By ERIN MILLER
Stephens Media Hawaii
The USDA will spend $1 million to combat the coffee berry borer beetle on Hawaii Island, officials said Thursday morning.
The Area Wide Integrated Pest Management program, which will be based in Hilo, will continue ongoing efforts to educate farmers about preventing the spread of the pest, fund additional research into which pesticides might best control the borer, create a plant sanitation program and study the borer’s genome, to see how similar or different the pest is from other pests.
“It gives the industry a lot of hope,” Coffee Berry Borer Task Force Vice President Jim Wayman said.
Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Cecelia Smith agreed.
“One of the best things is, it’s science based,” Smith said. “That’s what we need, long-term science research.”
Smith’s farm is in the area of South Kona hardest hit by the borer. Some farms were seeing yields drop by 40 percent. Those losses, combined with the costs of purchasing and applying pesticides, had Smith considering leaving the business after 25 years.
Thursday’s announcement left Smith and Wayman extending thanks to Sen. Mazie Hirono, who contacted the USDA on farmers’ behalf seeking the funding, and expressing optimism about the coffee industry’s future.
“Whatever they’re going to do, that all is so much more help than trying to fight it yourself,” Smith said.
Wayman, who is also president of Hawaii Coffee Company, which purchases coffee cherry from a number of Big Island farmers, said about 75 percent of farmers he talks with have implemented some of the measures recommended to slow the pest’s spread. Other farmers have just stopped trying, though, he added.
“The farmers’ viability is being tested and a lot of farmers are giving up,” Wayman said, adding that may make room for new farmers to enter the market. “Coffee berry borer has been devastating to the industry.”
Hirono said she was “happy, gratified and raring to go.”
She wrote to the USDA in April asking for the financial assistance.
“Hawaii receives a relatively small share of federal funding for agriculture,” Hirono said in her letter. “And because our farmers grow crops not grown in other states, we cannot, for the most part, borrow research from other states. This is an instance where USDA assistance could make the difference between the survival and failure of a key heritage crop (produced in Hawaii for more than a century and a half), which has significant economic and cultural importance.”
USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, in his July 1 response, agreed the crop is important, adding his department “shares your concerns about the agricultural and economic impacts of this noxious pest.”
The funding is expected to last three to five years.
Vilsack outlined several additional measures the USDA was looking into as possible controls for the coffee berry borer. One is bloom synchronization, which uses plant growth regulators to reduce the number of blooms to one or two. That method makes it easier for growers to mass harvest the coffee cherry, Vilsack said.
The department is also developing a microbial control agent and researching the use of nematodes to slow the pest’s spread, he said.
“These added resources will accelerate ongoing scientific efforts and allow USDA to effectively collaborate with other organizations to assist with this problem,” Vilsack said.
First detected in Kona in 2010, the coffee berry borer has caused about $9 million in damage to Big Island coffee crops, Hirono said. That’s about a 25 percent hit to the island’s coffee industry, which has more than 700 small coffee farms. In 2011, farmers produced more than 8 million pounds of coffee, valued at more than $30 million, Hirono said.