No 3

Coffee agriculture, on the road to becoming a climatically intelligent activity

February, 2012


Coffee agriculture, on the road to becoming a climatically intelligent activity

FNC and Cenicafé presened to coffee growers a series of alternatives to adapt their farms to climate variability and make them more productive and competitive.

Climate change, which explains the tendency of rising temperatures in the world, has different manifestations in different regions of the planet. Climate variability –with which we will have to co-exist with from now on- is greater and demands, in the case of Colombian Coffee, to turn coffee agriculture into a climatically intelligent activity . This implies becoming smarter by leveraging technology so that growers can adapt to the expected shifts in the local or regional environment. Thus, developing necessary information and instruments so that producers can counter the main factors that threaten the plantations’ productivity becomes a priority.

Based on this concept, and as a first approach, the Colombian coffee growing industry must plan in advance for a worst case scenario that includes that in the coming 20 or 30 years to Colombia and a good part of Central America means higher rainfall levels will experience a higher intensity and frequency of the La Niña events, which brings additional rains (the rainy season is labeled as “winter” in the tropics). This would imply a management of the crops under conditions of higher humidity, less sunshine and lower temperatures.

Id, by contrast, a greater frequency of the El Niño phenomenon takes place, or rather, if the usual alternation between El Niño and La Niña is maintained, the crops’ productivity and production will be favored due to the intense crop renovation programs underway that will nurture a coffee growing capacity better prepared for climate variations. Thus, the ambitious renewal programs with the Castillo variety and its 7 regional strains developed by Cenicafé, which are characterized by their greater resistance to diseases and fungi such as rust, constitute in and of themselves part of the regional adaptation strategies.

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, along with Cenicafé, has worked intensely in the development of a series of additional alternatives to adapt coffee farms to climate variability and make them ever more productive and competitive; each of these strategies must be implemented to the degree required in a regional scope, thus turning every region productive and, eventually, the activities carried out by each producer should turn into “climate smart activities.” Listed below are some of them:

1. Planting resistant coffee varieties:

image The increase in rainfall during the last three years –in 2011 alone, the average rainfall has been over 35% above the historical averages- has contributed to the rust infection levels that soared up to 44%. Never before had such a powerful attack of the disease been seen. The rust-resistant Castillo variety is the fundamental alternative to solve the problems caused by this fungus. Besides, this variety presents the advantage of having productivity 17% higher than the Caturra and Colombia varieties, and a bean screen size according to which, well over 83% of the beans are bigger in size and density. This improves crop profitability and the performance of the industrialization processes.

2. Density management and spatial arrangement of the crops:

image Density is defined as the number of plants per land area unit. Short stature or dwarf varieties such as Castillo, with free exposure to the sun and under adequate environmental conditions allow for a density of up to 9500 plants per hectare. In the case of coffee crops with shade, density can be somewhere around 5000 trees per hectare and even more depending on the proper handling of the shade. These densities, complemented with appropriate agronomical management and good region-specific soil conservation practices, will allow softening the climate changes expected in different regions and keeping profitable and competitive crops.

3. Coffee crop renewal:

image Maintaining a sustainable coffee agriculture from the economical, social and environmental standpoints is directly related to young and productive crops. Coffee areas with plants over 9 years of age must be renewed with resistant varieties and adequate density. The fast implementation of the “PSF, Sustainability, Permanence and Future” credit program has been key in the renewal programs. A good portion of the 450.000 hectares renewed since 2008 will be responsible for production recovery with levels nearing 14 million bags in 2014.

4. Phytosanitary management:

image It is very important to control two of the main coffee cultivation challenges: coffee leaf rust and coffee berry borer. The excess in humidity fosters the rust and dry spells the borer. In both cases, an adequate handling is fundamental: in the case of rust, there are resistant varieties and rust control through fumigations in susceptible crops such as Caturra; in the case of borer, the handling is done through “ReRe.” This means to harvest the coffee once it is ripe without leaving ripe, overripe and dry beans on the tree or lying on the ground. This control must be complemented with biological products such as the fungus and chemicals used in a rational and responsible way.

5. Coffee nurturing:

image This factor is essential for productivity, and to that end, so is keeping in mind the weather patterns and the soil analysis. This tool allows using the required doses of the appropriate fertilizer at the right time. One winter issue brought about by La Niña suggests fractioning of the applications. When the crop is in the shade, fertilizations must occur complemented with handling of the shade: sometimes the darkness in the shade prevents the fertilizer from fulfilling its function and the plants from taking in the fertilizers.

6. Adequate shade handling:

image Nearly half of Colombian Coffee agriculture is under some degree of shade. In certain regions, the shade is not only desirable but also necessary, because the rain cycles followed by long dry spells would imply that the coffee tree could not survive the latter without the protection and conservation of the humidity derived from the trees covering the crops. Nevertheless, a high shade density prevents the crop from achieving its maximum productivity under these conditions. In general terms, 70 shade trees per hectare and a good handling of it through pruning and regulation make for a productive crop. The shade must be regarded as one more crop, which must be managed correctly.

7. Soil preservation:

image The soil resource is fundamental for the cultivation of coffee. Its preservation, through plantations across the slope, adequate handling of weeds to soften the blow of rain and some practices that counter erosion are key to preserve this resource. The very control of weeds without abusing herbicides in the crops, allows for a sustainable soil resource. The selector of noble weeds and the use of machete are alternatives to consider.


8. Early warnings:

image The Extension Service, with the aid of producers, carries out follow-ups for at least 2500 plots in the coffee country with the purpose of learning in a timely fashion the behavior of rust and borer and to have predict their behavior in the different regions. The results from early warnings resulting from this surveys allow for the design of timely controls for the correct handling of plagues and diseases. Additionally, this statistically-valid practice allows having a diagnose for these problems and the application of the proposed recommendations.

9. Scientific research focused on climate change:

image The National Coffee Research Center –CENICAFÉ-, carries out constant research on coffee-related matters and climate change. Agro-climatology is a discipline that uses information from Cenicafé´s meteorological stations spread out across the Colombian coffee growing regions, following up on the dynamics of weather factors and possible solutions. By the same token, research from the standpoint of fertilization, physiology, varieties and soil preservation is a cross-section of climate change. Through agile and timely research region-specific recommendations must be issued in order to provide with tools for adaptation and mitigation of the effects of climate change in coffee. It is in agreement with this concept of climate smart coffee growing that the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation aims at providing effective solutions.

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