Cold weather in Brazil forcing farmers to adapt on the fly
There is no doubt that this year has been a tough year in Brazil for most coffee producers. With frost and dramatically cold temperatures, as low as -9 degrees in some cases, producers are uncertain about the impact on their production as a whole. We also see a lot of speculation internationally on the production volumes expected from Brazil this year and how this will affect price globally.
In Sul de Minas earlier this month I saw that volume is certainly affected, but it is not as bad as predicted. The bigger impact is in the maturation of the cherry being prepared or processed and on the post harvest drying of coffee.
Farmers in Brazil have to manage their farms very differently to many other coffee producers in the world because of the size of their farms, the cost of labour in Brazil, and the generally lower price of Brazilian coffee in the international market. This has a huge impact on the way they harvest the cherry.
In other origins it is common to make several passes of the trees, picking only the ripe cherries each time, but this is prohibitively expensive for Brazilian producers because of the scale of their production. Instead the coffee is picked at the best possible time to capture as many mature cherries, and as few green or overripe cherries as possible. In most cases farmers will pick mechanically or at least a combination of mechanical and hand picking. These cherries are then processed together and the sorting is done post processing at the dry milling stage. The fewer mature cherries you begin with, the lower the overall quality of the coffee.
Producers in Brazil are always weighing up how long to leave the cherries on the tree to ripen, due to the impact that the rains can have on their production. There can often be heavy rain in July, which is also a period where you start to have good amounts of cherry ripening on the tree, and if it rains heavily the ripe cherries are damaged in two ways. They can fall to the ground and start to ferment, and hence lose a lot of their value. The cherries that remain on the tree are also damaged by the intake of too much water at once. This causes the cells in the skin of the cherries to be forced apart and you get splitting through which mucilage is lost. This results in the beans having a lower weight and cup score. Farmers have to carefully manage the risk of waiting longer to pick and allowing more ripe cherries but also the risk of rain and losing money in coffee on the ground.
The earlier cold temperatures across Brazil has slowed the maturation of the cherries on the trees, and now producers are faced with green cherry on the tree when they expect to have cherry on their patios. This also gives the impression that volumes are reduced because the volumes are still on the tree and not in the market yet. It is not a comfortable position for a farmer, as there are more risks with coffee in the field than with coffee in your warehouse. There is also a feeling among farmers that they will lose out on the market that exists if they are delivering too late.
When you are in the middle of something you are not always able to see how to take actions that are adaptive to the new conditions presented. Unexpected climate conditions require producers to adapt their normal way of doing things. In many cases this is achieved with ease but sometimes, where farmers are less experienced, they struggle to evolve quick enough.
I saw on the cupping table many coffees that are not being dried well, and I believe there will be some issues on early coffees from Brazil on humidity and water activity. The colder conditions have also made drying coffee more challenging. If coffees are not well dried but remain in parchment or in dried cherry state, they can be dried further until they reach the correct humidity. Once they are milled and prepared however, this is much harder to do.
This does not mean we won’t find great coffees in Brazil this year, but it will be harder to find good volumes. Even though the NY market is at 98.15c per lb, the differential for good coffees from Brazil is high due to the climate issues impacting the volume of quality. That means cupping through a lot of coffees to find the great ones, which is what we’ve been doing. I feel confident in the first round of selections we have made.