Colombia's coffee growers, reeling from drought, brace for La Niña rains

PLANADAS, Colombia (Reuters) - Jairo Ciro is just getting back on his feet after more than a third of his coffee crop withered earlier this year because of Colombia’s devastating El Niño drought.

A worker collects dried coffee beans at a National Coffee Growers Federation plantation in Pueblo Bello, northern Cesar province, January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

But now something even worse is on its way - torrential rains and roya leaf rust, a fungus that attacks coffee trees and prevents them from producing beans.

Ciro, a father of seven who grows coffee on the steep hillsides of Colombia’s western Tolima province, fears he may again lose 30 percent of his harvest - and his income - to the rains, forecast to come into full force by year-end.

Coffee farmers are still bringing in the last of their drought-damaged crops, but meteorologists are already issuing warnings that the La Niña phenomenon could begin as soon as this month.

The downpours, caused by a cooling of waters in the Pacific Ocean, bring the roya leaf rust with them.

“For La Niña, you don’t know how to prepare, we’ll have to worry about soil erosion with all the water,” Ciro said recently, glancing down at his family home, which sits above the town of Gaitania.

Alexander Canas, a farmer outside the neighboring town of Planadas, is already seeing the signature rust-colored blotches of roya on some of his coffee trees.

“It’s terrifying - we’ll have to have a crisis plan,” Canas said, examining the infected leaves. He is especially worried about parts of his land that are at lower altitude, where he says the effects of the rains are usually worse.

La Niña rains and a roya outbreak have devastated the Colombian harvest before, sending annual output in 2012 down to a decades-long low of 7.7 million 60-kg bags.

As La Niña drenched Colombia in late 2012, spot arabica coffee futures on ICE went to a 2-1/2-year low, plunging 60 percent from a 14-year high in 2011.

The premium for Colombia’s usual quality in U.S. warehouses also saw volatility.

The country’s federation of growers has warned farmers that La Niña may bring high humidity and a lack of sunlight. It expects production of 14.5 million 60-kg bags during 2016.

Alvaro Cruz, the Tolima buyer for Caravela Coffee, which exports specialty varieties to roasters around the world, said rains in the first quarter of next year could damage flowering.

“Without flowers, there is no fruit,” he said. “If there isn’t a really strong (La Niña) phenomenon at the end of the year, there may be a good harvest; the problem is that is just the moment for the rains.”

“We’ve worked a lot with our producers on roya, so they know what they’re confronting,” Cruz added.

Due to El Niño, Reinel Perez sold only 12,000 kilos of coffee to specialty buyers this year, down from his usual 20,000 kilos.

“I worry about commitments to buyers - we’re trying our best to fulfill them,” he said as he unloaded sacks at a warehouse in Gaitania.

“Fighting against nature is hard,” he added.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Marcy Nicholson; editing by Helen Murphy, G Crosse