By JOHN FOWKE
Papua New Guinea's seasonal production of coffee has declined substantially since 2011.
The annual crop has dropped from an average established over 24 years from 1987 of one million 60kg bags per annum, down to 800,000 last year.
A crop of no more than 700,000 bags is estimated for this year ending in December. The crop is expected to fall again by a significant factor in 2016.
This is due to the age of the vast majority of coffee trees which were planted some 55 years ago.
They are increasingly moribund, well past their most fruitful, productive years.
Over time attempts have been made to educate growers in tree-management, principally during the major AIDAB ( predecessor to AusAid )- funded programme of 1988-1993 when the grower-owned and controlled regulatory and advisory/training organisation, the Coffee Industry Corporation, was set up.
Under AIDAB and CIC work commenced in 1990 on industry-wide renovation pruning. Some 30% of coffee growers responded immediately, and others followed as time went on and as resulting better yields were achieved in subsequent years.
Nevertheless, this was a totally-new concept to PNG's subsistence farmers. Whilst experts in terms of the food-crops they have been accustomed to grow over many millennia, they were never known to cultivate fruit-trees in a big way.
Coffee is a fruit, and demands a specific fruit-tree management regime.
PNG small growers were never- right up until today- never- been advised by CIC or the Department of Agriculture that a staged re-planting programme is essential as soon as symptoms of old-age become noticeable.
A suitable inter-planting renewal programme is where some 20 % of existing trees are inter-planted with new seedlings each year.
This to take place in five stages over a five-year period.
In the fourth and subsequent years all the old trees from the first year's inter-planting are removed, yielding ambient light, space, and moisture to the vigorous, new four-year-old plants now coming into bearing.
Both CIC and the increasingly idiosyncratic leadership of the Department of Agriculture employ many highly-educated agricultural scientists and field advisers, but to practical purpose so far as coffee renovation is concerned.
Executive management in both organisations has sat back and talked about a range of policies focussing on marketing whilst the crop-yield falls annually; policies which are laughable in the circumstances and far from the real, urgent needs of the growers.
Far, too, from the needs of the nation, short as it is of foreign-currency derived from export earnings.
And when it is considered that coffee provides almost the only source of cash to most families in the populous but road-starved Highlands provinces, this is not simply an economic crisis.
It is the harbinger of serious social unrest as the years pass.