Coffee farming techniques in different countries vary due to traditional methods and agricultural differences. Diseases enjoy a lack of biodiversity as one plant can happily pass the disease on to the next. Climate change is becoming a major driver for change in the coffee farming industry. Biodiversity is the way forward for coffee as an industry and the specialty sector is the driving force behind it. These changes may lead to a larger market share for specialty coffee (currently < 1%).
One of the main reasons for any disease outbreak is a lack of biodiversity. Coffee growing started in South/Central America due to the spread of one singular variety of coffee. There are now lots of mutations of that species, but they are all genetically related and therefore susceptible to the same diseases. Specialty farmers are now choosing to plant multiple varieties for a myriad of benefits such as disease resistance and flavour uniqueness. Farmers are also able to plant at higher altitudes than ever before, due to higher temperatures. These higher altitude, cooler microclimates allow a slower maturation of cherries, which produces a denser, more complex fruit. Some varieties work better than others at different altitudes. Gesha, for example, is a famous variety of Arabica coffee that enjoys the terroir of a very high altitude (>1700masl). One of the short term issues with planting new varieties is that they can take 4-6 years before viable fruit is produced. This means lots of work and no gain for a few years before the results are seen. Farmers we spoke to decided to plant up to 10 different varieties of coffee on their farms to see what would do the best in their specific microclimates.
Rising temperatures are forcing farmers to change their ways. Plant diseases have effected crops all over the world, but there has been a recent Roya (rust) outbreak in South/Central America. This is not a new disease, but it is now effecting higher altitude farms due to higher temperatures. Farmers we spoke to in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and Guatemala expressed grave concern for the future of coffee farming. Some said they have lost up to 40% of their crops to Roya, while some have only had a very small impact. A broad range of farmers are planting Timor hybrids (Catimor, Sarchimor etc.), which is a mix of Arabica and Robusta. Robusta varieties are much more disease resistant and high yielding than Arabica plants. There are a few concerns with the recent mass planting of these hybrids. One major fear is a loss of quality of flavour due to the addition of the Timor variety, but research has been undertaken to prove that there is an insignificant loss of cupping score between Caturra (Arabica) and Catimor (Arabica/Robusta) varieties. Another fear with the Timor hybrids is their susceptibility to a disease called Ojo de Gallo (Rooster’s Eye). Roya effects the leaves of the plant and reduces the plants ability to produce healthy, ripe cherries, whereas Ojo de Gallo attacks the seeds within the cherries. The cherry seems to form normally, then when fed through a pulper, the seeds disintegrate.
Hopefully we start seeing more species and varietals of coffee being planted as each provides something unique and different from the last. The farmers doing a good job will hopefully secure their futures by starting relationships with coffee buyers who can appreciate and find a market for these unique coffees. The difference between specialty and commodity coffees is becoming greater and there has already been talk of pricing specialty coffee without the use of the commodity market price as it is a completely different product. As coffee prices rise globally, consumers will start to pay more attention to quality. This should inflate the specialty coffee market share, which improves farmers livelihoods due to higher pricing and impeccable farming practise. The coffee supply chain involves pickers, farmers, processors, exporters, freight providers, importers and roasters. To produce specialty coffee, each of the steps in the supply chain must be completed with a greater care and attention than it would to produce commodity coffee. Like everything in life, if you want something done differently, it costs more money. This is true of each step in the specialty coffee supply chain.