Coffee farmers fight troublesome beetle


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii is fighting back against the coffee berry borer beetle.

The pernicious pest has frustrated farmers in the Kona and Ka‘u coffee belts since its discovery in 2010, leading to decreased quality of West Hawaii’s famous black gold and many pounds of beans unharvestable.

Starting this year, Big Island coffee organizations began the first coordinated effort at controlling the tiny beetle from Africa, which burrows into coffee cherries.

Workshops for farmers were held in January, and the same month, coffee growers in South Kona were given free fungal sprays to attack the bug as part of a pilot program that ends in May.

The pilot is funded with a $330,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and a $200,000 state match that was released Wednesday.

The Coffee Berry Borer Task Force will meet today to discuss how to use the match, said Jim Wayman, vice president, adding that it could be used to extend the length of the program or its size.

Wayman, who is also president of the Hawaii Coffee Company, said it’s too early to tell how successful the pilot, which involves 75 farms, will be.

But organizers are hoping to expand and continue the program for another three years.

Another $1.17 million USDA grant is being pursued. The state is also expected to contribute its share.

On Tuesday, the state Legislature showed its support by passing a bill to contribute another $800,000 in funds to match that grant. It requires Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signature to be approved.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who introduced the bill, said the state can’t wait to act.

“The coffee industry plays a tremendously important role in our economy,” said Lowen, D-Kona.

“The coffee berry borer beetle if not mitigated and dealt with in a timely way could destroy the industry.”

The numbers don’t paint a pretty picture for farmers.

In the pilot area, farms on average have an infestation rate of 40 percent, said Rod Yonemura, a consultant with the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council, one of the program administrators. Those rates can reach as high as 80 percent, Wayman said.

“This whole thing is very frustrating for everyone right now,” said Tom Greenwell, owner of Greenwell Farms.

“There’s not a farm without it,” he added.

But, as an assuring sign, farmers are starting to see results of the spraying program, Greenwell said.

“You get frustrated at first because nothing is happening, I still see CBB,” he said.

“Then all of a sudden you see, you look at them, these are old infected beans.

“And CBB is dead in them, it means the fungus (is working).”

Yonemura said consistency is needed to turn the tide against the beetle.

Education is also a key part of the program, he said.

Farmers are taught how to prevent the beetle from getting established, including keeping the ground as free of beans as possible.

The South Kona area was selected for the pilot because of its infestation rate and location near a “buffer zone” without coffee farms between it and Ka‘u, Yonemura said.

That district has also been infected with the beetle, though not to the same extent as Kona.

Berta Miranda, owner of Miranda Farms, said her farm was the first in Ka‘u to report the presence of the beetle. That was in April 2011.

Miranda said her farm is already using the fungus, though it’s not part of the program.

Her highest infection rate was 2 percent.

“We’re working and spraying and cleaning,” Miranda said.

“You never can get rid of it,” she added. “You can control it.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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