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Originally published January 27, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified January 27, 2013 at 8:41 PM

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Coffee farmers struggle to adjust to climate change

Ill-timed rains used to be rare, coming maybe once a decade. So did unusually long and hot dry spells, which now come regularly.

Seattle Times business reporter

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One of the biggest problems facing coffee farmers in India and elsewhere is climate change. Fluctuations in the weather have always happened, but they come more frequently now and are often more extreme, farmers say.

Like many tropical crops, coffee needs predictable dry and wet seasons and cannot tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations.

“Climate change is hitting us hard,” said Jacob Mammen, managing director of India’s Badra Estates. Three times in recent years, Badra has lost a third of its crop because of rains at the wrong times. Some rains come too soon, causing trees to blossom early; others come as the trees bloom or are ready to be harvested, destroying valuable blossoms or dropping ripe coffee cherries; still others ruin coffee left to dry on outdoor patios.

To protect coffee from the latter fate, nearby Balanoor Plantations spent more than $20,000 for a large cylindrical drying drum last year.

Ill-timed rains used to be rare, coming maybe once a decade. So did unusually long and hot dry spells, which now come regularly.

A. Sukumar, Badra’s general manager, notices a proliferation of pests after the dry spells. Planting shade trees might alleviate that problem, he said, but that also could lower yields because less sunlight would reach the coffee trees.

Another solution might be installing drip irrigation to conserve water, Mammen said. But that is expensive and takes time.

Combined with a labor shortage, “you have a sense of insecurity. Things are slipping out of your hands,” he said.

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

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