Mon | Apr 23, 2018

Coffee rust fungus outbreak prevents perky outlook

Published:Thursday | January 24, 2013 | 12:00 AM
This farmer takes time to carefully read the application instructions for the fungicide following the recent distribution by Wallenford and the Coffee Industry Board. - Photos by Christopher Serju
An animated Christopher Gentles (right), director general of the Coffee Industry Board, explains to coffee farmers in Brandon Hill, St Andrew, the formula used for determining how much assistance each registered farmer gets, during the recent distribution of fertiliser and fungicide in the community.
The coffee rust disease is caused by the hemileia vastatrix fungus which attacks the tree's leaves and causes them to fall off, as shown here in this coffee plant in Brandon Hill, St Andrew. This reduced foliage consequently leads to lower coffee production.
The first observable symptoms of coffee leaf rust are small, translucent, pale yellow spots. Within a few days, the spots increase in size, sometimes coalescing to form large patches and produce masses of yellow-orange urediniospores on the under surface of the leaf.

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

DID HURRICANE Sandy sweep a much more virulent strain of the fungus hemileia vastatrix into Jamaica, or did it bring significantly more spores to the island?

That is one of the questions occupying the minds of local agronomists and other agricultural interests trying to grapple with the recent outbreak of the coffee leaf rust, which initially was projected to cost an estimated US$42 million in coffee export earnings.

On Tuesday, the Coffee Industry Board (CIB), however, advised that things had taken a turn for the worse and it was requesting J$7 million in emergency funding to offset control measures aimed at stemming the worsening infestation.

The services department of the CIB has determined that the industry fungus is exhibiting "rapid innoculation and moderate to severe infection phases" prompting it to recommend the use of an effective systemic fungicide such as Topsin WP, in order to achieve effective control of the disease. This would require at least two cycles of the fungicide application, enough to treat a minimum of 5,000 acres of coffee.

With the cost of the chemical estimated at J$4.5 million and an additional J$2.5 million needed to cover the cost of travelling for extension officers and a public awareness campaign over the next three months, the overall cost stands at J$7 million for this phase.

Devastating effects

Meanwhile, the CIB is reporting that the unprecedented rate of infestation is hitting coffee farms hard, not only in their pockets.

It states, in a release: 'The coffee leaf rust spread has been more aggressive and is having a deep psychological effect, particularly on the farmers in the higher reaches of the Blue Mountain regions such as Penlyne and Bobo Hill in St Thomas; Oatley, Clydesdale and Content Gap in St Andrew; and Spring Hill and Shirley Castle in Portland."

In keeping with a promise from the agriculture ministry, coffee farmers recently received fertiliser and fungicide to help in the rehabilitation of their cultivations in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. When one factors in the combined impact of coffee leaf rust and the worst berry borer infestation in years, the outlook for upcoming coffee crops is not so perky.

Meanwhile, with the coffee leaf rust having already caused an estimated US$100 million worth of losses in Nicaragua, neighbouring Costa Rica is concerned that the disease could also wreak havoc with its coffee cultivation. Costa Rica's agriculture and livestock ministry this week estimated that 20 per cent of the crop could be lost to the fungus.

According to the Costa Rican authorities, the situation is so alarming, it is studying the possibility of declaring an emergency.

The most affected area is Perez Zeledon, where 7,000 hectares are infected, followed by Coto Brus with 3,000 hectares, the Central Valley (500 hectares), the West Valley (118 hectares), Los Santos (50 hectares) and Turrialba (40 hectares).