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.

Fungus holds clue to coffee blight

If one Big Island coffee grower is correct, the solution to the industry’s recent problem with the destructive coffee borer beetle might exist in the coffee plants’ own ecosystem.

The beetle was first detected on Big Island coffee farms this year, particularly in the dry South Kona area. Its spread has proved disastrous in some areas, costing farms as much as 75 percent of their usual yield.

Melanie Bondera of Kanalani Ohana Farm thinks the beetle is likely not new to the island and that the infestation might have been due to severe drought conditions that killed off a fungus — Beauvaria bassiana — that had been keeping the beetle in check for years.

Bondera said she got the idea from another farmer at a meeting last month and conducted a study of infected plants on the organic farm that she operates with her husband.

Examining scores of infested beans, Bondera found evidence of “white crystalline stuff” overflowing from beetle exit holes. When she cut the beans open, she found dead beetles stuck in the exit with the fungus growing out of their bodies.

Bondera, who holds a master’s degree in agriculture, speculates that the beetle has been in Hawaii for years but has been controlled by the presence of the fungus, which lives within the tissue of the coffee plant. She and other farmers think that when the drought hit, the fungus died off, allowing the beetles to do more damage.