Local Producers

Kickapoo Coffee & Equal Exchange Coffee: Rust never sleeps

Kickapoo Coffee & Equal Exchange Coffee: Rust never sleeps

For the last few years a fungus has been ravaging the coffee plantations of Central America. The disease is called la roya in Spanish and coffee rust in English. The fungus was first noted in the 1800s in Sri Lanka and has spread steadily around the world, becoming especially virulent in Central and South America.

Infected plants have to be pulled out and replaced, a loss of many years of production for small farmers. The rust has been endemic to coffee growing regions for decades, but recent climate changes have allowed the fungus to spread to areas that had previously been clear of the disease.

Carly Kadlec, of PFC coffee supplier Equal Exchange, reports that their coffee growers in Guatemala have had harvest losses of 80%. Another People’s supplier, Kickapoo Coffee of Viroqua, reports similar devastation among their growers. Alex Stoffregen of Kickapoo Coffee reports that one of their growers in Mexico “sent 10 shipping containers of coffee in 2014; in 2015 they could only send three.”

This blow to production has immense impacts on an economy where coffee is the major cash crop. Many farmers are losing their livelihoods. A recent report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune found that many immigrants to the U.S. are coffee farmers who have lost their coffee plantations to la roya. “To discuss the current Central American immigration crisis without talking about the coffee rust is like talking about the 1845 Irish immigration without mentioning the potato blight,” writes Julia Kumari Drapkin for the Times-Picayune. For those who don’t emigrate, life paying off the loan sharks for failed harvests can get ugly. Recent N.Y. Times articles have pointed out the breakdown in communities that has been ongoing as the coffee blight continues. The rise in the number of people, including many unaccompanied children, migrating north to the U.S. has risen in correlation to the spread of the rust in the coffee plantations.

Coffee plant showing rust infection. Photo by Ashley Cheuk, Equal Exchange.


Wake up and smell the climate change

The latest increase in coffee rust seems to be a secondary effect of increased temperatures and disruptions in rain patterns. The high quality Arabica coffee berries that make the best coffees need low overnight temperatures to grow well. These plants do best at elevations of 3,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level. A recent study of the coffee-growing region of East Africa in the journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology has found that “over the last 49 years, there has been a +1.42°C increase in night temperatures, which has led to Arabica yield decreases of 195 kg/ha. The consequences for smallholders in the region are dramatic, as it represents losses of 46 percent.” Under such conditions, many farmers are giving up on the crop.

Similar temperature increases have been noted in Central America. Coffee rust in Central America had previously been less prevalent at higher elevations, but as temperatures climb in the region, so does the incidence of coffee rust. In a situation analogous to farmers in the SE Minnesota and SW Wisconsin area suffering unprecedented flooding, there’s less prime farmland as the climate changes.

The changes in rain patterns are also wreaking havoc on the coffee cycle. Coffee berries are traditionally spread out to dry on open-air platforms during the dry season. Rain is now not uncommon in the dry season (and drought in the rainy season). Additionally, Alex Stoffregen of Kickapoo notes, the unpredictable weather is changing the rhythm of the coffee plant’s berry production: “We’re seeing plants now that are flowering and fruiting at the same time.”

Co-op advantage

A big corporation might simply go to the next farmer up the mountain whose coffee trees are not yet infected with rust, but as cooperatives following fair trade principles, PFC’s suppliers have long-standing relationships with farmer-owned cooperatives throughout the areas affected by the rust. Our coffee-importing partners may seem to be at a co-op disadvantage. Not so, say the folks at Kickapoo and Equal Exchange: Co-ops have strategic advantages because of their willingness to help each other. Stoffregen notes that the coffee-growing cooperatives are able to invest the 20–30¢/lb ‘social premium’ brought in by coffee sales on new rust-resistant varieties of plants. Equal Exchange’s Carly Kadlec also points out that the organic practices of their farmers has increased plant resistance to the rust.

In a classic example of cooperation between cooperatives, Equal Exchange recently sponsored a farmers’ fair at the Colombian coffee cooperative Asprocafe Ingrumá. There, Equal Exchange arranged for Fredy Pérez Zelaya of Honduras’ Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. (COMSA), an organic coffee farmers’ co-op, to teach a workshop on organic practices for Colombian growers. In a similar way, Kickapoo was instrumental in helping cooperatives in Mexico collaborate on a successful grant for a rust-resistance program. Such farmer-to-farmer (and farmer-to-importer) networking helps growers develop methods to improve their response to coffee rust and the changing climate.

Principle Six, one of the guiding principles of cooperative business, is that co-ops serve their members most effectively by working together with other cooperatives through local, regional, national, and international structures. The work of Equal Exchange, Kickapoo Coffee, and others has helped coffee-growing co-ops develop resilient responses to challenges such as la roya.

Besides cooperatives’ willingness to share know-how, organic practices are another advantage cooperatives have in the fight against the rust infection. Scott Noe, Kickapoo coffee roaster, notes that “the stronger the plant is, the less susceptible it is to disease.” Equal Exchange farmers such as Fredy Zelaya and the farmers of COMSA stress the importance of the health of the soil and the microorganisms that go into maintaining it.

What’s in store?

In 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a $10 million award to the UN World Food Program for food assistance to close to 220,000 people affected by drought and coffee rust in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Working toward a long-term solution, USAID also funded a $5 million research project at Texas A&M University to develop new rust-resistant cultivars.

Jefferson Shriver, writing for Coffeelands website, notes that the “traditional polyculture agroforestry of Central American coffee” may be a thing of the past. Some farmers are replanting coffee, but others are diversifying into other crops, and still others are getting out of agriculture altogether. Those hills, previously covered in bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee plantations, may turn to commodity sun-grown coffee monocultures.

Equal Exchange suggests that people who would like to help Central American coffee growers maintain their livelihoods (and help consumers retain their morning coffee) may make a financial contribution to one of the many nonprofit organizations doing good work to combat coffee rust.

Equal Exchange has contributed $80,000 to Root Capital (rootcapital.org) and $20,000 to The Coffee Trust (http://thecoffeetrust. org/la-roya-recovery-project/), both organizations work with farmers on the ground to mitigate the effects of coffee rust. PFC shoppers can donate to them directly, or to Lutheran World Relief (http://programs. lwr.org/groundup), or Catholic Relief Services (http://coffeelands. crs.org/).

Further reading

Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Volume 207, 15 July 2015, Pages 1–10. “Coffea arabica yields decline in Tanzania due to climate change: Global implications.” A.C.W. Craparoa, P.J.A. Van Astenb, P. Läderachc, L.T.P. Jassogneb, S.W. Graba.

CRS Coffeelands, 23 October 2015. “Responding to the Climate Crisis through Crop Diversification.” [Blog post] Jefferson Shriver.

New Orleans Times-Picayune. 21 August 2014. “What is coffee rust and why is it pushing people to the U.S. border?” Julia Kumari Drapkin.

New York Times, 5 May 2014. “A Coffee Crop Withers.” Elisabeth Malkin.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of the Co-op Shopper.