May 11, 2020 / 5:04 AM / 22 days ago

Arabica coffee growers see harvest delays, possible losses due to coronavirus

    By Roberto Samora, Julia Symmes Cobb and Marcelo Teixeira
    SAO PAULO/BOGOTA/NEW YORK, May 11 (Reuters) - South American
coffee growers may delay harvest this year and limit the number
of workers they employ as the novel coronavirus pandemic
continues to spread, threatening to reduce this year's crop of
export-quality beans.
    The pandemic has killed more than 250,000 people and upended
food production worldwide. Meat processing plants where
outbreaks have occurred are closed; truckers have curtailed
deliveries for fear of infection, and farmers are destroying
crops that they cannot get to consumers.
    Harvesting is the most labor-intense component of coffee
production. Colombia and Brazil, which produce 65% of global
arabica, the premium grade of coffee, will need around 1.25
million people, according to growers associations. They, along
with Peru and Ecuador, rely on temporary workers for field work.
    Farmers, coffee traders and importers in top-consuming
countries are concerned that the virus has not peaked in either
Brazil or Colombia, and bringing workers together for harvest
risks worsening the outbreak.
    Brazil's right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed
the seriousness of the virus, criticized regional movement
restrictions and pressed for businesses to reopen, even as the
country has recorded more than 135,000 cases and near 10,000
deaths, the most for an emerging market nation.
    Specialty coffee trader Caravela Coffee conducted a phone
poll with hundreds of associated growers in Peru, Ecuador and
Colombia late in April. Most of them said they expect
difficulties in hiring workers, adding that they might see
losses of up to 10% in the production of export-quality arabica.
    High-end coffee brands such as Starbucks,
Nestle-owned Nespresso and Italy's Illycaffe prefer
washed arabica beans, while robusta, produced mostly in
Vietnam, is widely used for instant coffee. Robusta's harvest is
over, but arabica picking is just beginning in South America.
    In Brazil and Colombia, local governments have exempted some
workers from restrictions on movement in order to avoid hurting
food production, including coffee or port operations. Coffee
deliveries rose 2.4% in March in Brazil, the latest month for
which data is available, though exports are expected to have
declined since. Prices rallied in March before declining nearly
10% in April.
    Farmers in Brazil said they are looking to hire fewer people
and harvest gradually. Several told Reuters that they are
considering delaying harvest due to worries about infection.

    "I will start with fewer people than normal, we might go
slower in the beginning," said Minas Gerais grower Paulo
Armelin, a regular supplier for Italy's Illy.
    Some officials have asked producers to delay the harvest for
at least a month, which is not desirable if they want to pick
the coffee cherries - the fruit that contains the beans - when
they are ripe, a prized quality aspect for arabica. Harvesting
the beans later when they are dry still makes good coffee, but
not the top export quality sought by mainstream roasters.
    "It has been hard to find protection equipment. We will
start the harvest, but if people start to get sick I will stop
and resume later," said producer Thiago Motta, owner of Jatoba
farm in the Cerrado region of Brazil's Minas Gerais state.
    In Colombia, where farms are smaller and in mountainous
areas, the harvest is mostly manual and demands many people in
the coffee fields. Most production is done by families, who can
bring in neighbors to help, which could reduce the need to bring
people from other areas. The country has reported fewer than
10,000 cases of coronavirus, but testing is not widespread.
     Colombia's coffee federation said temporary workers still
are needed for much of the harvest. Moving and housing some
150,000 workers in sanitary conditions will be difficult for
growers, as will ensuring beans are being processed and shipped
on time.
    In April, coffee exports in Colombia was down 32% from the
year-ago period due to restrictions put in place.
    Jhon Espitia, who comes from a family of coffee growers in
Tolima, in central Colombia, said the government's guidelines on
how to conduct harvesting under current conditions have not been
    "It's a very worrying situation because in some areas the
harvest has already begun and in 15, 20, 30 days it will be in
full swing," he said. 
    Transport could also be a problem. Trucks are used to take
coffee from farms to warehouses in nearby cities, where
selection takes place and lots are separated, before it is
loaded for delivery to ports.
    There has been a reduction in the availability of trucks,
since some drivers prefer to stay home to avoid the contagion.
The movement of trucks between cities could also increase risks.
    Dean Cycon, CEO of mid-sized U.S. coffee roaster Dean's
Beans, said from his conversations with suppliers all over Latin
America, that transportation is the largest concern.
    "We could see port operations slowing down, or problems with
trucks getting the coffee at farms," he said.        
 Arabica: 102.7
 Robusta: 69.7
 Colombian Milds: 15.5
 Other Milds: 31.7
 Brazilian Naturals: 55.5
 Source: ICO    

 (Reporting by Roberto Samora in Sao Paulo, Julia Symms Cobb in
Bogota and Marcelo Teixeira in New York; Additional reporting by
Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi; editing by David Gaffen and Aurora
Nuestros Estándares:Los principios Thomson Reuters
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