According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture, India’s 2022/23 coffee production will increase by 3.8% to 5.74 million 60kg bags. This makes India the seventh-largest producer of coffee in the world – meaning it’s a valuable cash crop for an estimated 250,000 coffee farmers in the country.
Most of India’s coffee-growing regions are located in the southern part of the country, with some smaller “non-traditional” areas in the northeast.
In the first week of December 2022, many producers in the south of India had already started harvesting their coffee, with plenty more set to begin in the weeks ahead. However, when Cyclone Mandous hit southern India, it caused a significant amount of damage to some of the country’s largest coffee-growing areas, including Tamil Nadu.
The storm has resulted in a number of short-term problems for Indian coffee farmers, including damaging ripe cherries. However, more concerningly, the impact of the cyclone raises questions about how India’s coffee sector is able to cope with the medium and long-term effects of climate change.
Bhavi Patel is a dairy technologist and food and travel writer, who has been writing extensively about the global coffee industry for some years now.
In this article, she explores the impact of unpredictable weather on Indian coffee farmers, and how they are recovering following recent storms.
You may also like our article on how coffee producers can prepare for unexpected weather.
An overview of coffee production in India
According to data from the Coffee Board of India, between 2020 and 2021, over 471,000ha of land was used to grow coffee in the country. India grows both robusta and arabica, with the former accounting for around 70% of the country’s coffee production.
Along the eastern coast and southern peninsula of the country, there are “traditional” and “non-traditional” coffee-growing areas. The three largest coffee-growing regions in the country are Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, which are all located in the south.
Smaller non-traditional growing regions (which have been recently developed for coffee production) are also located in northeast India.
Smallholders account for up to 98% of the country’s coffee farmers. This means these producers own or work on smaller parcels of land – and can sometimes mean they have less access to infrastructure and financial resources, although this isn’t always the case.
The vast majority of Indian coffee is shade grown. This has a number of benefits, including allowing plants to grow in lower temperatures.
Cooler temperatures allow coffee cherries to ripen more slowly, which gives them more time to fully develop their sugars. In turn, this means that Indian coffee is generally fuller-bodied and has more complex flavours.
The impact of recent storms on India’s coffee harvest
Given its geographical location, India is prone to experiencing erratic and extreme weather conditions. Cyclones are among the most prominent.
In simple terms, a cyclone is a large mass of air which rotates around a core of low atmospheric pressure. Generally speaking, they cause intense winds and heavy rainfall, which can have a devastating effect on both urban and rural populations – the latter of which is especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change, as well as where agriculture is also a major source of income for many people.
On 10 December 2022, Cyclone Mandous – the third most intense tropical storm of the 2022 North Indian Ocean Cyclone season – hit north Tamil Nadu. This resulted in heavy rainfall and sustained winds up to 65km and 85km per hour during the rest of the month.
During mid-December 2022, certain areas of India’s southern coffee-growing regions received up to three inches of rainfall in a week, which caused a number of problems for coffee producers.
Insight from local producers
Sundaresh is a producer at Pathinipara Estate, Pampadumpara in the southern state of Kerala.
“We received about 2.5 inches of rainfall in just five days,” he says. “The total number of ‘floaters’ [unripe cherries which rise to the top of floatation tanks] and lighter dried cherries which split open on branches also increased from 7% to 20%, which is a huge loss for us.”
While high levels of rainfall during the flowering and ripening stages are critical to the healthy development of coffee cherries, it can have serious consequences when farmers are harvesting their coffee. It’s especially important for coffee drying, too – warm, dry conditions are best for this, and rainfall can cause difficulties.
Pranoy Thipaiah is the Managing Partner at the Kerehaklu Plantation in Karnataka. He tells me that over the past few years, erratic weather conditions have become more common.
“Cyclones and other extreme weather patterns are happening more regularly, so we need to be proactive in becoming more climate resilient,” he says.
Unexpected weather patterns can also affect the ripening stages in other ways, such as causing both ripe and unripe cherries to fall off plants or split open.
Pranathi Shetty is a producer at Kolliberri the Coffee Farm in Karnataka.
“The heavy rains from Cyclone Mandous accelerated the ripening process of many of our plants,” she says. “We had already finished harvesting about 30% of our plants when the cyclone hit, but then suddenly, all of the cherries ripened – even ones which were only semi-ripe a week ago.
“Because of the high humidity and rainfall, some cherries still attached to branches also split open,” she adds.
What does this mean for coffee farmers?
“We started harvesting about a fortnight before Cyclone Mandous hit,” he says. “The varieties which tend to ripen later on, such as Chandragiri, started to ripen much earlier because of the weather conditions.
“Moreover, a lot of cherries were splitting open, and they started to dry on the branches once the sun rose,” he adds.
Nisha Thomas is a producer at Anai Kadu – Pottamkulam C Estate.
“Shorter flowering and ripening periods means that the cherries will absorb less nutrition,” she says.
Rohan Kuriyan is a producer at Balanoor Plantations. He explains that these issues can have serious consequences for Indian coffee farmers.
“The quantity of high-quality parchment reduces, the volume of cherry increases, and there will be a higher percentage of floaters,” he says. “This is disastrous for us economically, especially as the cost of farming inputs has increased this year, but also because we have already applied all the nutrients to the plants and carried out farming best practices, and now our plants are damaged.”
Navin Rajes is a producer at MSP Coffee in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu.
“We lost about 20% of our crop because of fallen cherries,” he says. “Picking fallen cherries increases labour costs by about five times, but not all of them can be processed.”
Ultimately, to avoid mould growth and attracting pests, farmers need to collect fallen cherries as soon as possible, which means they may need to invest more money to hire pickers. Moreover, pickers in India usually receive payment per kilogram of cherry. So, when cherries swell, they become heavier, which can mean that producers end up paying more money for lower yields.
Support for local producers
It’s clear that erratic and extreme weather conditions are causing a number of issues for some of India’s coffee farmers. Moreover, because of wet and humid conditions, it could lead to more challenges in the future.
To combat these issues, Indian coffee producers have taken a number of actions, including:
- Using large industrial fans to keep coffee cherries dry.
- Covering their harvested cherry and coffee plants to protect them from heavy rainfall.
- Hiring more labourers, so that farm workers can more regularly rake and spread out coffee, thereby helping it dry more quickly.
However, because most Indian coffee is shade grown, tree canopies help to provide natural protection from heavy rainfall and winds, as well as minimising soil erosion.
Navin, meanwhile, believes that improving the climate resilience of India’s coffee sector is essential to secure its future.
“We need to be able to adapt better to changing weather patterns,” he says. “This means reworking our regular farming practices, which can be a long and tedious process, but it’s the only way forward for farmers in our area.
“Investing in infrastructure more will serve to protect the harvested cherries, as well standardising post-harvest processing,” he adds.
Understanding the impact of climate change
According to the United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, India is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Estimates suggest that its exposure to more extreme weather has led to a 16% loss in GDP over the past two decades – and its agricultural sector is by far the most vulnerable to this.
“We need to focus on building better infrastructure to safeguard our coffee,” D.S. Shravan says. “We can’t undo the damage caused by climate change, but we can work towards being better prepared – it’s the only way forward.”
As part of this, one of the solutions could be developing and disseminating more climate-resilient varieties in the Indian coffee sector. Organisations such as World Coffee Research have recently launched new projects to provide more support on these efforts, but it’s clear that more work needs to be done.
“These varieties could help to improve yields in India as we cope with the effects of climate change,” Pranathi says.
The growing impact of climate change means that weather conditions in India – and other coffee-producing countries – will continue to become more erratic and extreme.
“Weather conditions like this are becoming a regular occurrence in many parts of the world,” Rohan says. “The monsoon seasons are getting longer, and unpredictable rainfall is becoming more common every year during harvests.
“Research and collaboration is critical to the survival of the Indian coffee sector,” he concludes.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on why frost in Brazil in 2021 caused global coffee prices to rise.
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