November has arrived and that means we are finally entering the cold dry season here in Santa Elena. While many parts of Honduras are gearing up for the harvest, we are still a solid two months away from our first pick, which generally starts in the first weeks of January.
Meanwhile, we wait, holding our collective breath, hoping that leaf rust does not decide to leave our trees without leaves and full of cherry that will not ripen (“chirivisco” is what they call it in Santa Elena). Yep, the perfect leaf rust storm of 2013 that received so much media attention is the new normal for producers who continue to grow heirloom varieties, which are vulnerable to leaf rust outbreaks.
Catracha Coffee producers bet the farm cultivating Bourbon, Typica and Catuaí rather than switching to (maybe) resistant varietals like IHCAFE 90 and Lempira. And while the newest media attention (the terrible C-market price) might have you believe that we are making the right choices — quality over quantity — to survive, you might be wrong about that.
The literature says that leaf rust can reproduce when there are uninterrupted periods of water in contact with the leaf, in combination with warm temperatures greater than 15°C. Well that pretty much describes the usual weather in Santa Elena from May through October. This year the rains actually came early and heavy in April. Then we had an unusually long second summer — 6 weeks without rain rather than the usual 2 weeks — in June-July, which probably saved us from a serious outbreak of leaf rust. The rain returned in late July, just in time to save the withering corn crops from being totally lost. The rain in August and September was manageable with just enough dry periods to let the mud-soaked roads recover and the coffee farms dry a bit.
There was actually an entire week without rain at the end of September. And then the rain came day-and-night for nearly the entire month of October. The happy valley (Llano Alegre) turned into a lake, the roads became impassable, and the coffee farms remained wet while temperatures remained above 15°C.
Now we are in November and the rain has stopped and temperatures are dropping but has the damage been done? The hallmarks of leaf rust, little yellow spots on the underside of the leaf, are noticeable. These infected leaves will die and then fall from the tree over the next few months and if enough leaves were infected the tree will be chirivisco come harvest time.
The good news, Catracha producers have been taking action all year long to manage the leaf rust reality. This starts with a farm management plan that focuses on improved plant nutrition and preventative measures to keep the levels of leaf rust infection low. Preventative measures include regular tree pruning, which promotes better air circulation. You can usually see the start of a leaf rust infection on new tree growth close to the ground where leaves can remain wet for prolonged periods of time. Producers have to be vigilant about removing this vector before it spreads.
We are also making a lime/sulfur liquid (sulfocalcico) to spray on the undersides of the leaves. Sulfur is a natural fungicide and when sprayed on the leaf’s stomata it inhibits fungus from entering through these tiny pores and infecting the leaf. Catracha producers sprayed sulfocalcico on their farms several times this year. Application every 45 days is recommended to continuously provide protection for new leaf growth and disrupt the leaf rust’s incubation cycle.
So now we wait and hope these preventative actions will keep the leaf rust damage low enough so that an otherwise healthy tree can continue the cherry maturation process. It is important to emphasize that these labor-intensive actions are costly, and we are grateful for the roaster community that pays what we ask, which improves our financial ability to take action. There are many other small producers in Santa Elena who cannot make needed investments to their farms and the results are painfully apparent. Many of those producers will have substantial damage this year as a result of the leaf rust outbreak caused by October’s heavy rains.
The Royal blog has graciously provided space for a number of Catracha related articles over the years. If you are not familiar with the Catracha story, we encourage you to read more about our progression. There are also a few remaining 2018 Catracha Coffees spot at Royal. If you want to hear more about the 2019 Catracha harvest and available lots, reach out to Mayra and make plans to come and visit us in Honduras. We plan to have pre-ship samples available in April, and we are always interested in creating relationships between Catracha producers and roasters. Let’s talk soon!