By Ange Aboa
DALOA, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - A harsh dry season in Ivory Coast has destroyed some cocoa flowers and cut the size of pods, delaying the start of the top grower's April-to-September mid-crop harvest, farmers and exporters said on Wednesday.
Output for the 2012/13 season is lagging behind last year, with port arrivals down around 6 percent by March 10, according to exporter estimates.
Many traders are betting that a bumper mid-crop, due to open on April 1, will narrow the gap. Optimism for the upcoming harvest in West Africa helped push May cocoa on ICE to a nine-month low of $2,034 last week.
However, this year's November-to-March dry season was marked by extreme heat and little rainfall. While the rains returned at the end of February, exporters and planters said they arrived too late to limit the damage to early mid-crop output.
"One thing is certain, the start of the harvest will be catastrophic," said the director of an international export firm, which carries out pod counts on around 50 plantations throughout the country.
"Our pod counting teams saw good (flower and pod) development in January but then saw a mortality rate of around 40 percent in February and March. That is huge and due mainly to the weather conditions," he said.
During a visit to the centre-west region which includes Dalo, Vavoua, and Bouafle, Reuters saw trees bearing small numbers of flowers and cherelles (small pods), but maturing pods were notably lacking.
"There are very few pods right now. And whereas we should already see pods for the early harvest of the mid-crop, we're only just now getting flowers and cherelles," said Adama Konate, a farmer and independent merchant based in the town of Bediala.
He said that though rainfall had improved in recent weeks, persistent high temperatures continued to hinder development.
"While it's true that it's raining from time to time now, that won't really help production, because it's still very hot after the rains and that kills the flowers and small pods," Konate said.
Farmers and exporters said the first beans of the mid-crop would not be ready to harvest for another six to eight weeks in most of the country's production regions.
The delay may be less pronounced in the western zones including Guiglo, Duekoue and Bangolo, where plantations are typically younger and their trees more resistant to disease and poor weather conditions.
"We'll see a delay of some weeks due to this situation, but the fundamental question concerns the size of this harvest," said the director of a second Abidjan-based exporter.
"We'll have to expect delayed and reduced output in the east and the centre-west for this mid-crop due to the poor rainfall but also because of a lack of maintenance, which is becoming another big worry for Ivorian production," he said.