Food & Drink

Hope for Big Island coffee farmers

Hawaii Department of Agriculture / Big Island coffee growers had it tough in 2010. They faced the most severe drought on record and confronted an infestation of the coffee berry borer, a beetle found around the world but only recently discovered in Hawaii.

This double whammy meant the coffee harvest was down significantly–some growers had just 20 percent of the previous year’s harvest–meaning less product to sell. But there was also the borer itself to deal with. To prevent the infestation of other islands, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture approved a quarantine on green coffee in late November; to ship to other islands, growers must either fumigate their beans with the chemical methyl bromide, heat-treat the beans to kill the beetles (less than ideal for the quality of the coffee) or transport the beans in special beetle-resistant bags.

So far, consumers have not felt the impact of the drought and the borer. Most farmers were able to fill their orders, so the smaller harvests did not result in shortages on retail shelves. However, consumers should be aware of the dangers of the methyl bromide now employed as part of the quarantine. The United States is one of the few countries that still permits its use (most extensively in the strawberry-growing industry), despite its damaging effects to the ozone layer as well as to humans exposed to it. Buying certified organic 100 percent Kona coffee is the best way to avoid exposure to the chemical.

The beetle infestation is still a problem, but scientists and farmers may be closer to understanding why the infestation happened when it did. Many think that the borer existed on the island long prior to last year’s infestation, but had been kept in check by a naturally occurring fungus–one that waned in the drought conditions. Having less of that fungus around may be what allowed the beetle to proliferate.

South Kona grower Jason Stith, who has been credited with the initial discovery of the beetle on the Big Island, sees signs of recovery: “Now when you look at a coffee tree, you still see holes from the beetle, but you also see that the holes are clogged up with fungus and the bugs are dead inside.” With any luck, the coming months will bring a return to normal rainfall, a subsided borer population and, eventually, a lifting of the quarantine.