Coffee-bean growers take a roasting

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As you sip that hazelnut latte with a light dusting of cinnamon, spare a thought for the coffee-bean growers who helped to bring it to your lips.

Prices for the choicest arabica beans are now into a third year of declines, with little prospect of a fundamental reversal. But costs for labor, fuel and fertilizer keep rising – leaving producers from Kenya to Costa Rica struggling to break even.

As always, the industry itself is to blame.

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Coffee is a perennial crop subject to relatively low demand growth – which meant that it sat out the big commodities rally of 2008. In 2009 and 2010, however, arabica bean prices were driven steadily higher by a series of supply shocks centering on Colombia – the world's number two exporter, after Brazil.

That encouraged growers to plant more crops that – unlike wheat or corn – take three or four years to start producing.

More from the Financial Times:

Brazil's coffee roasters get a taste for arabica
Coffee fungus threatens disaster for Central America's farmers
Emerging markets' thirst for coffee jumps

The big coffee buyers, meanwhile, started using cheaper robusta beans in their blends. Recession-hit consumers in developed markets either did not notice, or did not care. Consumers in emerging markets saw any kind of brew as a hallmark of status.

The result is that new supplies of washed arabica beans are coming in to a market that is already saturated. The benchmark coffee contract – down 60 per cent from its May 2011 peak – ranks as the world's worst performing commodity this year. It was the worst last year, too.

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Some recovery in prices is possible, given fears over frost in Brazil and an outbreak of fungus in Central America. And as Macquarie notes, the government of Brazil could always expand its subsidy program to push prices higher.

But against that, the plunge in emerging-market currencies against the dollar is encouraging exporters all over the world to keep coffee yields higher than they need to be.

The machine is still out of order.