Ag officials: Kona coffee facing quarantine

In response to the threat posed by the coffee berry borer, state agriculture officials are preparing to establish a quarantine on the transport of green coffee beans from South Kona.

The pest’s presence was confirmed Sept. 8. Hawaii was one of the few remaining coffee-producing areas in the world that had not been infested by the bug, which has been known to cut crop production up to 20 percent.

Lyle Wong, plant industry administrator with the state Department of Agriculture, said Friday the Plants and Animals Advisory Committee would meet in a week or so on whether to recommend a quarantine be enacted.

He said a meeting was held Monday, but due to a failure to advertise it six days beforehand, another meeting must be called.

“What went before the advisory board was a proposal for quarantine of the whole Kona coast, but we will have to do it again,” he said.

If the pest is deemed an “immediate emergency” and the committee passes the recommendation, it will go before the Department of Agriculture board for approval and implementation, Wong said.

A quarantine means that green, or non-roasted, coffee beans would have to be treated with heat or an insecticide before they could be shipped off island.

Wong said the Department of Agriculture may also discuss whether to allow green cherries to be moved from infected areas of the island to uninfected areas.

While an interisland quarantine is possibile, Wong said such a move would probably not contain the pest.

“There are other ways for the borer to move,” he said. “It can hitchhike on a vehicle, for example. That method of protection would be hard to assess compared to others.

“Everybody wants to prevent the spread,” he added, “including the guys (growers) in Kona.”

Bruce Corker, president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, agreed. He said coffee producers are very interested in containing the pest, but he fears the state is moving too quickly and is not including enough input from Big Island farmers.

“Look, the Department of Agriculture has said they believe that coffee berry borer has already been in Kona a number of years, so why don’t they slow down and stop trying to rush things through?” he asked.

Corker and other coffee growers say the state should continue to assess the spread of the bug and what a quarantine would do to growers before imposing such a measure.

Since scientists began studying the pest on the Big Island, 21 unique areas of infestation have been identified, according to the latest report available on the DOA website. Most of the areas are centered in South Kona, with one infestation as far east as Waiohinu, Wong said. No signs of the berry borer have been found on any of the other islands.

Wong said it’s difficult to assess the impact a quarantine would have on Big Island coffee growers.

“We’ve had growers express concern that it will add to the cost of doing business,” he said, “but I’m not sure what the cost would be.”

The cost could include paying commercial fumigators to treat pallettes before they are shipped, as well as the inconvenience of holding a shipment until treatment can be scheduled.

“How much of an inconvenience it will be, cost-wise, we haven’t figured that out yet,” Wong said.

“Certainly, if we had the infestation on Kauai, growers on the Big Island would feel that whatever the inconvenience is, it would be worth it,” he added.

According to Corker, a quarantine could have a long-lasting and debilitating effect on the local coffee industry. “It is not going to be good for Kona and Kona coffee farmers,” he said.

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