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Vietnam’s harvest size curbed by old coffee trees

From the January 2016 issue.

Despite numerous trade reports playing up the idea of a potential record crop from the new coffee harvest in Vietnam, the world’s second-largest grower and exporter is unlikely to meet market expectations.

Vietnam's harvest curbed by old trees

Vietnam’s coffee farmers are facing an increasingly difficult challenge when it comes to keeping up with their reputation of being the world’s most efficient growers.

With over 30 per cent of the entire Vietnamese coffee park between 20 and 30 years old and only little replanting carried out in the past five years, the old trees are taking a visibly heavy toll on the 2015-16 harvest.

In addition to old trees, a drought earlier in the year also caused bean size to drop significantly, and low prices for most of the past year have not encouraged growers to fertilise fields, instead they are starting to replace ageing coffee trees with pepper or other crops.

“The Central Highlands provinces have in the 2015-16 crop year faced drought, which caused a severe water shortage by a reduction of 10 to 30 per cent in the rainfall compared to last year,” says Chairman of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association (Vicofa), Luong Van Tu. “The weather was unusually cold and we also saw many coffee plants infected with a ‘flu’ when flowering, which caused dropped leaves, and the area was also affected by frost.”

Van Tu adds that close to 48,000 hectares of coffee alone in Dak Lak suffered from inadequate water between May and July – the period when cherries were going through the crucial bean formation stage. The drought hit the entire Central Valley region, including the provinces of Lam Dong, Gia Lai, and Dak Nong, which together with Dak Lak account for between 85 and 90 per cent of Vietnam’s annual production.

It is irregular weather such as this that for the past two years has caused a significant reduction to the initial forecasts for the Vietnamese crop, and which by all accounts look set to also negatively affect the new 2015-16 harvest.

However this has not affected the rosy outlook given by many multinational trading houses, which still say the new harvest from Vietnam can reach up to 30 million bags despite the adverse impact of the drought.

But local exporters and producers agree with Vicofa, and say the new crop could be as low as 22 million bags, in part because of weather but much more importantly because of poor yields from old trees.

“Look at these trees. There are lots of leaves but very little fruit. All these farms here will at the most be able to produce one metric tonne of green beans, and for a lot of the farmers it may even be as little as 800 kilograms,” says Ngoc Quang, who covers Dak Lak and Lam Dong for Intimex, one of Vietnam’s biggest coffee exporters.

In most of the world’s producing countries, yields of 800 to 1000 kilograms would be considered good or even high from small growers with little access to training or financing for inputs such as fertiliser.

But in Vietnam, where most of the past 30 years’ consistent coffee growth is based on intensive farming practices and at least three rounds of fertiliser, yields for many small farmers used to reach a minimum of four to six tonnes, and it was not unusual to meet small farmers who would be able to get as much as eight tonnes from one hectare of land.

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