By Jeffrey T. Lewis
(Dow Jones) -- SAO PAULO--Brazil's coffee harvest is being slowed in some areas by social distancing measures implemented amid the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, according to Carlos Augusto Rodrigues de Melo, president of Brazil's biggest coffee cooperative.
The owners of bigger coffee plantations in the area where the cooperative, known as Cooxupe, operates are having difficulties transporting enough workers to fields to harvest the coffee cherries at the best time, which will affect the quality of some of the crop, he said.
"The main problem is getting workers from where they live to the fields, " Mr. de Melo said, adding that they can only transport about half the normal number of people because of social distancing rules.
Unusually heavy rains a few weeks ago exacerbated the problem with the delays. The additional precipitation sped up the ripening of the coffee cherries, which contain the beans that are roasted and ground for consumers, reducing the ideal window for harvesting the fruit.
That means that a larger proportion of the coffee will be harvested outside that ideal time period, which will also have a negative effect on quality, though so far the impact hasn't been significant, Mr. de Melo said.
Recent cold weather in areas where Cooxupe members have their plantations has resulted in some light frosts, but so far they haven't resulted in any damage to crops, he said.
"The outlook for quality is very satisfactory, very good. If the weather stays dry during the harvest, then we'll have a bigger crop of high quality," he said.
Cooxupe so far hasn't seen a decline in demand for coffee stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. de Melo said. But consumers who used to buy their java at Starbucks or other coffee shops have switched to lower-quality brews at home, he said.
"Specialty coffees are feeling the impact because coffee shops, restaurants, bars and hotels are big consumers of top quality beans, and they've all been closed. We expect things to get better again as coffee shops in Europe and Asia have begun reopening," he said.
Cooxupe, based in the town of Guaxupe in Minas Gerais state, has more than 15,200 members. This year, the cooperative predicts its members will produce a crop of about 10.3 million 132-pound bags of beans, Mr. de Melo said.
Brazil has a two-year coffee production cycle in which crops are bigger in even-numbered years than in odd-numbered years, and in 2018 Cooxupe's members produced 9.6 million bags of coffee.
Even though 2019's crop was smaller than in 2018, it was the cooperative's best year ever financially, Mr. de Melo said. Cooxupe had revenue of 4.2 billion reais ($844 million) in the year, and distributed 77.1 million reais of that to its members, in addition to the money growers get for selling their output to the cooperative.
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