Beetle control, labor shortages top challenges for Colombia coffee -federation

Credit: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA, May 21 (Reuters) - Preventing the spread of berry borer beetles and harvesting in spite of labor shortages are Colombian coffee farmers' top challenges for the remainder of 2020, the head of the country's growers' federation said.

Two months of coronavirus quarantine in Colombia, the world's top producer of washed arabica beans, has complicated growers' efforts to find pickers, though farms are exempt from lockdown.

Output fell in the first four months of the year because lack of rains delayed flowering. Lower than average rains have also boosted infestations of the beetles, known as "broca."

"Broca has been and will be a distortion factor and a headache this year," the federation's Roberto Velez told Reuters late on Wednesday. "With labor shortages there will surely be more coffee that falls to the ground and that's potential for higher levels of broca."

The federation has urged farmers not leave mature coffee fruit unharvested or allow fruit to accumulate below their trees. Broca has so far affected about 6% of the crop, compared with 3% last year.

Colombian growers were already facing persistent labor shortages, as young people move to cities and shun the arduous work of hand-picking coffee cherries.

Many farms cling to steep Andean hillsides, making harvesting with large machines impossible, but the federation is promoting a small machine that lightly vibrates trees so ripe berries fall off.

Growers around South America have said coronavirus restrictions and social distancing could make it even more challenging to find workers.

Safety measures meant to prevent coronavirus on farms - including use of face masks, frequent hand-washing, social distancing and disinfection efforts - will continue until the virus is controlled, Velez said.

Velez predicts output will fall this year to around 14 million 60 kg bags, down from a record 14.8 million in 2019.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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