By Roberto Samora and Julia Symmes Cobb and Marcelo Teixeira
SAO PAULO / BOGOTÁ / NEW YORK (Reuters) - South American coffee producers may experience delays in the harvest this year and limit the number of workers employed in the sector as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, which threatens reduce the production of Arabica grains, of higher quality and export-oriented.
The pandemic has already killed more than 250,000 people and has severely impacted food production worldwide. Meat processing plants where outbreaks of the virus have been reported are closed, truck drivers have slowed delivery for fear of infection and farmers are destroying crops that will not be able to be taken to consumers.
Harvesting is the most labor-intensive stage in coffee production. Colombia and Brazil, which produce 65% of the world's Arabica coffee, a "premium" variety, will need 1.25 million people for the jobs, according to producer associations. These countries, along with Peru and Ecuador, depend on temporary employees for fieldwork.
But producers, coffee dealers and importers in the main consuming countries are concerned because the virus has not yet reached its peak in Brazil or Colombia, which makes gathering workers for the harvest a potential risk of worsening the epidemic.
The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has minimized the risks of the virus, criticizing restrictions on movement in the region and pressing for the reopening of business even with the country already registering more than 135 thousand cases and more than 10,000 deaths, the worst numbers for a emergent country.
Specialty coffee dealers Caravela Coffee conducted a telephone survey of hundreds of associate producers in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in late April. Most of them said they expected difficulties in hiring workers. They also projected possible losses of up to 10% in Arabica coffee production.
Specialty coffee brands like Starbucks, Nestle's Nespresso, and Italian Illycaffe, prefer washed Arabica beans, while robusta coffee, produced mainly in Vietnam, is generally used for instant coffee.
The robusta crop has ended, while the arabica harvest is just beginning in South America.
In Brazil and Colombia, local governments have exempted some workers from restrictions so as not to impact food production, including in the coffee and port sectors.
Producers in Brazil say they are considering hiring fewer people and gradually harvesting. Many told Reuters they considered delaying the harvest because of concerns about the virus.
"I'm going to start with less people than normal, we can go slower at the beginning," said producer Paulo Armelin, from Minas Gerais, a regular supplier for Italian Illy.
Some authorities even asked producers to postpone 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 ripe, an aspect valued for the quality of the arabica.
A later harvest, when the beans are dry, still produces good coffee, but not at the level of export quality sought by the main roasters.
"It has been difficult to find protective equipment. We are going to start harvesting, but if people start to get sick we will stop and resume later," said producer Thiago Motta, owner of the Jatobá farm, in the Cerrado region of Minas Gerais.
SMALL COLOMBIAN FARMS
In Colombia, where farms are smaller and in mountainous areas, harvesting is mainly manual and demands a lot of people in coffee plantations. Most producers are family members and call on neighbors to help, which could reduce the need to bring in people from other regions.
Colombia has registered less than 10,000 cases of coronavirus, but has not yet carried out mass tests.
The Colombian coffee industry federation said temporary workers must still be needed for much of the harvest. Moving and sheltering around 150,000 workers in adequate hygiene conditions due to the virus will be difficult for producers, as well as ensuring that coffee will be processed and shipped on time.
In April, Colombian coffee exports fell 32% year-on-year due to restrictions in force.
Jhon Espitia, who comes from a family of coffee producers in Tolima, in central Colombia, said that government guidelines on how to harvest under current conditions were unclear.
"It is a worrying situation because in some areas the harvest has already started and in 13, 20, 30 days it will be at full pace," he said.
Transport can also be a problem, since there has been a reduction in the availability of truck drivers - some drivers prefer to stay at home to avoid the risk of contagion. The movement of trucks between cities could also increase risks.
The CEO of American roaster Dean's Beans, Dean Cycon, said that in his conversations with suppliers in Latin America, transportation is the main concern.
"We could see operations slowing down at ports, or problems with trucks picking up coffee from farms," ​​he said.
GLOBAL COFFEE PRODUCTION (mi sacas)
ARABIC PRODUCTION BY ORIGIN
« Back to index