Funding to fight coffee berry borer up for vote


A $500,000 pesticide subsidy aimed at combating the coffee berry borer has made it through a final round of negotiations and is scheduled today for a final vote in the state Legislature.

House Bill 1514 met with its fair share of obstacles this session, said state Rep. Nicole E. Lowen, D-Kailua-Kona, who introduced the bill. The measure made it through conference committee on Friday, although it admittedly took a few lumps along the way.

“Because it was not as good a year, financially, as we had hoped, and because we were asking for appropriations, it certainly made it more challenging,” she said. “I was really pleased that this bill made it through conference. We did have to scale it back from the initial bill I submitted, which was for $3 million.”

The bill would appropriate $0.5 million in funding for a subsidy program to help coffee growers offset the cost of purchasing pesticides containing Beauveria bassiana, a naturally occurring fungus known to kill the coffee berry borer, an invasive pest which has decimated crops in Kona and recently spread to farms in East Hawaii.

In testimony provided in January to legislators in support of Lowen’s bill, Chris Manfredi, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and organizer of the Ka‘u Coffee Festival, said the insect has had a profound impact on Hawaii businesses.

“Coffee is one of Hawaii’s signature crops; one that helps bring fame and tourists to Hawaii,” he said. “Coffee berry borer threatens the entire Hawaiian coffee industry. While the full tally is yet to be made, farms on Hawaii Island have experienced deep losses. Some have failed. Moreover, large quantities of coffee have been downgraded due to insect damage, reducing the value of the remaining crop.

“CBB is a serious threat to Hawaii’s agriculture industry and the state’s economy. While CBB is battled worldwide, no other coffee growing region shares Hawaii’s high labor costs and restrictions on pesticides that may be used elsewhere to fight this destructive pest. This places the industry at a competitive disadvantage when compared to the rest of the coffee-growing world.”

According to the bill, research has shown that subsidizing the cost of pesticides is “an effective and necessary incentive to encourage farmers to adopt recommended pest management strategies.”

Since the borer was first spotted in Kona in 2010, state entomologists have warned that farmers would have to tackle the pest head-on, because of its propensity to spread. Experts have said that it’s too late to attempt eradication of the insects, but by following a strict regimen, coffee berry borer populations can be controlled to minimize their impact on crops.

However, in areas like Kona, where many small coffee farms are located within close proximity to each other, even those growers who follow best practices in dealing with the pest can find their crops being reinfested by the bugs spreading from neighboring crops whose owners may not be maintaining them as diligently. Control of the pest, therefore, relies largely on all growers in a given area following the control measures, including use of pesticides, which can be especially expensive for small family farms, Lowen said.

Despite the dire warnings, it’s been tough to get the state to provide funding to combat the pest, she added.

“I worked really closely with farmers and the Department of Agriculture in coming up with this bill to work together to find a solution,” Lowen said. “There’s always sort of this dynamic of the neighbor islands pleading to Oahu to take our problems seriously, and it’s been an uphill battle conveying this issue.”

Set to expire in 2019, the program would empower the Department of Agriculture to disburse funds on an annual basis to coffee growers for up to 75 percent of the costs incurred for the purchase of pesticide before July 1, 2016, and for up to 50 percent of the costs incurred after June 30, 2016, and before July 1, 2019. The idea, Lowen said, is to encourage coffee growers to take up use of the pesticide as part of their coffee berry borer control program.

“It’s not a silver bullet, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.