As coffee leaf rust began spreading across farms in 2013, many Salvadoran coffee producers found themselves in a dire situation. Drastically pruning back or completely cutting off hundreds of infected coffee bushes to stem the plague, many farmers lost up to 80 percent of their harvest. With many of these coffee plants ranging in age from 40-60 years old, the rust erased decades of time and money invested into these iconic farms, crippling the coffee industry.
As a result, the options facing most farmers have been to sell the land and quit the business, wage an all-out offensive with extensive agrochemical treatments or rebuild from scratch with rust-resistant coffee varieties. Renewing a coffee farm can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to reach peak production, and many farmers find the cost prohibitively expensive at $4,000 a $5,000 USD/hectare.
In response, the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project, a USDA-funded program, managed by NCBA CLUSA created cost-effective opportunities for coffee producers to renew their farms with new techniques and technology in sustainable agriculture. At $2,000 USD/hectare and a focus on organic production, the NCBA CLUSA model represents up to 60 percent cost-savings over agro-chemical based models, with low-cost nurseries being one of the model’s key components.
Given its 27-year history in El Salvador, NCBA CLUSA recognized the need to design coffee seedling nurseries that could be built using local supplies that were unique in size and need for each farm. Many are built from scrap wood, plastic tarps and palm fronds to provide shade. Program specialists also help farmers determine the best location and orientation for the nurseries to create the ideal, 50 percent-shade conditions throughout the day. Each nursery is custom -built in accordance with the scale of rebuilding that the coffee farm needs to undertake.
In addition to low-cost greenhouses, NCBA CLUSA also advises farmers on how to choose which rust-resistant varieties should be planted, by coordinating visits to other farms and seed banks. Production levels, quality and elevation are key components of this decision. While most Salvadoran producers have traditionally farmed Borboun, Pacas and Pacamara, coffee rust-resistant varieties such as Icatu, Sarchimor and Catimor, can result in a more stable investment in terms of rebuilding a farm for long-term crop security.
The Las Lajas Cooperative, located in the volcanic highlands of western El Salvador has excelled in nursery and greenhouse implementation. Perched at an altitude of 4,000ft, Las Lajas has grown over 325,000 Icatu seedlings for its high-altitude production. With the support from the El Salvador project, Las Lajas will also connect with buyers and represent their coffee at NCBA CLUSA’s Coffee Origins event on Thursday, March 2, bringing the project there into partnership with our USAID Cooperative Development Program project, which helps to make market linkages for co-ops in Latin America.
The nearby Los Pinos Cooperative, a unique farm embedded into the steep hillsides of a picturesque crater lake, has also produced 225,000 coffee seedlings at their property. Based on growing conditions and the changes in elevation across the cooperative, ranging from 2,900 ft. – 3,900 ft., Los Pinos chose to plant Icatu and Sarchimor, both of which can thrive in the given environment.
“Establishing a high-functioning coffee farm starts with selecting the seed variety that best fits the growing conditions at each cooperative,” said NCBA CLUSA’s organic agriculture and coffee specialist, Carlos Padilla. “By working with farmers to choose the right seeds and grow the seedlings onsite, we are not only helping to rebuild farms, we are reviving the coffee growing culture within each producer. We’re helping farmers rescue the ancestral knowledge that has been disappearing with recent generations, and we hope it will get passed on to their children.”
While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change-related impacts and market volatility have devastated the coffee economy in recent years. In response to these trends, the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project began to work with producers in 2014 to transition the affected farmland to coffee rust-resistant varieties, produce organic fertilizers and pesticides and improve marketing practices, in an integrated approach to revitalize the industry and increase its competitiveness, with new sustainable agriculture techniques and low-cost technology.