Avia Collinder, Business Writer
The combined impact of hurricane Sandy and the re-emerging threat of coffee leaf rust disease has forced the Coffee Industry Board (CIB) to dramatically adjust its earnings forecast for the sector.
The coffee sector is now expected to lose up to US$8.3 million of potential earnings this crop year, which opened August 1 and closes next July.
Jamaica earned US$18.1 million in coffee exports at yearend July 2012.
"Coffee leaf rust has been in Jamaica for a long time and farmers are aware of the control procedures. If this is done on time, farmers ought not to suffer high losses," says Director General of the CIB, Christopher Gentles.
The Coffee Board and Ministry of Agriculture have both said that this latest threat - identified in all major producing parishes, particularly farms at or below 3,000 feet - if left unchecked, could result in loss of trees, reduced output from the farms and, ultimately, up to 30 per cent of the value of the current crop or US$4.2 million in export earnings.
Hurricane Sandy, which hit Jamaica on October 24, was earlier assessed as having a US$4.1-million loss on the current crop. Some 15 to 20 per cent of the crop was estimated to have been lost in Sandy's wake.
Still, while supplies of Jamaican coffee are likely to be less on the market, there is little indication that demand is improving appreciably, with the exception of the United States where the proportion of the crop sold in the 2012 crop year improved to 17.8 per cent, compared to 13.3 per cent in 2011.
Gentles said that CIB expects that Jamaica's US and European coffee markets will continue to grow.
"We still have some concerns about the economy of Europe, however," he said.
Sales to Japan amounted to 68.8 per cent of crop for the year ended in July, compared to 70.8 per cent in the year before. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Japan bought up more than 90 per cent of Jamaican coffee.
The board has been attempting to diversify geographic markets since then, but with the exception of the US, which is showing sustained growth, other markets are static or declining.
In the Asia-Pacific region, sales have been cut in half over the last two crop years; China, which remains stable at 2.1 per cent of crop; while the European Union declined to 10.2 per cent of crop from 11.9 per cent in 2010/11.
Canada shows marginal growth, from 0.3 per cent in 2011 to 0.5 per cent in the 2012 crop year.
Jamaica exported a total 709.8 tonnes of coffee worth US$18.1 million from the last crop. Close to 80 tonnes of exportable-grade coffee was also sold on the local market.
Export earnings were down by about five per cent this year from US$18.3 million in 2011, according to coffee board and Planning Institute of Jamaica data.
Now, leaf rust is expected to further reduce output for the current crop year.
According to the agriculture ministry, coffee leaf rust is a fungal disease that affects the foliage of the coffee plant, in its severe state it can lead to defoliation of the tree and its eventual death.
The presence of the disease is identified by orange to yellow powdery spores on the underside of leaves.
"Rust infection usually builds up between September and November and peaks between December and March. On this occasion, the high humidity factor in the environment, due to the post-Hurricane Sandy rains and wind, as well as the reaping now underway is contributing to the movement of the spores within the farming community and has resulted in increased levels of the disease. The poor nutritional state of the farms is also making the coffee plants most vulnerable," said the ministry and CIB in a joint public notice.
Prevention and control strategies include the application of copper-based fungicide.
Non-chemical control strategies include pruning and proper shade management to expose the coffee trees to more sunlight; improves flowering and also reduce the ability of the rust spores to germinate; and ensuring adequate nutrition of plants by applying the correct amounts and types of fertilisers.
Stressed plants are more susceptible to coffee leaf rust.
"Copper-based fungicides do not enter the plant, but prevent the spores from germinating, compared to systemic fungicides that enter the plant in order to assist in controlling the spread of the disease," Gentles told the Financial Gleaner.
"The farmer can harvest seven days after reaping without running the risk of pesticide residues being found in the coffee," he said.