As climate changes, coffee farmers struggle to protect crops

Shifting weather patterns have led to lower bean yields and higher prices at coffee shops.

March 23, 2011|By Melissa Allison for LA Times


A mile above this rural mountain town, coffee trees have produced some of the world’s best arabica beans for more than a century.

Now, farmers are planting even higher — at nearly 7,000 feet — thanks to warmer temperatures.

“We noticed about six years ago, the weather changed,” said Ricardo Calderon Madrigal, whose family harvests ripe, red coffee cherries at the higher elevation. He sells beans to some of the most notable coffeehouses in the U.S., including Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Ore., and Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco.

Standing among healthy coffee trees near the upper reaches of his farm, Calderon said he knows he is lucky.

Calderon is one of the few Costa Rican coffee farmers benefiting from the shifting weather pattern, while most of his fellow growers have found themselves on the losing end.

Yields in Costa Rica have dropped dramatically in the last decade, with farmers and scientists blaming climate change for a significant portion of the troubles.

Many long-established plantation owners have seen trees wither or flower too early. Some have given up. Others are trying to outwit changes in temperature, wind and rain with new farming techniques and hardier tree varieties.

Like many tropical crops, coffee cannot tolerate extreme high and low temperatures, and it needs dry and wet seasons. Costa Rica and other countries, such as Colombia, with sophisticated coffee farms and mills, appear to be noticing the effect of climate change first.

These problems are helping to push up the price of a latte or espresso at coffee shops everywhere.

Most important, the fate of coffee in Costa Rica could be a bellwether for food production — and prices — globally, as farmers around the world cope with mudslides, droughts and creeping changes in temperature.

Almost all coffee grows in the tropics, and in general, tropical species are more sensitive to climate change, said Joshua Tewksbury, the Walker professor of natural history at the University of Washington. There are more species there, they can withstand only a narrow band of temperatures and they are not likely to adapt well to change.

Heavy rains in Colombia recently helped drive coffee beans to prices not seen in more than a decade, and coffee companies are watching closely. Last fall, Starbucks raised prices on some drinks to offset rising costs on commodities, notably coffee.


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