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Central America's coffee revival hides stark divergence in fortunes

The recovery in Central America's coffee industry from its rust outbreak is exposing marked differences in national fortunes, with Honduras ramping up output, and Mexico aiming for recovery, while the likes of Guatemala grapple with structural decline.

Central American coffee production will rise by 650,000 bags to 15.54m bags in 2017-18 the highest since outbreak of the devastating rust, or roya, fungus began to spread though the region in 2012-13, reports from local US Department of Agriculture officials said.

Exports will rise by 520,000 bags to 14.01m bags, according to the estimates, which come as the International Coffee Organization highlighted the dent to Central American coffee premiums from production growth.

However, the data - which come ahead of a twice-yearly USDA coffee report on Friday, and exclude Nicaragua, for which no estimates have been publicly released disguise marked contrasts in the coffee industry's fortunes in differing countries.

While Honduras will see a record crop of 6.52m bags, assuming the country controls fresh findings of roya this year, and Mexico will raise its output by 300,000 bags, to 3.80m bags, the likes of El Salvador and Guatemala will record output declines, the USDA staff said.

And although Costa Rica will see its harvest rise by some 200,000 bags, that is down to a cycle of alternate higher and lower producing years, with the figure remaining well below historical highs of as much as 2.76m bags.

'Continues to struggle'

El Salvador will produce 575,000 bags of coffee in 2017-18, only 35,000 bags above the low reached during the rust crisis, and a fraction of the record 3.80m bags produced in 1974-75.

"The Salvadoran coffee sector continues to struggle mainly due to continued coffee leaf rust, irregular weather and low international prices that affect investment capacity of local farmers," USDA staff said.

"The drastic production reduction caused by coffee rust has deeply impacted jobs on coffee farms - both the number of jobs and the number of work hours have dropped.

"The number of jobs has decreased during the last five seasons from 130,000 to an estimated 41,000 for the 2016-17 crop."

'Shrinking plantation area'

Guatemala's 2017-18 production will drop below its roya-years nadir to 3.10m bags the smallest harvest in 24 years, reflecting an exit by large-scale producers from the crop, hastened by the rust outbreak.

"Overall, coffee production in Guatemala is decreasing by 3% annually and forecast to continue dropping, as planted and harvested area shrinks," USDA officials said.

"Although planted area increased initially, following the rust outbreak, overall planted area has fallen 3% each year for the past four years."

While in the 1990s, small growers, farming less than 2 hectares, accounted for 70% of Guatemalan coffee output, "today, 98% of production comes from small farmers".

Honduras leads

Guatemala's production drop will be reflected in a 100,000-bag fall to 2.81m bags in exports too taking them behind Mexico's shipments for the first time in 15 years.

The Mexican government has said that it expects domestic output to return close to pre-roya levels by 2018-19, implying a further revival ahead, with the harvest at 4.65m bags before the fungus struck.

Honduran producers, meanwhile, have help from the likes of SAT, an early warning system on coffee diseases, and IHCafe, which undertakes functions from research into roya to marketing beans.

Honduras is the world's sixth-ranked coffee exporter by volume, with shipments by value hitting $842m in 2015-16.

Central American coffee loses premium, despite fresh disease fears
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