Hilo farmer takes stand against coffee pest
By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The first farmer in Hilo to discover the coffee berry borer in his coffee orchards says he is committed to slowing the pest’s spread to other farms in East Hawaii.
“The insect has been found in less than .1 percent of our harvested cherry and we are now 75 percent complete with the 2013 crop. All cherry is processed and mechanically dried within 24 hours to prevent any insects from surviving. Any damaged beans are mechanically sorted out leaving only high quality beans. No pathogens or contamination is carried by the beans or passed on to the consumer,” said Troy Keolanui, co-owner of OK Farms Hawaii on Amau‘ulu Road.
“As a farmer, this is just something you have to deal with. Like you would if you had a dog that got fleas. You don’t kill the dog, you give it a flea bath and you clean the area to remove the fleas … and you move on with life.”
Last week, state Department of Agriculture officials said that the invasive African beetle that has plagued coffee farms in Kona and Ka‘u had recently been found on an Amau‘ulu-area farm, but they declined to name the business, citing the need to protect farmers who choose to come forward and seek help when they think they may have an infestation.
Keolanui contacted the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday, however, saying that he felt transparency was the best way for Big Island coffee farmers to combat the destructive pest.
“We’re not embarrassed. This was something that was inevitable. … Now, we just want to do our part to slow the spread. To protect other farms from having to deal with it,” he said.
According to Keolanui, workers on the farm first knew they had a problem about eight weeks ago, when they noted damage to some of the coffee beans after they had been processed.
“The beetle bores into the cherry and tunnels inside the bean,” he said.
Since then, Keolanui said he’s been dealing with a lot of testing and red tape from the state.
“They’re good people, they do a good job. But everything takes a long time. They have to jump through a lot of hoops,” he said.
Going forward, OK Farms plans to keep a tight rein on its pickers, who might otherwise be one of the best means of spreading the berry borer to other farms and processors in East Hawaii. Keolanui says his pickers are Hilo based and only work his farm.
“If they are going to pick at other farms, we’d make sure they take all precautions,” he said.
The farm has also taken on a three-part prevention plan that includes spraying the orchards with a natural fungus that has been shown to control the berry borer. In the second phase, they plan to spray the fields with neem oil, which has been shown to impede the beetle’s growth. Lastly, they plan applications of insecticides to further control the bugs.
The farmer added that if OK Farms was primarily a coffee farm, he might not be taking the news of the arrival of the berry borer quite as well as he is.
“If we didn’t have other crops to rely on, I’d probably have more of a frown on my face,” he said as a conducted a brief tour of the farm on Wednesday afternoon.
About 250 acres of the 500-acre farm is dedicated to macadamia nuts, he explained. Other crops include cacao, heart of palm, oranges, lychee, longans, tangerines, tangelos, limes, lemons, pineapple, clove and cinnamon.
As for coffee, Keolanui says that despite the arrival of the unwelcome berry borer, he is planning a 5-acre expansion of the farm’s coffee growing orchards from its current 6 acres.
“We think Hilo has a great future in coffee,” he said. “We don’t see this as the end of the world. It (the bug) can be controlled.”
In the short five years OK Farms Hawaii has been growing coffee, it has already earned a solid name for itself, earning second place in the commercial divison at this year’s annual Hawaii Coffee Association cupping competition on Kauai, beating out 35 other farms primarily in Kona and Ka‘u.
As OK Farms deals with the discovery of the berry borer, other East Hawaii coffee growers are reacting to the news and preparing themselves to combat the invader, which can impact coffee crop yields by as much as 80 or 90 percent.
Curtis Beck, a recent retiree from Hawaii Electric Light Co., has long dreamed of operating his own coffee farm, and is currently working to make that dream a reality. A few years ago he entered into a hui with six other owners of Mahilani, just a couple miles mauka of OK Farms on Amau‘ulu Road.
“Right now, it’s more of a hobby, most of my trees are small, with just a couple hundred producing trees. But at some point now, I’m hoping to get into the coffee business,” he said.
The news of the berry borer’s arrival was unexpected and unwelcome, Beck said.
“It’s just been a real disappointment,” he said. “I thought we would have a couple more years to prepare.”
He hasn’t had a chance to formulate a plan of attack, but Beck says he won’t be wasting much more time.
“At the lowest point we’re about a mile and a half from the nearest coffee trees of their orchards. We’ve got some isolation, and there’s a large macadamia orchard below this farm. I’m hopeful that will slow the advance,” he said.
Beck is currently looking at the possibility of putting up a 5- or 6-foot fence covered by a weedmat sprayed with sticky vegetable oil.
“Greenwell Farms had some experience with this,” he said. “Beetles fly very low, less than 6 feet off the ground. And this seemed to reduce the number they got in their orchards.”
The coffee grower says he still has much to learn about the industry, and he anticipates that the coffee berry borer is going to be a serious nuisance as he gets his business of the ground. But, he added, the payoff of pursuing work in the coffee industry in East Hawaii is worth the effort.
“It’s definitely an industry where I think we could find a niche, here,” he said. “In two or three more years, we could have 600 or 700 producing trees. … That’s my dream. I think there’s a big future on this side of the island. Coffee used to be big here, and it seems to be coming back.”
For more information about Mahilani, visit mahilani.org. For more on OK Farms Hawaii, visit okfarmshawaii.com.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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