Colombian coffee. Made famous by Juan Valdez, the iconic gaucho with his cowboy hat and mule laden with coffee in burlap sacs. And although Colombian now fiercely protects its coffee exports and stands with pride beside the consistent high quality found in Colombian coffee, it has only been an export crop since the mid-1800’s. And now it seems to be on the decline. In December, Columbia was hit by heavy rains that caused serious flooding in the low-lying areas and severe mudslides on the hillsides where the coffee is planted. Rains have been inundating the coffee-producing regions of Colombia for over a month, which has prevented the coffee plants from flowering. And of course, no flowers means no coffee beans. No coffee beans means no income. However, the rains subsided enough in the early days of January to allow for some flowering, but the harvest is predicted to be much lower than the previous year. The rains also bring unwelcome insect pests as well as promote disease spreading among the coffee plants, so they next eight months until harvest are going to be an uphill battle.
Already, farmers are seeing a type of fungus, called the coffee leaf rust, spreading to greater percentages of coffee plants on single plantations than have ever been seen before. This rust infests the leaves of the plant and decrease the plant’s yield, and can kill the plant if not treated. Farmers are also seeing an increase in a coffee bean boring pest, called a broca, which bore into the coffee plants and lay their eggs in the coffee beans – which of course ruins the crop. Both of these plagues have been increasing in the past several years, which scientists from the University of the Andes in Bogota are attributing to a slight increase in temperature, which has allowed both the fungus and the broca to move up into higher elevations, thereby affecting more of the coffee crop than they had been able to previously. Although the farmers are selling their coffee for a very good price right now, they fear that the rising input costs (and therefore rising output cost of coffee) will eventually cause buyers to look elsewhere to buy their beans from, other countries where it may be cheaper.
These new challenges have caused many Colombian coffee farmers to change their tactics.Some farmers have started planting bananas and plantain instead of replacing “retiring” coffee plants with new coffee plants. The advantages of these edible Musa species are that they mature relatively quickly, which allows for a quicker return on investment than coffee affords, especially following a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flooding. Other farmers have diversified and instead have removed the coffee plants in favor of pasture for livestock, or orchards of oranges or avocados. A few pioneering farmers have started agritourism businesses on their properties. They offer tourists comfortable accommodations among the coffee and offer tours of the plantation, and – of course – unlimited amounts of fresh coffee. This forward-thinking mentality will help cushion any future potential losses in the coffee side of their operations (whether from natural disasters or loss of sales). However, the future of whether or not Colombia will retain its hold on being world renown for its high quality coffee is still up in the air.