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Originally published March 5, 2011 at 10:03 PM | Page modified March 9, 2011 at 11:03 AM

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Climate change takes toll on coffee growers, drinkers too

Shifting temperatures and erratic rainfall are taking a toll on the lucrative coffee crop in Costa Rica. Yields are way down, part of the reason coffee drinkers here are paying more for their morning cup. Climate change is also posing a threat to companies like Starbucks.

Seattle Times business reporter

Battling the weather

Agricultural scientist Orlando Mora, who works at Starbucks' farmer support center in Costa Rica, has noticed:

Absent rains cause new coffee plants to dry out and die.

Erratic rains cause farmers to wait a month between pickings as coffee beans ripen at vastly different times.

Heavy rains erode hillsides, meaning trees do not produce as well or as long, and farmers must redo terracing.

Interactive | Climate change

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SANTA MARIA DE DOTA, Costa Rica — A mile above this rural mountain town, coffee trees have produced some of the world's best arabica beans for more than a century.

Now farmers are planting even higher — at nearly 7,000 feet — thanks to warmer temperatures.

"We noticed about six years ago, the weather changed," said Ricardo Calderón Madrigal, whose family harvests ripe, red coffee cherries at the higher elevation. He sells beans to some of the most notable coffeehouses in the U.S., including Stumptown Coffee of Portland and Ritual Coffee in San Francisco.

Standing among healthy coffee trees near the upper reaches of his farm, Calderón says he knows he is lucky.

Calderon is one of the few Costa Rican coffee farmers benefiting from the shifting weather pattern, while most of his fellow growers have found themselves on the losing end.

Yields in Costa Rica have dropped dramatically in the last decade, with farmers and scientists blaming climate change for a significant portion of the troubles.

Many long-established plantation owners have seen trees wither or flower too early. Some have given up. Others are trying to outwit changes in temperature, wind and rain with new farming techniques and hardier tree varieties.

Like many tropical crops, coffee cannot tolerate extreme high and low temperatures, and it needs dry and wet seasons. Costa Rica and other countries, such as Colombia, with sophisticated coffee farms and mills appear to be noticing the impact of climate change first.

These problems are helping push up the price of a latte or espresso at coffee shops everywhere.

Most important, the fate of coffee in Costa Rica could be a bellwether for food production — and prices — globally, as farmers around the world cope with mudslides, droughts and creeping changes in temperature.

Almost all coffee grows in the tropics, and in general, tropical species are more sensitive to climate change, said Joshua Tewksbury, the Walker professor of natural history at the University of Washington. There are more species there, they can withstand only a narrow band of temperatures, and they are not likely to adapt well to change.

Heavy rains in Colombia recently helped drive coffee beans to prices not seen in more than a decade, and coffee companies are watching closely. Last fall, Starbucks raised prices on some drinks to offset rising costs on commodities, notably coffee.

Global warming — more accurately called climate change — poses "a direct business threat to our company," Starbucks executive Jim Hanna told an Environmental Protection Agency panel in 2009 in Seattle.

Farms producing less

Near the crest of a hill on a farm named La Edda for his mother, Francisco Flores bends a knee to touch the curled, yellowed leaves of a young coffee tree, one of hundreds on a windswept ridge where coffee grew strong two decades ago.

"They live, but they don't produce," Flores explains. "I have an ache in my heart. It's very difficult to see coffee businesses that went from generation to generation to generation, closing."

Costa Rica has 25 percent fewer acres planted in coffee than it did a decade ago, according to the national coffee agency iCafe. Roughly 10,000 farmers have quit coffee, some converting their land to pasture for cattle or dairy businesses.

The remaining coffee farms produce less, with yields down 26 percent in a decade.

Weather is only one problem. Costa Rica also has too many old coffee trees, and farmers' costs have risen because of a labor shortage and devalued currency.

Still, climate change represents about a quarter of the problem and is expected to worsen, says Ronald Peters, executive director of iCafe.

Standing in a field of rented trees, Flores says he thinks about switching to timber or leather-leaf ferns. Three years ago, he tore out 100 acres of coffee trees ravaged by the weather and turned the land into a horse farm that a friend runs.

Erratic microclimates

Only arabica beans are grown in Costa Rica, taking advantage of the volcanic soil at high elevations to produce some of the world's most sought-after coffee.

Farmers learned long ago to negotiate the country's microclimates. Now they must adapt to new changes.

On the slopes of Volcano Poás, the biggest threats are colder nights, fiercer winds and rain that falls too hard and at the wrong times. Temperatures at Flores' coffee farms on Poás used to stay above 60 degrees at night, but now are dropping to 52 degrees. He also has planted more rows of Indian cane and other trees as windscreens.

Many young coffee plants that should be lush and preparing to burst with fruit remain withered and unproductive, he says.

Just a couple of miles away are healthy coffee trees that have escaped the wind and cold. Some are still producing robustly at the ripe old age of 30 years.

Rainfall also has become more erratic.

Farmers constantly watch the sky during the harvest, fearful it might rain and cause their trees to flower early.

Flores is dismayed to find blooms on some of his coffee trees in January, the peak of the harvest. He expected it: There had been rainy spells all week.

Still, the trees are not supposed to flower until April. Many of these January blooms will dry up from lack of water before the true rainy season arrives.

"Last night we had rain, so for next year we will lose coffee," he says.

It first rained during the harvest on Poás in 1997, a year Flores remembers because it was something his family had not seen in five generations of coffee farming.

"We were scared about it," he says.

Rain also means higher humidity and more fungus. To combat that, Flores prunes some trees shorter and smaller so their leaves will capture less moisture.

Then there are the mudslides. Although climate change is expected to bring a net drop in rainfall over the long term, some places — including Costa Rica — have experienced deluges. In recent years, mudslides have wiped out swaths of coffee farms, blocked roadways and demolished at least two processing mills.

Searching for remedies

Experts are trying to help coffee farmers with the problem.

Mostly, they recommend farmers do more of what they have been advising for years to protect the environment and grow better coffee, such as adding shade trees and planting in curved and terraced rows to prevent massive water runoff.

"Farmers are scared," says Orlando Mora, an agronomist at Starbucks' farmer support center in Costa Rica. "They are having to alter their daily routines a lot."

Researchers are developing hardier varieties of coffee that can withstand changes in the weather.

Flores is testing about 1,500 hybrid trees developed by coffee-research institutes in Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras along with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica and CIRAD in France.

A major snag is that they cost twice as much as regular coffee trees because there are so few available. But they produce about 25 percent more coffee and should become affordable once volume picks up, according to Peters from iCafe. His agency helps arrange financing for farmers who want to buy the new trees.

Starbucks and others are working to distribute thermometers to farmers so they can monitor exactly how the temperature is changing — and share that information.

"They know they feel warmer or cooler, but they don't know how much," Mora says. "What they need is communication and knowledge, and our activity at Starbucks is not only to buy coffee but to provide support so they can be good coffee producers."

Record coffee prices

In Costa Rica, the world's 15th largest coffee exporter, high coffee prices have helped farmers make up for lean crops.

Eventually, coffee prices are expected to fall again. At that point, Peters from iCafe says he hopes the country will have returned to strong production levels, "because in many regions there are not very many alternatives" to growing coffee. Worth about $400 million a year, coffee is the country's third-largest agricultural export, after pineapples and bananas.

Roberto Mata, who runs the Coopedota cooperative in Santa Maria that sells to Starbucks, worries about all of it.

"If coffee falls to 100 cents a pound, we won't survive. We will disappear," Mata says. Coffee currently sells on the commodities market for about $2.75 per pound.

A few years ago, when Coopedota's 800 farms had surprisingly low yields, he began studying the weather and climate change. "At the beginning, I was afraid; then I was angry," he said.

He became angrier after sending a representative to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún last fall. At that meeting and others, efforts to limit greenhouse gases and take other steps to slow or reverse the effects of climate change came to little.

The conference was held at about the same time Coopedota's farms were spraying more than twice as much fungicide as usual to counteract a fungus attack after heavy rains. The cost also doubled, to about $300 an acre.

"We are suffering"

Now Mata is on a mission to certify Coopedota as carbon neutral, largely because he wants to set an example.

"We want to prove to the coffee-consuming world that we're doing what we can and ask them to do something against global warming because otherwise we will not be able to produce coffee," he says.

He also wants to hire two agricultural scientists — he has one now — to teach farmers how to combat climate change, and he is lobbying to get funding for those positions, plus new trees and extra fungicide.

Mata is not sure what to do about the increasing wind. "It used to be, if you saw clouds coming at the top of the mountains, two hours later you would have rain. Now, it's five minutes later."

Planting at higher elevations might not be a good solution for many farmers, he says, because of the different soil and because the heavier clouds there could invite fungus. As a test, the co-op planted trees at 6,400 feet and is waiting to see whether fungus attacks.

With all these measures, Mata says, he hopes to keep farmers in business. He also wants his son to continue their family's 85-year tradition of coffee growing.

"Some people do not know what we are suffering," Mata says. "They can go shopping and buy a bunch of items and throw them all away, and they can sit in their cars for six hours and think it's not affecting anybody. It's affecting somebody."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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