Author: David Kelley
Heavy frost has severely burned and damaged the Brazilian coffee crop.
Over the past month, Brazil has seen some of its coldest temperatures in over 25 years. On July 20, 2021, temperatures fell below 0°C (32°F) for several hours causing enough frost damage to upset the country’s coffee production for at least the next two crop cycles.
Brazil is one of the top coffee-producing countries, accounting for at least 40% of the world’s coffee supply with Vietnam coming in second. It also suffices to say that coffee is one of Brazil’s most lucrative industries, with a coffee belt made up of six states including Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, São Paulo, Bahia, Rondônia, and Paraná.
Frost isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon in the country or the South American continent. It’s something that has been happening for years and generally happens every year around this time. However, the last significant frost in terms of crop damage had occurred in 1994 and before that in the 1970s.
Yearly frosts usually only affect the low-lying areas within valleys or locations where coffee production is riskier and less distinguished. However, the more damaging frosts seem to be occurring every 15 to 30 years.
Frost forms when the temperature of the air dips below what is referred to as a surface’s “dew point.” In other words, the air becomes so cold that it freezes any water vapors in the atmosphere, creating snow and ice. In terms of coffee crops, ice crystals form over any exposed, dewy surfaces—i.e., the leaves of the coffee trees and even the berries.
Additionally, there are two types of frost that can occur: White frosts and black frosts.
White frosts are responsible for causing the visible ice crystals that spread over the plants, but may not result in permanent damage.
Black frosts form when temperatures drop below freezing (0°C) with little to no humidity. Rather than causing the water vapors to freeze, the coffee plant’s leaves will turn brown or black, which is referred to as “frost burn.”
Frost burn usually causes irreversible damage to the crops, which is what most farmers in the Brazilian coffee belt are currently facing.
The Black Frost and its Impact on Coffee Production
Heavy "black-frost" has burned an estimated 30-percent of the Brazilian coffee crop, but damage estimates are still early.
At the moment, it’s difficult to assess the full damage of the black frost that has swept over Brazil’s coffee belt. It will take at least a few weeks to two months to really know for sure the extent of the damage done.
As of right now, the estimated claim is that anywhere between 2.5 to 5.5 million bags of coffee berries have been lost. However, according to PDG Brasil, the amount of bags lost could be even higher—as in up to 10 million.
Agronomist and consultant Roberto Santinato maintains that “it’s necessary to evaluate the loss of productivity about 60 days after a frost occurs,” which is also when farmers and agronomists alike will be able to determine the most appropriate actions.
Eder Mascarelli, a coffee farmer from Andradas in the southern region of Minas Gerais has already reported that roughly four hectares of his six-hectare farmland were affected. Farmers will continue to report their losses to PDG Brasil as they take the time to assess their crops and the damage caused by the black frost.
According to Adriano de Rezende, the technical coordinator at the Minasul Coffee Cooperative, at least 30% of all coffee crops were hit by the frost this year, making the overall damage worse than most farmers and analysts have ever seen or imagined.
To make matters worse, there is very little that farmers can do to recover from this kind of frost once it has done its damage. At the moment, the most severely affected farms are being advised to dig out all their damaged coffee trees.
Moving forward, farmers are advised to run their irrigation systems overnight to prevent any more frost from forming.
Coffee Prices Are Now Increasing
Being that Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee, the damage of the recent frost will significantly affect coffee prices on a global market scale.
In 1994, the year of the last devastating frost, global coffee prices reached a record high of $4.48 per lb US.
Just a few weeks ago, global coffee prices closed on July 26 slightly above $2 per pound—which is the highest prices have been since October 2014. Some reports claim that prices may even rise to over $3 per lb once the damage is assessed in its entirety.
However, the frost isn’t the only factor to blame here. Earlier in the year, Brazil faced a significant drought causing production to drop before the frost occurred, which also caused prices to increase.
Additionally, over the past year and a half, the country has also dealt with shipping container shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protest blockades in Colombia, which have all contributed to the rising coffee prices.
The high market prices are also causing farmers around the world to sacrifice the quality of their coffee crops by selling “early,” before the high market prices drop. In Colombia alone, some producers are selling their coffee with a moisture rating of 15%, while others are pulping their beans and delivering them “wet” to gain an advantage.
Roberto Vélez, the President of the Colombian Coffee Federation (FNC) also made a statement advising producers not to default on their current contracts and to instead take advantage of the high market prices. Otherwise, there could be a serious marketing problem that could result in the bankruptcy of many coffee cooperatives.
Fortunately, while the increase in coffee prices will undoubtedly make specialty coffee more expensive for the average consumer, the ultra-high-end coffees ranking 88 points and above should remain financially unaffected.
The Future of Coffee
If anything, Brazil has learned from its history of coffee production and devastating frosts. Ana Valentini, the country’s Secretary of State for Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply, met with coffee producers in Minas Gerais to assess the level of support needed for recovery.
According to Valentini, “the state will make a very detailed and reliable report of what producers are facing, what each has lost, and will need [to recover].”
Of course, with more frost on the way, it’s still too early to discuss what this will mean for coffee’s global market, although agronomists understand that a major frost event such as this can leave its mark for years to come.
It takes at least three to four years for coffee trees to fully recover, which means the road ahead will be a difficult one for producers, coffee roasters, and retailers alike.
The bottom line in coffee news is that consumers will either have to pay more for quality coffee or make do with lesser quality. This may not be the case everywhere, but for now, it’s what can be expected over the next few years.