By Caleb O’Brien
SAN LUIS, Costa Rica—Finca La Bella lives up to its name. The family-run organic coffee farm is perched at 3,800 feet above sea level among rolling, verdant hills. Between shade and fruit trees, about 4,000 coffee plants stir in the breeze, flashing and then concealing the glossy red coffee cherries that cling to their branches. Stingless black bees flit from their hive in a hollow tree trunk nearby, and in the canopy of a tree beside the road, a sloth does pretty much nothing. But the tranquil scene belies a less idyllic truth.
Oldemar Salazar Picado and his family have been farming here for 20 years. For the past decade, they’ve managed every stage of that process themselves, from planting the seedlings to roasting and brewing. But during recent harvests, they’ve lost about 80 percent of their crop. The culprit is a fungus called la roya, or coffee rust in English, that has wreaked havoc on coffee production across central America. The fungus withers the plants’ leaves, turning them spotted and yellow, until eventually the leaves drop off.
As Salazar Picado puts it, in Spanish, “The leaves are like the plant’s stomach. If they fall off, the plant can’t eat.”
Fungi harming coffee production is not a new phenomenon — Salazar Picado says they’ve been dealing with it for the two decades they’ve had the farm, but this season is the worst yet for the fungi. He attributes the shift to climate change.
“The fungi are getting stronger,” he says.
The region usually experiences sharp divisions between the rainy season and the dry season, but recently the weather has been disconcertingly jumbled, weakening the coffee and making the fungi even more virulent.
To combat the rust, Salazar Picado and others have turned to yet another fungus. When mixed with water and sprayed regularly on the plants, it lessens the effects of the coffee rust. But this form of biological control is expensive and must be purchased at a laboratory far from the farm.
Tackling coffee rust “means money, means work, means time,” Salazar Picado says. To make up for the lower yields, he’s increased production, but young coffee plants take years to bear coffee cherries.
Fortunately, Salazar Picado has a new tool in his arsenal: a variety of coffee resistant to the fungus’ effects. He has only eight mature plants growing in his farm, but their leaves are a bright, healthy green. And growing in black plastic bags full of soil in the nursery, thousands of rust-resistant seedlings await planting.
Organic farmers face greater constraints on the ways they treat coffee rust than conventional farmers do, but Salazar Picado doesn’t regret getting certified.
The farming techniques entail “more work and less production,” he says, “but my health is better, and the environment is healthier.” And anyway, “even if you use lots of chemicals, you still can’t control the fungus.”