Roya, also known as leaf rust, or Hemileia vastatrix is a highly contagious fungal disease, fed by moisture and heat, causing rust colored powdery sores to infect leaves of the plant. Eventually, leaves drop, photosynthesis ceases, and death ensues.
It was last November that I received a phone call from Guatemala with news of the increasing prevalence of roya on the farm of our friend, Alex Keller. Increasingly, similar reports have arrived from farms throughout Latin America with the affected range now stretching from Mexico to Peru.
A state of emergency has been declared in Guatemala with official estimates of reduction in export pegged at 15% though many expect the true number to be closer to 30%. The outlook for next year’s harvest is even worse with potential loss of up to nearly half of the harvest. The only ones grinning are the chemical companies, with their sales of potent fungicides soaring. Some conspiracy theorists have pegged these companies as the culprit, purposefully releasing a mutant strain to rake in the profits. This represents an extreme of the numerous explanations to be offered. One thing is for certain however, that increasingly irregular weather patterns have created more ideal conditions for which the fungus to thrive.
Our Farm Direct mainstay over the years, Finca Nuevo Vinas, hails from a certified organic farm. While many farms with the required capital have been spraying fungicide to keep it under control, organic farms face a much steeper challenge. Always a tireless experimenter, Alex conducted over 80 separate tests of organic application with hopes he could find a remedy to control the spread of the disease. Still, the most effective combination he devised comes at a hefty cost, and must be applied every 20 days to mirror the life cycle of the roya. If this treatment proves ineffective, there will be little choice other than to sacrifice organic certification and save the farm.
With the tragedy that has hit his farm, among the many others, we feel fortunate to have secured some excellent coffees for the upcoming year. Fresh crop Finca Nuevo Vinas will be returning to our lineup shortly, though Finca Pacamaral’s harvest was so poor that it will not be. In an attempt to find another beautiful coffee to showcase the diversity of profiles in Guatemala, I travelled for the first time to Alta Verapaz, a lushly tropical region situated roughly in the middle of the country.
We arrived in Coban by small airplane, greeted by Luis ‘Wicho’ Valdez, fourth generation farming enthusiast, and gracious host. With the harvest still underway, we set out to his family’s farms, Santa Isabel and San Lorenzo. The climate of this region is drastic, with temperatures reaching freezing at times and humidity hovering above 90%. These conditions, coupled with a precise, highly unique system of processing have yielded a tremendous coffee, replete with flavors of black currant, orange, and melon. We have secured this coffee for upcoming release at which time I will share more about the Valdez family and their impressive coffee.