Lack of rain, invasive pest take toll

by Carolyn Lucas-Zenk
Stephens Media

A destructive insect and two-year drought didn’t affect the quality of Kona coffee, but did cut yield during the 2010-11 season.

Bruce Corker, Kona Coffee Farmers Association board member, said the size of his coffee crop at his 3.8 acre farm, Rancho Aloha in Holualoa, fell approximately 25 percent due to the drought, considered the most intense in Hawaii since the 1999 inception of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Colehour Bondera, association president, agreed. While the coffee borer beetle and the drought probably reduced the coffee crop, Bondera did not think they caused “ridiculously horrible, dramatic variations.”
Bondera suspects dry conditions did the most harm to farms at lower elevations and farther south, where the drought was stronger and longer. On the other hand, less water helped Bondera’s Kanalani Ohana Farm produce better beans. He said his Honaunau farm had “the best yield ever in 10 years,” and he was not alone in this trend.

Bondera also knows the beetle has proved disastrous for other Kona coffee farmers like Jason Sitith, who reported losing as much as 75 to 80 percent of his usual crop. But what “disturbs” Bondera the most is the coffee prices.

“You would think if there was a noticeable change like a significant decrease in the supply, there would be a noticeable change in the price processors pay farmers for their coffee,” he said. “But the prices have not varied. They have stayed the same.”

Local processors could not be reached as of press time.

The preliminary statewide 2010-11 coffee crop yielded 7.9 million pounds, 800,000 pounds less than the previous year’s crop. The total acreage (8,000) and harvested acreage (6,300) were unchanged from 2009-10. Yields averaged 1,250 pounds per acre this season, approximately 130 pounds below the 2009-10 season, said Mark Hudson, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service Hawaii office.

Coffee farm revenue was estimated at $27.84 million for the 2009-10 season. The total revenue for last season and the average price farmers received per pound of parchment — dried but unfinished — coffee, were not available Thursday. Those numbers should be in the Crop Values Annual Summary published Feb. 16, Hudson said.

There are 830 coffee farms in Hawaii. The service does not have a breakdown of how many coffee farms are on each island, Hudson said.

Coffee borer beetle, discovered in November in West Hawaii, can reduce crop yields up to 90 percent. It is found throughout Kona, making eradication highly unlikely, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The heaviest infestations are in South Kona. However, several farmers have said the beetle is not new to the island. One theory is the beetle population increase was caused by severe drought conditions that killed off a naturally occurring fungus, Beauvaria bassiana, that had for years been keeping the beetle in check. Fungus, after all, needs moisture to produce, Corker said.

Bob Smith, Kona Coffee Farmers Association member and Smith Farms owner, detected “a little bit of the coffee borer beetle” on his 5 acres in Honaunau, but joked, “It wasn’t enough to cause me to jump out of a window.”

“Coffee berry borer is found in many coffee-growing regions of the world and, so far, not one has gone out of business,” he added.

State agriculture officials have given approval to test a fungus-based pesticide intended to control the beetle on five, 5-acre farms at different elevations, primarily in South Kona. The pesticide is already approved for use in the other 49 states.

Smith hopes the Department of Agriculture allowed for an emergency permit for full release of the pesticide, to be discussed at this month’s board meeting in Kona. He said some coffee fields have started flowering. Smith expects his trees to start flowering within the next three weeks.

“Based on the published literature, you only have about a 100-day window after the flowering to treat the coffee before the beetle enters the cherry,” Smith said. “The sooner we get the commercial fungus-based pesticide, the better.”

Overall, Smith agreed the drought likely reduced crop yield and coffee bean size. He noticed there were not as many large beans at his 1,839-foot-elevation farm last season compared to previous seasons.

Smith said coffee processors pay more for bigger beans though he doesn’t know why. The 23-year-old Smith Farms does its own roasting and sell its coffee for $20 per pound, plus shipping and handling.

It is impossible to predict the fate of this season’s Kona coffee crop, Corker said, adding, “Can you tell what the next season’s rainfall is going to be or the success of the efforts to control the coffee borer beetle?”

Hawaii Tribune-Herald :: Hilo, Hawaii > Local News

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