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Storm brews for India’s coffee growers after heavy rains

Storm brews for India’s coffee growers after heavy rains

October 11, 2018


When it rained in July, coffee growers in Kodagu were pleased because their crop had been stricken by drought in the past few years, recalls Bottangada Muthanna Raju, who grows the beans in Hudikeri village, at the southernmost tip of the hill district in Karnataka.


“It kept pouring for months on end, though,” Raju said. “By the time the rains stopped our crops had taken a heavy beating.”In the first few weeks of August alone, Kodagu district received 1,675 mm of rainfall — more than twice the average for the entire month that is 821mm.Because of the heavy downpour, Raju, who owns 65 acres of coffee plantations, is expecting to reap this year only 20% of his usual harvest of around 390 kg/acre. “The situation is so bad, we’re wondering whether to even harvest this year,” he told Hindustan Times.


Rainfall in Kodagu for the southwest monsoon, which begins June 1 to and ends September 30 is normally 2,345mm. Last year, it was 1,790mm. This year the rainfall has been 3,154mm, which is 35% more than usual, according to India Meteorological Department data.In a statement released in September, the Coffee Board of India estimated a crop loss of about 82,000 tonnes because of the heavy rains and floods that pounded Karnataka and Kerala this monsoon.


Kerala received the heaviest rainfall in a century in August, which also submerged half the state and left more than 400 people dead and thousands more residents homeless.The coffee crop in Karnataka, India’s biggest grower of the beans, and Kerala also took a bad hit.The estimated crop loss is about a third of India’s annual coffee output. The Board also stated that at least 1,500 hectares of coffee growing land has been affected by landslides.Small coffee growers are especially hard hit as coffee is a crop that takes more than a decade to mature, requires intensive cultivation and huge financial investment to maintain the plantations.


Bad year

“In a good year we produce about 350 kilograms of coffee per acre, but this year I don’t think we’ll cross even 100 kilograms,” says KK Manukumar of Kalladevapura village in Chikmangalur. “In our area, the heavy rains caused all the leaves to fall from the coffee plant; it has also affected our bean size and in the worst cases, plants have begun to rot. Plants such as pepper and cardamom that we grow in the coffee plantations are so few this year they are not enough even for our own consumption. It will take us at least three to four years to come back to normal.”

India produced 316,000 tonnes of coffee in 2017-18 and accounted for 3.3% of global coffee production and 5.7% of global coffee exports. Indian coffee grown in the shade, especially the Arabica variety, is considered to be among the finest in the world.


Most of the coffee is produced by small farmers whose land holdings do not exceed 10 hectares. India has about 280,000 small coffee growers who make up about 99% of all coffee growers with the medium and large land holders making up the remaining 1%. The coffee industry employs nearly 700,000 people on a daily basis around the year. Harvesting usually begins in November and continues till January. Most of this business is concentrated in Karnataka and Kerala. Some 54% of India’s coffee output comes from Karnataka and about 19% from Kerala.


Coffee is a plant that thrives at high altitudes. This has meant that the growers have borne the full brunt of the heavy rains, which were felt at its fiercest in the hill districts of Karnataka and other parts of southern India. In the village of Hoskote in Hassan district of Karnataka, NB Udayakumar, who grows both the Robusta and Arabica varieties of coffee on 23 acres of land, says: “(In) the last three years there were severe droughts and then these heavy rains, so crop loss has become a constant phenomenon. My family is still not sure how to deal with the heavy damages of this year.”


A senior official from the coffee board, who did not want to be named, corroborated the reason for the growers’ distress: “In Chikmangalur for example, out of the 90,000 hectares of coffee plantations, about 30-35,000 hectares and 13,000 growers have been affected. For some of the growers, it will take many years to recover. We have surveyed the affected areas and submitted to the government and we hope they will assist the farmers to get back on their feet.”


Tough times ahead

The government is doing its bit, but that’s not going adequate, said one farmers. “Through the disaster relief fund, they are giving us about Rs 36,000 per acre and that is just not enough. We invest about Rs 10-15,000 per acre to just to grow the crop. Then there is the harvesting, processing, pulping and bagging,” says Manukumar.Coffee growers’ associations have demanded a special relief package. They have sought a waiver of interest on coffee loans, re-scheduling of outstanding loans and reduction in the interest rate for coffee loans to 3% for loans up to Rs 25 lakh and 6% for more than Rs 25 lakh.


According to the Coffee Board, the demands are justified considering the distress faced by growers. “We have made our submissions as well and it is now up to the government to decide. Without some such assistance though, it’ll take time to get the coffee industry back on its feet,” said the Coffee Board official cited above.Meanwhile in Kodagu, Sakleshpur, Chikmangalur, Hassan and other parts of Karnataka, it is a waiting game for coffee growers. “We are a martial race and are made of tough stuff” says BM Raju of Kodagu. “Somehow we’ll manage to get through this, but it is going to take many years for our coffee plantations to return to normal.”



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