Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Conquering coffee leaf rust, one farm at a time

By Heather Farrell

The air cools as we pass through La Zona Alta – The High Zone – on our way to Pedro Mejia’s coffee farm. The Honduran village is appropriately named – we’re level with the clouds that still cling to the mountains across the valley, remnants of last night’s thunderstorm. My coworker, Pedro Hernández, guides the motorcycle carefully on the damp dirt roads. We’re meeting Mejia to walk his field with him and do a leaf analysis that will identify disease prevalence and nutrient deficiencies on his farm.

Pedro Mejia holds up a rust-affected leaf.
Mejia has worked with Unión MicroFinanza for years, participating in our microloan program and selling us his specialty-grade coffee. But Mejia’s past harvest, like so many in Central America, was affected by the outbreak of coffee leaf rust, known in Spanish as la roya. Now he wants advice on what to do about it.

Mejia knows about leaf rust: he has been to large, general trainings offered by engineers from coffee organizations in Honduras. But as for a specialist from any organization coming to his farm to show him what to do in practice? “Never,” Mejia says. His two fields are less than two acres each, and the larger organizations do not have the resources to visit small farms like these.

Unión MicroFinanza has begun individualized field trainings to meet this need. A majority of the farmers in this region own small lots; but each finca, or coffee farm, has different agricultural needs. Coffee leaf rust will not be brought under control through general trainings, or through educational materials offered at a price outside the budgets of most coffee farmers. Each farmer, no matter the size of their field, must know how to control and prevent the disease from spreading.

“Look, this is lempira – it’s resistant,” Mejia points to the rust-resistant coffee variety that’s full of leaves and easy to distinguish on an affected farm. Three-quarters of this finca is red catuaí, a variety known for its quality, but which is susceptible to leaf rust. Some of the plants are recovering from leaf rust and have a good number of leaves, some have only a few leaves hanging on, and some Mejia has already cut down because they were beyond recovery. Last harvest, only 50 percent of his red catuaí cherries ripened. The rest didn’t ripen because the plant didn’t have enough leaves to produce energy for ripening the fruit.

Mejia and Hernández conduct a leaf analysis of the farm.
Mejia plunges deeper into his field to show us more plants. I struggle to keep up, sliding on the loose earth, crashing through dead branches, and getting facefuls of spider webs and wet leaves. Hernández shows Mejia how to perform the leaf analysis – pick 100 leaves from different trees without looking at them. Then, they examine the sampling, and based on shape and color irregularities, determine what nutrients the plants lack and what diseases are present (leaf rust isn’t the only coffee plague: diseases like ojo de gallo can be just as damaging to leaves, and affect varieties resistant to rust.)

“We recommend you do the analysis each month. The purpose is to control roya through nutrition and vigilance, to see if it’s going down,” Hernández says.

After the analysis, we move down the road to Mejia’s second farm. Right away, we see the plants are dramatically different from those on his other field. These lush young trees are of the variety yellow catuaí. Already they are laden with green cherries. I haven’t seen branches of catuaí trees so full of coffee in a while. Seeing these beautiful young plants, I now understand why Mejia might consider stumping and replanting on his older field.

The trees on his other farm are 12 years old; they’re tall and already have most of their expected harvests behind them. Yes, it would be less time, work and money if they could recover from the leaf rust after a year. But the time and money put into fighting the disease and trying to re-grow leaves wouldn’t be worth it; it’d be better to wait the two years needed for a new plant to produce a harvest. And, as farmers are now fully aware, preventing a disease like leaf rust is much easier than fighting it off once it has settled in and done its damage.

I ask Hernández if leaf rust was so bad last harvest because it caught everyone off guard.

“Yes, the outbreak was a surprise, so there wasn’t a chance for prevention,” he says.

Mejia walks between rows of
red catuaí coffee plants.
With his yellow catuaí, Mejia is ahead of the leaf rust: he can make sure the young plants stay healthy, with all the nutrients they need to ripen their large harvest while fighting off any leaf rust attacks. If he sees the rust start to take hold, he can use preventative sprays before it damages the plants.

As for his older field, he will control the rust as well as he can and wait a year to see if the plants recuperate. Hernández recommends a prevention product based on the results of the leaf analysis (more than 50 percent of the sampled leaves showed rust), and calculates how much of it Mejia will need. He’ll be able to purchase the product with the help of a microloan from Unión MicroFinanza.

If the trees don’t recover, he will stump some trees and clear the rest to plant anew.

“But I want to replant with catuaí again. And maybe bourbon. They have good flavor and I don’t want to lose that,” Mejia says. This is exactly what Unión MicroFinanza hopes – that farmers will maintain diversity on their fields and keep coffee varieties such as catuaí and bourbon that result in more flavorful coffee. Through individualized trainings, farmers will receive the practical knowledge they need to overcome coffee leaf rust and produce a consistent harvest of high-quality coffee.

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