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Shrinking El Salvador coffee crop barely hit by volcanic ash -govt

Nelson Renteria
Wednesday, 8 Jan 2014 | 8:54 PM ET

SAN SALVADOR, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Even as El Salvador's coffee industry continues to grapple with the rapid spread of a deadly fungal outbreak, the country's current crop appears to have dodged a bullet from last month's volcanic eruption, a top government minister said on Wednesday.

The Chaparrastique volcano, about 87 miles (140 kilometers) east of San Salvador, spewed gases and ash last month over a wide area that is home to about 11 percent of the country's total coffee output.

But damage to date is minimal, said Agriculture Minister Pablo Ochoa.

"The impact isn't significant," Ochoa told Reuters, noting that about 21,000 hectares around the volcano have been impacted by the fallout from the eruption.

"The favorable part is that a high percentage of the (current) harvest had already been collected" near the volcano prior to the eruption, said Ochoa.

He said only about 15 percent has yet to be harvested due to health risks posed by the ash.

El Salvador, a relatively small Central American producer but known for its high-quality arabica beans, has been the worst affected nation in the region by the outbreak of roya, with over 70 percent of coffee plantations infected by the tree-killing fungus, according to data from agriculture research center CATIE.

El Salvador, which produced about 1.3 million 60-kilogram bags during the previous harvest, boasts a total of about 119,000 hectares of coffee farms.

But production during the current 2013/2014 harvest, which began in October, is expected to shrink by 36 percent compared to last season due to the spread of roya, according to a forecast by the country's national coffee council CSC.

The harvest during the upcoming 2013/2014 season will slip to 843,500 60-kg bags, which would mark one of the lowest yields in decades.

The coffee season in Central America and Mexico, which together produce more than one-fifth of the world's arabica beans, runs from October through September.

Since October, El Salvador has shipped more than $227 million worth of coffee, down by 50 percent compared to the same period during the previous 2012/2013 cycle, according to the country's central bank.

Low market prices have contributed to lower coffee earnings, El Salvador's largest source of export revenue.

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

The rapid spread of roya, also known as coffee leaf rust, has already bumped up costs for many farmers.

At the Talapo farm near the western town of Sonsonate, in the foothills of the Santa Ana volcano, about 14 percent of the farm's 600 hectares will have to be replanted with roya-resistant trees.

"We've had to make very difficult decisions here," said Maria Pacas, one of the family members that owns the farm.

She said the family has had to borrow $56,000 to replant about 20,000 coffee trees in just one 7-hectare area where roya had killed off all the trees.

The Talapo farm is located about 37 miles southwest of the capital, and expects output to shrink by nearly 40 percent in the current season.

(Writing and additional reporting by David Alire Garcia in Sonsonate; Editing by Joseph Radford)