in Colombia in 1988, can be controlled by quickly collecting beans that have fallen from trees, pick ripen beans from trees, and fumigate, said Restrepo from Valle del Cauca.
“If prompt measures are not taken, coffee growers are in trouble as there is not a tree resistant to broca. It attacks all trees without mercy,” he said. (Editing by Jack Kimball)