Colombian Coffee: From the Farm to the Cup

“The occurrence of three consecutive years of the La Niña phenomenon had severe effects on coffee production…”

Álvaro Gaitán Bustamante is the director of scientific and technological research at the National Federation of Coffee Farmers of Colombia – FNC, with a degree in microbiology from the Universidad de Los Andes, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell University.

Álvaro Bustamante, director of scientific research at FNC

AgriBrasilis – How has the excess rainfall of the last three years impacted coffee production?

Álvaro Bustamante – The occurrence of three consecutive years of the La Niña phenomenon had severe effects on coffee production. La Niña affects Colombia in the following ways:

  • Sunlight is reduced due to the constant presence of clouds, which slows down the photosynthesis process;
  • There is a reduction in average temperature, making physiological processes slower;
  • Precipitation increases, which takes nutrients from the soil and affects the absorption by the roots;
  • There is high humidity in crops, which favors diseases caused by fungi, such as coffee rust.

Although in some parts of the country, where a dry climate predominates, an occasional excess of rain can be advantageous, as Colombia has high rainfall (there is no irrigation for coffee crops), consecutive periods of La Niña have very negative effects.

Even so, in contrast to the similar condition that the country experienced between 2008 and 2011, with a drop in production close to 45%, the average reduction in production during this last La Niña event was only 8%. This is due to a process of adaptation to climate change that the National Federation of Coffee Farmers has been carrying out over the years, increasing the area planted with rust-resistant varieties from 15% to 85%, and reducing the average age of plants from 13 years for 6 years on the farms, in addition to improving shading and crop fertilization conditions.

Regarding labor, rainy conditions affect the homogeneity of flowering and later fruit ripening, which causes higher harvest costs. Fortunately, these were years of good international prices, which somewhat alleviated the situation of lower production and higher production costs.

“Due to the rainy state of our coffee growing area, diseases caused by fungi are very relevant, the main one being coffee rust”

AgriBrasilis – Coffee production in Colombia increased 8.38% in March compared to the same month of the previous year. What is this increase due to?

Álvaro Bustamante – In mid-2023, the consequences of a moderate El Niño began to be noticed in coffee crops, with the opposite effects of La Niña: more hours of light, higher temperatures, and accentuated periods of water deficit, which favor the physiology of coffee plants, with better flowering and enough rain to fill the fruits, which allowed production to recover.

An additional factor was the reduction in fertilizer prices, which has been stimulating improvements in coffee crops nutrition, the effects of which have been expressed in the crops in the second half of 2023 and the beginning of 2024.

AgriBrasilis – What are the expectations for the next harvest?

Álvaro Bustamante – Colombia has three climate conditions, which means we have coffee all year round. For the South Zone of the country, the main harvest occurs in the first half of the year. In the Central Zone, the harvest is distributed over the two semesters of the year. In the North Zone, the main harvest occurs in the second half of the year.

In 2024, we will also have the transition from El Niño conditions to “neutral” (in the middle of the year) and then to La Niña (at the end of the year). Although we come from a positive effect of moderate El Niño at the end of 2023, the greater intensity of this phenomenon in the first half of 2024 began to cause significant damages due to the Coffee Borer, and due to poor grain filling (known as summer coffee).

On the other hand, the flowerings responsible for the harvest are concentrated in the second half of the year, together with adequate rainfall, which could lead to an important harvest by the end of the year, where the availability of labor and the processing capacity will be decisive.

Source: National Federation of Coffee Farmers of Colombia

AgriBrasilis – What are the main phytosanitary problems in coffee farming in Colombia?

Álvaro Bustamante – Due to the rainy climate of our coffee growing area, diseases caused by fungi are very relevant, the main one being coffee rust (caused by the fungus Hemileia vastratrix). Therefore, it is essential to continue working on creating varieties resistant to this disease.

As Colombia renews its coffee farms by cutting the stalks 30 cm above the ground, it is important to control “Llaga Macana” (caused by Ceratocystis fimbriata). In germinators and seedbeds, it is necessary to avoid the “damping-off” caused by Rhizoctonia spp., and also nematodes, which are very difficult to control if they enter the farms.

As for pests, the continuous presence of fruits on coffee plants creates difficult conditions for controlling the borer, for which we carry out Integrated Management, which has been very effective.

A problem whose importance has increased is the presence of mealybugs on the roots, which can cause nutritional problems and even death of plants.

The protection of biodiversity in coffee farms is a fundamental tool for achieving biological control of many pests and diseases, and continues to be a fundamental element in minimizing phytosanitary effects in production.

AgriBrasilis – What factors determine grain quality? How to produce premium category fruits?

Álvaro Bustamante – Physical and sensorial quality is the result of a combination of components. There is an important genetic effect, which can be improved through selection by granulometry. For example, the varieties produced by the National Center for Coffee Research – Cenicafé have a percentage of 85% of “supreme” quality beans (17 mesh or higher).

Of course, this genetic potential is only revealed if the plant grows in a suitable climate, with sufficient temperature and water, as well as with appropriate agronomic management. The acidity of the soil must be managed (with a pH between 5 and 5.5), adequate fertilization must be offered, weeds must be eliminated and phytosanitary problems must be kept under control (integrated and preventive management).

AgriBrasilis – How important is “terroir” and the Colombian agroecosystem?

Álvaro Bustamante – It is very important. Using Near-Infrared Spectrometry technology, today we characterize coffee beans from across the country, which allows us to identify the place of origin of coffee in Colombia in just three minutes. The chemical composition of the grain is a reflection of the place where it is grown and, therefore, the characteristics of the cup vary according to the environment.

Given the presence of three mountain ranges, the influence of the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Amazon, and 86 types of soil, the combinations of environments make Colombia a country with enormous potential for diverse coffee profiles. To this we must add the post-harvest processes carried out by coffee growers, which makes each cup of coffee unique.

In coffee production, having environments so rich in biodiversity, where we have already determined that pollinating insects are responsible for almost 20% of production in a batch, makes it a priority to develop and adopt increasingly sustainable technologies, with zero pollution, and using circular bioeconomy, which also improves farmers’ profitability and makes our coffee more appreciated on international markets.

Source: National Federation of Coffee Farmers of Colombia

AgriBrasilis – What advances are being made in the development of varieties and genetic improvement in the country? What are the characteristics being sought after?

Álvaro Bustamante – Cenicafé has a genetic improvement program that began around 1967, developing varieties in the face of the threat of rust, a disease that arrived in America through Brazil in 1970, and in Colombia in 1983.

Through financing from Colombian coffee farmers, it was possible to continue obtaining new varieties, starting with the Colombia variety and continuing with the Castillo and Cenicafé 1 varieties.

Our varieties are defined by 4 characteristics:

  1. Yields should be equal to or greater than the previous variety yields
  2. Adaptation to the Colombian environment (rainy)
  3. Durable rust resistance
  4. High physical quality (granulometry) and high quality of the coffee cup

With these objectives, we launched multilineage varieties, which have different genetic components, with different mechanisms of resistance to rust, which makes them remain in the farms for many years. Furthermore, our varieties already contain genes for resistance to CBD (Coffee Cherry Disease), a very limiting disease for production, which is currently only found in Africa.

Cenicafé is also responsible for seed production, and delivers around 90 tonnes annually, which is equivalent to 200 million new plants each year. Distribution by seeds makes it less expensive for coffee farmers to acquire the technology, purchasing 1 kg bags (around 4,500 seeds) for a value close to US$ 12. When planting one hectare of coffee, 3 kg of seed are needed, for example.

The combination of a breeding program with a seed production program makes the impact of scientific research on the country’s yield evident, and today we are prepared to face challenges such as climate change and the European Union’s Green Deal.

Source: National Federation of Coffee Farmers of Colombia



Coffee Breeding in Colombia