Categorized | Agriculture, Featured

Coffee berry borer beetle battle

Tommy Greenwell speaks to farmers at Kona Coffee Farmers Association's annual expo at Old Kona Airport. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Tommy Greenwell speaks to farmers at Kona Coffee Farmers Association’s annual expo at Old Kona Airport. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

The battle against the coffee berry borer beetle is entering its third year and Big Island farmers are reporting some success along with continued concern.

Fourth generation farmer and coffee processor Tommy Greenwell spoke Friday, Jan. 25 before about 100 farmers at the Kona Coffee Farmers Association’s annual coffee expo.

Although some farmers have been successful in reducing the number of beetles attacking their trees, most still are worried about the long-term effects on the Kona coffee – and newer but already respected – Ka‘u coffee brand names.

“The market is great and prices are good,” Greenwell said. “But eventually quality is going to catch up with the price of coffee out there and (coffee lovers) going to go, ‘nah,’ because there’s better quality coffee out there.”

The damage caused by the beetle, which burrows into cherry coffee beans, already has had a negative impact on the island’s coffee quality. That could compromise the Hawaii coffee name across the global market, Greenwell said.

Native to Africa, the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) is considered the world’s most destructive coffee pest. According to the state Department of Agriculture, the coffee berry borer causes about $500 million per year in a global industry worth $90 billion per year.

Staff at the Greenwell Farms processing facility checks every bag of coffee dropped off for roasting and grades its quality. Before the CBB infestation was identified in September 2010, Greenwell said, about 22 percent was at least extra fancy quality; 30 percent fancy; 24 percent No. 1; 13 percent prime; 4 percent peaberry; and the rest of a lower quality.

Of the most recent harvest, Greenwell said none of the green bean coffee could be graded as extra fancy, fancy or No. 1. The majority – more than 75 percent – fell within the prime categories.

“If this gets worse, we’re going to lose our green (bean) market and it’ll destroy the Kona name,” he said. “It is a threat to our brand. The market is there, but I believe it’s not going to wait around for us.”

Greenwell said the current market for green bean coffee is strong and there is reason to be optimistic if all farmers and growers join the fight.

“We’re past the denial stage. It affects us all at the end of the day,” he said. “We need to band together and we’ll get through it.”

Since the small, brown beetle was spotted in Kona and, about six months later, in Ka‘u, farmers have been scrambling to find the most effective and least expensive methods to eradicate the tiny brown beetle.

“We do not have control of the beetle yet,” Greenwell said. “The bottom line is: only the farmers can control this. We have the tools available. There is no magic machine to get rid of CBB when it comes to the mill.”

Farmers are urged to employ a three-pronged attack: Hang traps that contain a mixture of methanol and ethanol to identify infestations; strip the trees of excess beans and clear the ground; and finally spray the ground with Beauvaria bassiana fungus. Although the fungus occurs naturally, famers have to introduce it to areas where it is needed to smother the beetle.

Following these methods, Greenwell said he has managed to knock down the infestation rate in one area of his farm from 47 percent to almost completely eradicated. Greenwell said his farm currently averages 6 percent infestation rate.

“We’re still on a learning curve. Last year was no problem, but this year we’re at 10 percent infestation,” said Fred Housel of Kiele O Kona Coffee Company. “It could turn out to be more expensive and more damaging than we thought. Everyone needs to be involved in the solution.”

Greenwell has been tracking the infestation rate for the last two seasons, calculated from the Kona coffee cherry brought in for processing.

For the 2011-12 season, Greenwell estimated the infestation at less than 5 percent in the North Kona Makalei and South Kona Honomalino areas. That number spiked to more than 20 percent in the area of Tobacco Road in Captain Cook.

During 2012-13, the infestation rates were hovering around 10 percent in Makalei, 15 percent around Captain Cook and 25 percent in the Honomalino area, an infestation rate nearing 25 percent.

That, of course, lowers the harvest. For example, Greenwell said, it currently takes nearly 8 pounds of cherry to produce 1 pound of green bean. Previously, 1 pound of green bean could be culled from little more than 5 pounds of cherry.

Meanwhile, Elsie Burbano Greco, research entomologist at UH Manoa, said she is encouraged that farmers are tackling the issue.

“I’m happy that the farmers are doing a good job. They see if they do the work, the infestation will go down,” she said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s time-consuming and it’s expensive, but this is the way to do it.”

Greco recommended each farm have a worker dedicated to combatting the beetle and farmers reach out to their neighbors to ensure it doesn’t spread.

“Farmers can put pressure on those who aren’t working on this problem,” she said. “For some, this is their livelihood, and if they cannot farm, the families don’t eat. For those that don’t do anything, those farms will disappear.”

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