South to Capricornio
Repeated frosts curbed production in southern Brazil but are now less of a threat.
Temperature increases make southern Brazil, once a powerhouse of production, coffee-friendly again.
By Kelly Stein
Scientific forecasts describe a dark future for coffee production. The world’s coffee growing regions are getting hotter and drier, rains are less predictable. Cold snaps are sharper and droughts more severe, all of which is changing how producers, business executives, and traders define their strategy.
Migrating to climate-friendly regions is an appealing solution.
According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), average temperatures have increased almost two degrees Celsius in the last 49 years. The steady rise is affecting coffee production. Yields are lower, pests and diseases are more menacing, and harvest totals are more difficult to predict leading to pricing volatility.
Perhaps even more ominous for small and specialty growers is the fact that consistent coffee quality is more difficult to achieve.
The severe ongoing drought in Espírito Santo, the main robusta producing region in Brazil, has caused a serious shortage, a crisis that drove prices higher than arabica in markets and had Brazil considering importing coffee to supply its value-added manufacturing segment for the first time.
The impact of temperature variations is nothing new, (see Arabica in 2050). Predictions are that demand will double while land suitable for growing arabica is reduced by half. The global robusta shortage is an example of how climate change is reshaping the market — robusta is the most climate tolerant coffee in the world.
“Moving to higher elevations where it is cooler, can compensate for higher temperatures by two to three degrees,” according to researchers Oriana Ovalle-Rivera and Peter Läderach at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
Moving to more favorable growing regions exactly what some players are doing, even as they employ climate adaptation strategies at their existing properties.
Once located, the challenge in climate-friendly regions is starting from scratch.
The Tropic of Capricorn
Globally coffee thrives in a band from roughly 20 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south, a latitude known as the Tropic of Capricorn.
The coffee belt wraps around the globe and offers good conditions for coffee plantations. The biggest coffee producers in Africa, parts of Asia, South and Central America are located within this imaginary belt. Climate change may widen this zone over time.
The Brazilian state Minas Gerais which is located 18.5 degrees south of the equator has produced award-winning coffees, drawing the attention of the specialty coffee market which has relied on growers there to reliably supply nearly one-third of the world’s coffee. That is changing.
Capricorn coffee belt
Coffee growers are now eyeing lands near the Tropic of Capricorn, where well established seasons offer ideal temperatures from a subtropical climate. There are big variations in temperature during the day with cooler nights that allow large, full-flavored cherries to mature.
Sorocabana (in São Paulo state) and Norte Pioneiro (Paraná state) were well-known coffee producing areas in the past and now, these regions are awakening to specialty coffee.
Paraná borders the Atlantic where the deepwater port of Paranaguá handles the largest volume of agricultural goods of any port in Brazil, cargo valued at $4.3 billion in 2014.
Edgard Bressani, one of the principals at Capricornio Coffee, says conditions are ideal for growing in this region. He believes the “Capricorn coffee belt” with its desirable sensorial profiles will become a major source of specialty coffee.
Capricornio exported 30,000 60-kilo bags in 2016/2017. He estimates production in the region at 600,000 bags.
“Our plan is to export 150,000 bags in five years,” explains Bressani. “These numbers give a direction to our work today and for the future,” he said.
Reaching this goal will be challenging but an action plan is already defined. The company has established offices in Piraju in São Paulo and Jacarezinho in Paraná and is betting that its close relationship with producers from this region will produce large quantities of specialty-grade coffees using the latest techniques.
South to Capricornio
There are more than 60 municipalities in the Capricornio coffee belt.
Starting at the ground up has advantages.
“We have agronomists working close to these farmers throughout the year. Agronomic consulting and guidance for better processing methods during harvest and post-harvest is part of process to get high-quality lots,” says Bressani.
According to the company report, “our intention is to create long lasting relationships with local producers, help them to select their specialty coffees, adding value, and get paid a better price for all their hard work.”
The Four Seasons Project is a training program with Capricornio’s growers that considers the entire crop cycle. Each property is evaluated by a team of experts and receives suggestions and ideas to improve the production year by year. The key to success is being close to the field for all 12 months, not just during the post harvest.
Coffees from several farms in the area have been selected as Cup of Excellence finalists over the years, an indication of the region’s untapped potential.
Capricornio was born from a desire of José Antônio Rezende and Luiz Roberto Saldanha to promote wonderful coffees from the southern coffee growing region. Unique coffees always have been grown there but were lost when blended and sold in the domestic market with no traceability. Bressani joined Capricornio Coffees as a partner in late 2016 to boost sales and promote coffees from the Capricorn coffee belt.
Sorocabana and Norte Pioneiro
Brazil has been the world’s largest producer of coffee for the last 150 years, supplying as much as 80% of the world’s coffee in the 1880s. Pioneers at that time, both Sorocabana and Norte Pionerio contributed to Brazil’s dominance. Development of railways in Sorocabana in 1875 was a milestone in the industrial revolution in Brazil and helped to transport great quantities of agricultural goods during that period.
Cotton was king in those days, but in time the coffee led to the creation of new stations leading to Botcatu, along the Sorocabana Railways as it crossed the countryside of São Paulo state and Paraná connecting the Mato Grosso do Sul states.
The city of Piraju, where Capricornio Coffees has established one of its offices, was a train stop on the Sorocabana route. The train station there began operations in 1906. One year later, electric trams were introduced for local transportation and hydroelectric plants supplied electricity to the city. This investment was necessary to meet the needs of a growing coffee economy in 1913, the year that the US President Theodore Roosevelt visited the city.
Across the border, Paraná state had a glorious past in coffee until the great “black” frost destroyed all the coffee plants and forced producers to migrate to Minas Gerais in the 1970s. In Brazil coffee frosts usually occur in the south. June, July, and August are the coldest parts of the year in Brazil. During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, frost drove volatility in the coffee market, while drought was an afterthought.
Years later, with drought and warmer temperatures becoming the big concerns, the south is more inviting to growers. Cultivation has increased little by little until today the Norte Pioneiro region is home of 7,500 coffee producers. Its 45 municipalities produce more than 1 million bags per year.
One of the biggest accomplishments for these producers is the geographical indication (GI) designation in 2012. Now, with an official certificate, the production processes and origin of coffee in this region can avoid possible falsifications. Until 2012, Cerrado Mineiro and Serra da Mantiqueira were the only regions with these official recognitions.
A collaborative work between farmers, research institutions, and the government made this achievement possible.
The ongoing work keeps procedures that guide farmers’ and traders’ work in the region. Now, with its climate-friendly coffee regions, this can be the hot spot for specialty coffee in the next years.
Common white or “singeing” frost that “burns” the topmost branches will hurt the coffee plant and its next crop but the plant will fully recover with the right care.
“Black frost” known as geadas negras, is more difficult to identify as the coffee plant is not frozen by subzero temperatures, but rather affected by the combined effect of wind and temperatures from 2-5 °C, and may never recover, according to CoffeeResearch.org.
Even when a severe frost occurs it only does permanent damage if it immediately follows a rain period when the tree’s leaves and trunk are still wet, according to Maxine Margolis, with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Water in the trunk’s cells cause them to rupture from the expansion and eventually the trunk splits.
In her 1979 paper Green Gold and Ice, she writes that “On a bitterly cold night in late July, 1975 the temperature plummeted below freezing for a number of hours in the coffee zone of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. Several days later it was reported that 70% of the region’ coffee was destroyed and an undetermined number of coffee trees were killed during the frost — purportedly the worst within living memory.”
Black frosts in 1870, 1902, 1918, and 1943 greatly reduced the size of subsequent harvests for as long as three years. In 1918 production declined from 12.5 million bags in 1917/18 to 7.2 milion bags in 1918/19 down to and 4.1 million bags in 1919/20, writes Margolis.