Coffee turns ‘watery’ in Wayanad as rain plays spoilsport with harvest

Coffee cherries ready for harvest in Wayanad. Photo: Special Arrangement

Wayanad: The coffee may miss the punch this time — while coffee prices have surged, and the crop initially appeared promising, the optimism has faded for thousands of farmers in Wayanad, Coorg and the Nilgiris this harvest season. The reason behind their dismay is the relentless and destructive downpour that has disrupted the entire harvesting process in these coffee-rich regions over the past several days.

The global coffee market faces skyrocketing prices due to reduced supply from major producers Brazil and Vietnam, impacted by adverse weather conditions. In the domestic market, the price of coffee beans (dry coffee beans with shell) breached the 'Rs 150 per kg' mark on Thursday.

Farmers and experts alike agree that the current weather pattern, characterised by widespread and continuous rain during the harvest season, is unprecedented in recent memory. Typically, summer rain commences towards the end of March, after the harvest is complete, allowing the coffee plants to undergo a cooling period between harvest and blossoming.

Many farmers are facing dire circumstances as their labourers, primarily from remote areas of Karnataka, Assam, and West Bengal find themselves with little work due to the extended period of lull caused by the blossoms on the coffee plants. Harvesting during this time would significantly jeopardise the prospects of the next crop, as it could damage the delicate flowers. Adding to the challenges, the region has experienced an extended period of limited sunshine over the past few weeks, further delaying the coffee drying process.

Saju CD, a farmer residing in Vakery, near Sulthan Bathery, said, “The typical drying period for coffee ranges from 10 to 15 days. However, at present, it is taking more than a month due to the scarcity of adequate sunshine in the region.” He mentioned that they were considering the use of dryers. “But such facilities are yet to be established in the area, as this unusual climate occurrence was previously very rare,” he said. Saju also said that he had ceased harvesting for almost a week because the harvested coffee beans still had not been properly dried.

Glenora Rajagopal, a planter from Vaduvanchal, near Meppadi, said, “This year, we have seen a good crop and favourable prices, but the adverse climate conditions have dampened our spirits.” He said experts had advised against harvesting while the flowers were on the plants to avoid harming next year’s crop.

George Daniel, Deputy Director of the Regional Coffee Research Station in Chundel, near Kalpetta, said the region got nearly 2 inches of rain in the past few days, creating an ideal climate for coffee blossoming. He said the station had advised farmers to temporarily halt their harvesting activities if the blossoms were fully developed.

George Daniel said the harvest at the model farm within the research station had been adversely affected by the unexpected rainfall. He said, with extreme care during harvest, the impact on next year’s crop can be minimised. However, he acknowledged that this season’s harvest had become quite challenging. “As up to 40 per cent of the plants are in flowering mode, it is advisable to suspend harvesting for a while until the blossoms are fully set,” he added.

The damaged cherries of the Arabica coffee plant. Photo: Special Arrangement

The crisis is significantly more severe in Coorg, renowned for its expansive coffee plantations. Thomas George, the manager of a prominent plantation group located in Kutta, Coorg, attributed it to the ‘unprecedented climatic challenge,’ unlike anything he has witnessed in his decades-long experience in Coorg. Thomas George said that over the past nine days, they had rarely a sunny day, with untimely rain on almost all days. He said the Arabica harvest was particularly affected as the berries were susceptible to rapid deterioration following rainfall, leading to a higher drop-down percentage.

This year, the cost of harvesting is expected to surge due to the necessity of picking up the fallen berries before proceeding with the main harvest. In addition to this, Coorg’s coffee planters are grappling with the fact that 20 to 40 per cent of their Robusta fields are currently in the blossoming stage. With tons of harvested coffee left exposed to the mercy of the elements in the drying yards, they face limitations in covering these vast areas to shield the harvest from the rain. 

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