Freak Brazil frost hits heart of coffee belt, damaging crops

Sao Paulo's Biological Institute hosts one of the largest urban coffee plantations in the world
A man holds coffee berries at the Biological Institute plantation in Sao Paulo, Brazil May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

SAO PAULO/NEW YORK, July 21 (Reuters) - An unusual cold snap, with temperatures dropping to freezing levels in a matter of minutes, delivered a blow to the heart of Brazil's coffee belt, damaging trees and harming prospects for next year's crop, farmers said on Wednesday.

Agricultural products across the western hemisphere have been beset by unusually bad weather - be it floods or extreme drought - all season. Brazil is the world's largest coffee producer, as its climate is most conducive for production of the beans. Coffee prices surged nearly 13% in response to the frosts to a 6-1/2-year high.

The sudden frost happened in the morning of July 20. According to Brazil's National Meteorology Institute (Inmet) the minimum temperature in Minas Gerais was -1.2 Celsius (29 Fahrenheit). Farmers, brokers and analysts were assessing their crops on Wednesday after reports that the cold snap was much stronger than expected.

"I've never seen something like that. We knew it would be cold, we were monitoring, but temperatures suddenly went several degrees down when it was already early morning," said Mario Alvarenga, a coffee producer with two farms in Minas Gerais, Brazil's largest producing state.

Farmers shared pictures of their crops, where large black areas were visible in places where they should see dark green spots marking coffee trees.

"I will probably have to take out some 80,000 trees, they are burned all the way to the bottom," said Airton Gonçalves, who farms 100 hectares (247.11 acres) of coffee in Patrocinio, in the Cerrado region of Minas Gerais.

"I was going to the farm yesterday and a sensor in the truck started to alert me about ice on the road. I thought the system had gone crazy. But when I got to the farm, it was covered in ice, the roofs, the crops."

Gonçalves estimates his production in 2022 will fall to around 1,500 bags from the usual 5,500 bags.

Ana Carolina Alves Gomes, a coffee analyst at Minas Gerais agriculture federation Faemg, said frosts were reported also in the South of Minas Gerais and in the Mogiana area in Sao Paulo state.

"Only time will tell how much will be lost. We already had a small crop this year," she said.

Cooxupe, the world's largest coffee co-op and Brazil's largest exporter, said its agronomists were visiting farms on Wednesday to better assess potential damages. It plans to release a report in coming days.

Broker Thiago Cazarini, who operates in Varginha, South Minas, said that preliminary estimates from exporters and agronomists point to a potential reduction of 1 to 2 million bags in next year's crop.

"For a clearer view, proper time is needed. Next week it will be more accurate," he said.

Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by David Evans and Sandra Maler

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Thomson Reuters

Covers agricultural commodities and biofuels, including production, trade and transportation, based in New York. Former Brazil correspondent and climate/environment reporter. Brazilian, holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree and has done post-graduate studies in Environmental Reporting from Germany's InWent Institute and Foreign Policy and International Political Economy from Harvard University. Avid soccer and tennis player.