Growing coffee in Kona just isn’t what it used to be.
The island’s coffee belt continues to deal with pests such as the coffee berry borer, warmer and dryer conditions, and the increasing cost of doing business. Nonetheless, for many growers, Kona coffee is a love and passion they will continue well into the future — whether the process is easy or hard.
“It’s a lifestyle,” explained Christian Twigg-Smith, third-generation owner of Blue Sky Coffee, located off Hualalai Road in Holualoa. “The industry here in Kona the last two to three years has taken hits with bugs, drought and additional costs, but you either learn to deal with it or get out.”
Twigg-Smith, whose 100-acre estate coffee farm in a good year produces upward of 500,000 to 700,000 pounds of cherry, described the start of the 2012 coffee season as pretty good, thanks in part to “decent” rainfall and good blooms during the spring. A bad season, he said, results in about 200,000 to 400,000 pounds of cherry.
“It don’t think it will be a fat year or a bad year, but an average year,” he said about the upcoming Kona coffee harvest.
Elsie Burbano Greco, with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources’ Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, anticipates this year’s Kona coffee crop will be good.
“There’s going to be tons of coffee,” she said, noting how thick the trees’ white blooms were during the spring. “There’s plenty of berries, but people have got to be spraying and cleaning up to protect the coffee (for harvest).”
Tom Greenwell, with grower and processor Greenwell Farms, added the crop thus far looks “fairly good” despite rain being half that of 2011 at his farm. Because most of the cherry originated from two back-to-back blooms, the harvest season will be short with plenty of positions for laborers.
“It’s been a long time since I’d seen a bloom like that,” he said. “It’s a good thing, because every flower is a bean, hopefully.”
The annual Kona crop, which includes about 630 area farms, totals about 3.3 million pounds of green coffee annually, Colehour Bondera, a former Kona Coffee Farmers Association president, said earlier this year. The National Agricultural Statistics Survey estimates the crop was valued at $21.7 million in 2008-09.
Current Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Cecilia Smith referred calls for an estimate on last year’s Kona coffee crop to CTAHR Cooperative Extension Service Agent Andrea Kawabata, who was unable to be reached as of press time.
With trees chockfull of cherry heading into the harvest season, Suzanne Shriner, a Honaunau coffee farmer and member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association Pests and Diseases Committee member, said most farms in the Kona area have an average of 10 percent of their crop infested with coffee berry borer. Burbano said the farms she has visited and farmers she has talked with have infestation rates ranging from 1 percent to full infestation.
Greenwell, who receives cherry from about 300 farms in Kona, said the cherry dropped off this year at the Greenwell mill has ranged from 20 to 85 percent infested and damaged by coffee berry borer. The going rate for coffee is about $1.35 per pound of cherry; he said, noting pay is based on the percent damaged with farmers who take the effort to control the beetle receiving more for a higher quality product.
Native to Africa, the coffee berry borer is a small, dark-brown beetle about the size of a sesame seed, that was first confirmed in the Kona area in September 2010 and then sporadically in Ka‘u the following May. The pest destroys coffee when the female burrows into the fruit and lives its life cycle within the seed, or bean, causing damage that makes the coffee relatively worthless.
A multipronged attack is the best means for controlling damage to a crop. Scientists recommend farmers practice good sanitation by removing cherry from trees and the ground, spray with the fungus Beauveria bassiana and use traps. Landowners should also be mindful that feral, or unkempt, coffee trees are breeding grounds for the beetle, which can go on to infest other trees.
Vicki Swift, who operates a 12-acre coffee farm in Honomalino, said her farm has the coffee berry borer, which damaged about 10 percent of her coffee last year. She utilizes two of the three recommendations but has yet to use the fungus because of the cost.
“It’s more work, but you learn to deal with it,” she said, noting she’s considering spraying fungus after gathering more information during a workshop this week on integrated pest management.
While it may be expensive to spray, Shriner said it is a necessity in order to produce the high quality crop needed for the industry’s survival in Hawaii. According to the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, it costs $135 to treat 650 trees with Botanigard, which contains the fungus.
“It’s very expensive to spray, and it takes time and labor,” she explained. “But you pay on the front end to get paid on the back end.”
While farmers continue to get used to the realities of growing coffee in Kona today, UH, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and others are also working to find solutions as well as prevent the spread of the coffee berry borer.
Neil Reimer, manager of the state Department of Agriculture’s Pest and Control Division, said the state has contained the coffee berry borer to the Kona and Ka‘u areas by limiting the movement of coffee to other islands and has provided a fumigation area so farmers can safely ship their product.
In addition, the state has funded research and has established a task force to come up with ideas. It has also approved the use of Beauveria bassiana and is exploring other biological controls that have a lengthy environmental process to surpass before reaching farmers.
Reimer declined to specify the other biological controls, noting only it’s “something that might help.”
Among the other known natural controls of the coffee berry borer are ectoparasitoid insects Cephalonomia stephanoderis and Prorops nasuta, the endoparasitoid insect Phymastichus coffea and the entomopathogenis worm nematodes steinernema spp., according to Luis Aristizabal, a University of Florida scientist who headed an integrated pest management two-day workshop for coffee farmers this weekend. None are available in Hawaii and extensive research would be needed, he said.
Skip Bittenbender, with CTAHR’s Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, said the university’s scientists, including Greco, are conducting research and hands-on help from the extension office in Kona is available to farmers.
He said CTAHR is also looking at new pesticides, including an organic one derived from the bacteria bacillus thuringiensis, that are toxic to the coffee berry borer. More research is needed, however, to determine the potential impact on other beetles, including native species, already here, he said.
“It will be a long time, but, there’s a lot going on,” he added.