Making sense of rainfall changes in Karnataka’s coffee estates through old records

  • Climate change-induced weather events are impacting Karnataka’s coffee farms, testing the resilience of farmers.
  • Karnataka coffee farmers keep meticulous rainfall records that are helping individual and organisational attempts at studying climate change.
  • Farmers are trying to adapt to changes in rainfall patterns, first investing in sprinklers and now in coffee driers.

At his 38-acre coffee estate at 3,800 ft, overlooking the pristine Baba Budan giri (hill) in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka, I.S. Umeshchandra is working on creating a database of rainfall records in the region. Crowdsourced from fellow coffee farmers across the district, the exercise struck gold when a farmer shared a rainfall record from 1887.

“I was amazed to see it, though it is unverified. The verified ones date back to 1933,” he told Mongabay-India. His son Navneeth, a data analyst, is helping him crunch the numbers. Coffee farmers in Karnataka keep a record of rainfall in their estates, a practice dating back to colonial times.

A climate change report in 2014, Transitioning towards climate-resilient development in Karnataka, prepared by 26 experts, said that Karnataka would be hit harder by climate change than other states in the country. As rainfall patterns in the state change, the rainfall records of farmers are coming in handy for various individual and organisational attempts at understanding climate change, climate resilience and adaptation in Karnataka.

Image shows a man poring over a book while seated
I.S. Umeshchandra with his rainfall records at his house. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

In 2011, the College of Forestry in Kodagu district, India’s largest coffee-producing district, participated in an international project, Coffee Agroforestry Network (CAFNET) Project, to study the ecosystem services of agroforestry systems in the district. Rainfall patterns too were studied as a part of the project, where rainfall data of over 60 years from 116 coffee farms was sourced and analysed. The study pointed to a strong fluctuation in annual rainfall every 12 to 14 years and a reduction in the length of the rainy season by 14 days.

Umeshchandra (not associated with CAFNET) has observed some patterns from the initial analysis, though he has yet to find a strong one. “Fluctuations in annual rainfall are noticed every 10-12 years,” he shared. Records from 1887 show an average annual rainfall of 4826 mm (190 inches) in Chikmagalur, which suggests heavy rainfall is not new in this region, which receives an average annual rainfall of around 2500 mm (80-100 inches). “But heavy spells of rain for a few days as against it being spread out is making a difference,” he observed based on his experience.

Read more: Reconstructing 90-year-long rainfall history in northeast India using tea garden records

Ramachandra K.S., a coffee farmer from Shanthalli in Somwarpet taluk of Kodagu, agrees. Flipping through the pages of his handwritten rainfall records dating back to the 1960s, he says there was over 5000 mm (200 inches) of average annual rainfall in 1960-1962, which fell to around 3800 mm (150 inches) in 1970. However, most farmers agree that the rainfall pattern has become unpredictable and daunting in the last five years because unpredictable rains make planning farming events difficult. They say they are constantly stressed.

J. Srinivasan, a professor at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), told Mongabay-India that these long-term rainfall records that the coffee farmers of the Malnad region of Karnataka (including Chikmagalur and Kodagu) keep are invaluable. However, he said that the farmers need to compare their records with local IMD (India Meteorological Department) station records to verify them. “A single rain gauge cannot give accurate results,” he said, adding that the Malnad region, which is hilly, experiences microclimates and that one farmer’s rainfall records will be different from that of their neighbour’s.

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Ramachandra’s rainfall records. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

More rains lead to landslides, infections and pests in plants

Chikmagalur has a special place in the coffee history of the country. Legend has it that a 17th-century Sufi saint Baba Budan secretly transported seven coffee cherries from Mocha in Yemen and planted them in front of his hermitage, which later came to be called Baba Budan giri (hills) in Chikmagalur, marking the origin of coffee cultivation in India.

From Umeshchandra’s estate situated on a slope, Baba Budan giri provides a breathtaking view. But these days, it fills him with dread. While erratic rainfall hasn’t affected the productivity of his estate adversely, he fears physical damage by way of landslides. More wet days and increased daily rains saturate the soil and can damage hills, leading to landslides. Studies have shown a correlation between extreme rainfall and landslide events.

At Attigundi village, about 13 km from Umeshchandra’s estate in Hosapura is his friend Kiran M.R’s 45-acre estate of Arabica coffee. He is focused on phasing out silver oak trees (Grevillea robusta) in his estate and planting more native ones. Karnataka is known for shade-grown coffee, and its agroforestry system encourages an abundance of native trees alongside the cash crop.

Image shows a coffee plant
Leaf rust infestation on coffee plants. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

Plantation economics and public policies, however, drove the farmers to opt for exotic shade trees like silver oak, which grows fast and can be easily traded as timber. Many farmers are switching back to native trees for various reasons, one of them being the leaf litter of silver oak lacks nutrients and doesn’t decompose as fast as native ones, said C.G. Kushalappa, dean of the College of Forestry.  There is also the realisation that a good canopy cover provided by native trees can prevent soil damage during extreme rainfall.

“This July, I got 101.6 mm (four inches) of rain every day for 20 days. Some places nearby recorded around 150-200 mm (6 to 8 inches). This was followed by 1000-1300 mm (40-50 inches) of rain in 10 days in June. “We used to get seven to 10 days of monsoon break in June-August which is crucial for coffee. But no such break in the last three to five years,” said Kiran.

More wet days and little sunshine — a perfect setting for pests and fungal infections — is bad news for coffee. Black rot fungus (coffee thread blight) or Koleroga and coffee white stem borer (Xylotrechus quadripes), a pest, are decimating Arabica plants that were once this coffee belt’s pride. Coffee leaf rust, another fungal disease, is also high among coffee, informs Kiran. “I faced 20-30 percent loss last year,” he said with dismay. He had to shell out Rs. 5000 an acre to remove the black rot infestation at his 60-acre farm in Magundi in Chikmagalur.

Robusta, as the name suggests, is more robust and pest resistant to an extent, said J.S. Nagaraj, joint director of Central Coffee Research Institute at Balehonnur in Chikmagalur. In the last 15 years, there has been a clear shift towards Robusta in Kodagu and Chikmagalur. “While it was 50-50 earlier, it is now 80 percent Robusta in Kodagu,” said Kushalappa. Labour shortage and the high cost of cultivation of Arabica have also tipped the scale in favour of Robusta.

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Coffee farmer Kiran points to the infestation. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

Farmers devise ways to adapt

Coffee farmers here are constantly trying to adapt to a changing climate. “Coffee farming depends on two important rainfall events, blossom shower and backing shower,” explained farmer Jammada Ganesh Ayyanna of Kaikeri village in Gonikoppal in Kodagu. “Blossom showers in the summer months of February to March ensure the blossoming of coffee plants. This must be backed by the backing showers within two weeks for the cherries to set,” he said. In the last three decades, the changes in shower patterns began to affect largely rain-fed agriculture, prompting farmers to invest in irrigation by way of sprinklers. “More than 90 percent of farmers rely on sprinklers now,” Ayyanna told us.

While the northeast monsoon and cyclonic events had little effect on coffee farming in these parts earlier, isolated showers during coffee-picking months (December-February) are working against the industry. Showers during picking months make the cherries drop. The dropped cherries, called “gleanings”, are often picked and sold. While gleanings filled 100 bags (one bag is 50kg) at Ramachandra’s farm last year, Kiran had to let go of the gleanings due to rains. “The gleanings were damaged; damaged cherries don’t fetch a good price,” he said. Picked cherries need at least two months to dry, said Ramachandra.

“No rains and good sunshine are ideal.” Since that hasn’t been the case in the last few years, more farmers, mostly large landholders, have begun to invest in driers.

Image shows a coffee plant
Coffee cherries at Kiran MR’s estate. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

“I didn’t want to worry about unexpected rains,” said Gerrard Perreira from Coove Village in Mudigere taluk in Chikmagalur, who has 200 acres of Arabica and Robusta coffee. “For the coffee to dry properly, we need uninterrupted sunshine for a minimum of five days. But that’s hardly been the case in the last few years,” he said. He bought a drier eight years ago when signs of climate change had begun to show.

It has a 4000-litre capacity that can dry 35 bags of coffee at one time at an optimal temperature of 35-40 degrees Celsius for 18-22 hours. “The drying has to be uninterrupted. Since the power supply is unreliable, we use firewood. But a power generator for backup is a must,” he shared.

There are other advantages too. Using driers is more hygienic, quicker, and cuts labour costs, said farmers. Small and medium landholders, however, can’t afford the driers that cost about Rs 12-15 lakhs and are suggesting setting up community-owned driers. Kushalappa has his suspicions since cooperatives have not worked well in the region in the past. Coffee Board is now giving subsidies for driers, informed Nagaraj. “It is not affordable for everyone. But if climate change continues to affect coffee farming, driers are the future,” he said.

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Editor’s note: The story was updated on December 3, 2022 to correct a factual error

Banner image: Coffee plants infested by leaf rust and the rainfall records maintained in Kodagu. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.


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