Heavy rains continue to lash many parts of southern India. The east coast of the country generally receives their rainfall from the receding monsoon but it is way past the date for conclusion of that spell. There is well-marked cyclonic circulation over the Cormorin region and the Gulf of Munnar, which will cause the effects to last for some more days, if not more. What is happening right now, is unseasonal rainfall – some call it ‘Never Ending Monsoon’ or NEM. This is an impact of climate change, an actual phenomenon that most of us conveniently tend to ignore.
If there is one community that bears the direct brunt of changing climate and unseasonal rainfall, it is our farmers – our food producers. Earlier last month, unseasonal rain in Gujarat destroyed the groundnut and cotton crops in the fields. Grape cultivators in Nashik sure can’t sleep in peace either thanks to the unseasonal rain there. The flowering of mangoes down south that occurs in January is adversely impacted with these rains. The rabi crops standing in the field – wheat, chickpea, groundnut, jowar is getting destroyed thanks to the rains – causing spread of fungal and microbial diseases, unexpected rise in moisture levels affecting crop quality, problems with managing and storing harvests, fruits falling off trees before time, and so much more that we – non-farmers, will never understand completely.
The worse thing is this is not a one-time occurrence. It has been happening in some or the other way every year for many years now.
Scrolling down my Instagram feed, I saw pictures of the coffee cherries and beans that these unseasonal rains had completely destroyed and it was heart-breaking. Coffee estates in India are seeing the end of their harvest season right now, and this is the time the harvests are super busy processing their harvests, and plucking what the remaining batches. A lot of these estates have been around for decades, for generations and grow a multitude of other crops and trees apart from coffee. Like I always say, Indian coffee estates are doing some really amazing work – embracing innovations in processing, dishing our coffees that could give any international quality specialty coffee a run for its money. Indian coffee is unique, and Indian coffee plantations are sure doing their best to put us on the world map.
While those heart-breaking pictures I saw keep haunting me, I reached out to a very renowned coffee estate to understand more about how the unseasonal rain is affecting their harvests this season. I reached out to Navin Rajes at MSP Coffee to talk about climate change and how his team is working hard to deal with its long-lasting impacts. Navin is a fifth-generation planter and has taken the family coffee business to great new heights. MSP Coffee has a range of plantations spread across the Shevaroy Hills in Salem district of Tamil Nadu and is one of the largest coffee producers in the country.
Here is my conversation with him:
Bhavi: Tell us something about your estates
Navin: Our plantations are situated on the Shevaroy Hills in the Salem district in Tamil Nadu. We are currently the fifth generation of planters running the farm. We primarily grow coffee, pepper, jack fruit, oranges, cloves nutmeg, and anthurium flowers. We also grow some exotic fruits in smaller quantities, such as, durians, mangosteen, milk fruit, etc. We run seven estates on the Shevaroy Hills. Each of these estates is unique with a different elevation, soil type, shade, etc. This helps us produce a range of coffees with different flavors and other attributes.
Bhavi: What are the different sustainable practices you follow on your estates?
Navin: We hold the Rainforest Alliance as well as the UTZ accreditations. We adopt all the safe farming practices required to maintain these certifications. We also follow a very stringent ZERO pesticide and weedicide policy. All waste water generated on the estates is treated on-site and re-used. All the waste generated on the estates is also re-used. We have established an intricate system of rainwater harvesting through contouring and channeling. We have developed a capacity for storing about 5% of the rainwater that is received on our farms. We are working constantly to increase this capacity every year by building a new system of retaining tanks which could store the rainwater, apart form our lakes and other holding areas.
Bhavi: Have you observed major climate changes in the past few years?
Navin: Our records on the farm date back to many decades. Over the years we have seen a clear shift in weather and climate patterns. The summers are getting warmer, the winters are getting colder. And the rains have moved by approximately 45 days. That is indeed a major change and it leaves a huge impact on our crop cycles, and just about every other process on our estates. We have observed unseasonal flowering, early or late ripening summer dryness, winter cold snaps, and eventually lower productivity.
Bhavi: In India, weather forecasts have a reputation of their own. How helpful have they been for you?
Navin: Weather forecasts have helped us to some extent. We use annual forecasts that are based on our farming records to plan our schedules for planting, applying fertilizers, etc. We also check on weekly weather data available online to cross-check if the plans are good to proceed with. For example, if it is going to rain in a particular week, we can’t apply fertilizers, it would get washed away, even if our records indicate it is time to start applying fertilizers. So, then we would wait for rains to subside and then proceed.
Bhavi: So, how does this change in weather patterns affect coffee on your estates
Navin: A 45-day delay in rainfall means a 45-day delay in everything else – 45-days delay in flowering, 45-days delay in the start of harvest, and then a 45-day delay in end of harvest too. In the 80s and 90s, we have our records that show that we used to begin coffee harvests towards end of October and wrap it up completely by 15 January of the next year. Now, we begin our harvests in the first week of December and wind it up by late March, sometimes even early April. So, compared to more traditional coffee areas, say in Karnataka, by the time we harvest out coffee, the traditional coffee growing regions would already have begun selling their coffees, which leaves us with a huge disadvantage in the markets, especially international markets. Add to this the fact that the winter rains we would normally get in November now come lashing in December and January which damages a lot of our ripe coffee cherries even before we get a chance to pluck them. We lose about 10% of our coffee crop to these rains each year, which is a lot.
Bhavi: How do you try to minimize your losses?
Navin: We don’t really have a lot of options when it comes to the changing weather. We try to cut our losses by picking coffee cherries that are even slightly unripe so we can save it from falling off during the rains & storms. These cherries then get used as commercial coffee, as it wouldn’t be up to the quality standards of specialty coffee. We’ve also set up covered drying yards, which helps a little bit, but not too much.
Bhavi: How has these unseasonal rains affected your harvests?
Navin: Nature tends to take its own course and men can only do much. So, we try to live with the changes, work around them. Over the last 6-8 years, we have lost between 8 to 15% of our crop due to these rains during harvest time. With the heavy rains we are now seeing this month, we estimate our losses could go up to 30% of our crop. When the regular rainfall gets delayed like it does every year, the flowering gets delayed. When the flowering is delayed all the practices the estates follow get messed up. Even after the harvest, late flowering has an impact, because it reduces the time that the plants get to rest after harvest, and these speeded up recycles give the plants no time to recoup.
Bhavi: How do the rising temperatures affect the plants?
Navin: There are two sides to this coin. The rising temperatures have made it possible for us to grow some plants that we couldn’t have grown earlier. For instance, pepper generally grows at lower elevations of around 3000 FASL, but now that our summer months have gotten warmer, we are able to grow great pepper even at 4500 FASL. So, that’s the good thing. But the warmer summers can get really harsh and puts immense strain on the plants. They begin shedding leaves and try to defend against the harsh weather – nature its course to survive, after all. This in turn makes the plants extremely susceptible to attacks by stem borer insects which is fatal for the plants. Stem borers kill more than 50,000 plants on our estates in a year during the dry years.
Bhavi: What do you with the damaged coffee?
Navin: On our coffee estates, nothing goes to waste. Some of the coffee that still meets our quality standards, gets sold as commercial coffee, while the coffee waste gets used as manure.
Bhavi: Could the government agencies come to your rescue?
Navin: When nature takes its course, there’s nothing anyone can do. However, if the government could offer us some help in building more drying sheds, that would be great. We are blessed to be working with some amazing people who generally pay us in advance for the produce they buy from us, which is immensely helpful with cashflows especially during the time from harvest to selling.
Bhavi: What would you like to tell the people in general?
Navin: From a planter perspective, we would love to ask all to be more thoughtful in all aspects of their lives. Try to watch and control your use of plastics, especially single-use plastics, save water, source better local produce, stay clean, don’t litter, and let nature be as it is meant to be. Support your local producers by buying from them. Every weekend when tourists come to enjoy the ‘fresh air’ and clean surroundings around our local estates, it is saddening to see the amount of litter and trash they leave behind on road sides – plastic bottles, empty food packets, and so much more. We have a dedicated team that is tasked with cleaning up the garbage left behind by the people every Monday morning from the roads that run through our estates. That’s the least we can do to keep our Earth beautiful!
To know more about MSP Coffee and to get in touch with them, visit:
You can also check out their Instagram: