-While the storm has passed, the damage remains. This past week I was in El Salvador with two coffee families to search for and buy coffee. While there we toured the farms and discussed the challenges caused by storm ‘Roya’ and the flash floods of higher costs, higher wages, theft and the biennial or low production year.
In the Santa Ana region, the Salaverria family has been producing coffee for over 100 years with multiple farms and mills today. Led by their father Jose Antonio, sons Jose Antonio Jr and Andres operate and run JASAL. When the fungus Roya hit El Salvador, JASAL was hit particularly hard as was much of Central America. Production dropped to less than 30% of where they were in 2011-12. For those not familiar with Roya (or coffee rust), it is an airborne fungus that infects the plants leaves, making them unable to absorb the sunlight they need to survive. Farmers, ergonomists and engineers across Central America experimented and struggled with different treatments to combat this with limited initial success.
In the South-Eastern part of El Salvador, in the Usulután region near the city of Santiago de Maria is the Ortiz family and Finca Las Mercedes. Established in 1883, Las Mercedes has a long history in coffee and won first place in the prestigious Cup of Excellence in 2006. Here Don Roberto Ortiz manages and operates the farm with family members Lucia and Silvia. And here Roya has again raised its ugly head.
But perseverance, treatments, renovation and lots of dollars have turned the tide as both farms begin to recover. While the fungus has not been eliminated, treatments today have it under control, but at a cost. In the past farmers may have treated parts of their farm once per year, they now treat the entire farm six times per year. Because of the damage caused by Roya, many trees were beyond treatment and have to be removed and new seedlings need to be planted. Unfortunately, new plants take several years before producing, and renovation of entire farms takes even longer. At the Las Mercedes nursery, over 50,000 seedlings have sprouted and have been planted per year over the last four years. At JASAL even more.
Thankfully both the Salaverria and Ortiz families were forward thinking enough to save during good years for just such rainy days and are able to weather the Roya storm. Last year both farms began to recover as production increased and sustainability looked to be in sight. But this year was the biennial (or low production year) in El Salvador where the coffee trees produce less. Typically, production in these years is down 10-20%. There was hope that with more healthy trees and increased renovation the producers would see continued growth, unfortunately it appears the plants needed rest and recovery so production decreased again.
Another cost challenge facing producers is the 50% increase in wages implemented by the government this year. Rather than an increase over time as many US states have, this is one big jump. Because coffee cherries are hand-picked when ripe, and about 1,000 cherries are required for each pound of coffee, you can imagine the cost to producers.
Looking to the future, how can these families return to sustainability and hopefully profit? The solution for both is quality and increased production. At Jasal I cupped 21 experimental lots from higher yielding and more disease resistant varietals to Geisha and SL28 and more. At Las Mercedes, new Kenya and other varietals filled the nursery and others planted in the past several years are now producing cherry. At both farms the new crops I cupped were exciting and excellent. Next year both families expect the past few years of renovation to begin paying off with higher yields. Will the expected increases be enough to offset the higher costs of treatments and labor? Time will tell, but with over 230 years of history on their side, plus the new generations of passionate producers, I am betting on the families Salaverria and Ortiz.