Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of coffee, sugar and orange juice, has just had a rainy season that caused almost no rain.
Soils are dry and river levels are low in the Central-South region of the nation, a source of agricultural production. The drought is so severe that farmers are worried that they will deplete water reserves that will help keep crops alive for the coming months, the country’s dry season.
Mauricio Pinheiro, 59, began watering his Arabica coffee crops in March, two months earlier than normal, after his 53-hectare (131-acre) plantation received less than half the rain it needed. He is using so much water for the plants that not enough is left for his house. In order to keep the showers and faucets running, he had to look for another well.
“My irrigation reservoir is drying up now, this usually happens in August,” said Pinheiro, who lives in Pedregulho, in the Alta Mogiana region of the state of Sao Paulo. “I’m very worried about running out of water in the coming months.”
The prospect of pairing orange and coffee plants is approaching at a time when agricultural crops are accelerating to multi-year highs, which has sparked fears of food inflation. A higher cost of food can aggravate hunger, a worldwide problem that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated. Coffee and raw sugar contracts on the ICE Futures Stock Exchange in New York have already hit four-year highs.
If even irrigated areas do not get enough water, Brazil’s coffee and orange production may decline for the second year in a row. Brazil’s current orange crop fell 31% from the previous season, the highest in 33 years, and Arabica coffee production, the highest rate used by chains like Starbucks Corp., is also falling sharply.
Rainfall was disastrously low in many areas of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais from January to April, said John Corbett, CEO of Where Inc. The hardest hit areas received less than half of the normal rainfall, at a critical time when coffee plants need moisture for beans to grow. It is also a period in which the soil stores water to cope with the dry season.
This added to the drier-than-normal adverse conditions in some parts last year, especially in Sao Paulo and Paraná, said Paul Markert, a meteorologist at Maxar Technologies Inc. in Maryland.
Although a dry season is typical at this time of year in Brazil, it is expected to last longer than usual, which raises concerns. Regular rains will return to the region between October and November, instead of September, said Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist at Somar Meteorology.
About 30% of Brazil’s orange harvest and 15% of Arabica coffee fields are irrigated.
“River and lake levels have been very worrying,” said Regis Ricco, director of RR Consultoria Rural, based in Minas Gerais.
Francisco Sergio de Assis, a coffee producer in Monte Carmelo, a municipality in the Cerrado region of Minas Gerais, began watering his fields a month earlier, and does not believe his reservoirs will last unless it rains in September.
The situation becomes critical for orange trees. Emerson Fachini, an orange farmer who cultivates 45 hectares in the municipality of Palestine in the state of Sao Paulo, said that since January he has had irrigation systems activated for most of the time.
“Water reservoirs are drying up, depleted just before the dry season,” said Sao Paulo-based GCONCI-Group’s Citrus Consulting, Gilberto Tozatti. “The situation affects most of the state of Sao Paulo and is still hurting next season’s harvest.”