Coffee farmers in Central America are heading for a bitter year. The coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, continues to spread through the region, after irregular rains last year created perfect humid conditions for the disease, reported Bloomberg. The disease has withered the leaves of many coffee bushes, leaving some of them as only naked sticks.

The coffee harvest could drop by as much as 25 percent, Jose Angel Buitrago, the president of the Central American Organization of Coffee Exporters, told Bloomberg. But that the drop in production may provide a small boost to falling coffee prices.

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The price of coffee decides the prosperity of many small farmers in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Increased demand, especially in China, had raised prices, which encouraged more farmers to plant an increased area of coffee. Now, as those bushes are coming to maturity, the larger supply of coffee is causing the prices to drop along with incomes. Betting on coffee also left those farmers vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the coffee rust fungus.

The coffee rust may increase the overall price of coffee and help some farmers, but that will be little comfort to farmers who harvest nothing from the skeletal bushes left after being ravaged by the disease.

Researchers in Colombia are working on solutions to the disease, reported Scientific American. Colombia’s National Center for the Investigation of Coffee has managed to reduce the need for fungicides by introducing resistant coffee strains and improving weather forecasting techniques, which allows prediction of fungal outbreaks.

However, demand for select varieties of beans from Starbucks and other other specialty coffee purveyors has encouraged farmers to plant varieties that are more susceptible to fungus, said  Buitrago.

IMAGE: A coffee leaf infected by the rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix (Smartse, Wikimedia Commons)