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Coffee Berry Borer, six and a half years on

CBB coffee coffee quality hawaii coffee hawaii specialty coffee history industry quality specialty specialty coffee third wave

A few weeks ago, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture published a press release confirming that the coffee berry borer’s (Hypothenemus hempei, CBB) presence was confirmed on 2 farms on Maui.  While this news hit us pretty hard, it wasn’t particularly surprising.  CBB was first identified on Hawai‘i Island in September 2010.  About two years ago, it was detected on O‘ahu

CBB has been here and on our radar for 6.5 years.  In that time, the industry responded in a predictable, perhaps even typical, way.  In the immediate aftermath, we discovered we were unprepared and shocked.  There was plenty of panic and experimentation by both individual farms and a myriad of researchers, including myself.  The scientific literature was scoured and contacts were made with folks at other origins.  Yields took a serious hit and quality tanked on farms not dedicated to combating the CBB.  We also saw some loss of farmers who weren’t interested in putting in the resources and effort of combating the critter.  This is much like what happened in Puerto Rico when they first discovered CBB in their fields.

On a positive side, our industry saw a refreshing unification of sorts.  Farmers, researchers, and government agencies joined forces and created a task force whose purpose was to seek out and disseminate information on CBB.  This task force eventually took on the responsibility of working with the federal and state governments to secure financial assistance for our coffee farmers.  Consequently, a subsidy currently exists for commercial formulations of Beauveria bassiana, a naturally occurring fungus that is used to combat the insect.

Today, it seems like those farmers who are serious about combating CBB can do it well.  Conscious farmers can keep the infestation levels below 5%, though the cost of doing so is high.  Thus, green coffee prices (in Kona) are at an all time high; they are double what they were in 2006, most of which I attribute to CBB.  Fortunately, this last season, all Kona farmers I’ve encountered reported a low level of infestation (a result of the natural ebb and flow of insect populations).  Moreover, cup quality seems to be relatively high this year, presumably not a coincidence.

Thus far, the coffee producers on O‘ahu have not struggled too much with CBB.  If they have, they’ve been quiet about it.  It is still relatively, early, though, and producers on O‘ahu have challenges of their own that differ from ones on the Big Island.

What does this all mean for Maui?  It is impossible to say, of course.  MauiGrown Coffee, like Waialua Estate Coffee and Cacao on O‘ahu, is large and heavily mechanized.  The size will make control challenging but the mechanization ought to help a bit.  The small farms on Maui are probably going to go through some of the same panic and frustration that the Big Island farmers went through.  What I fear most is that many of the small Maui farmers may give up on coffee; few of them are full-time, dedicated coffee farmers.  This new challenge may be enough hassle to push them out of coffee.  Hopefully, this fear is unfounded and there will be more tenacity on Maui than I expect.

When CBB first arrived in Hawai‘i, I predicted steady attrition of coffee farms on the Big Island.  I couldn’t foresee many farmers wanting to battle CBB and I couldn’t fathom new farmers showing up ready for the fight.  Happily, I was completely wrong.  There are more coffee farms in Hawai‘i and, very likely, the Big Island, now than there have been since 1964! 

Like everywhere else in the world, we survived the onslaught of this annoying and vicious pest.  One could argue it has made us a wiser industry.  It has certainly made us more humble; there is no silver bullet for this bug.  The farmers on Maui have already been treated to several workshops on the CBB.  They'll be more prepared than anyone on the Big Island ever was.  If nothing else, they'll have moral support from farmers and roasters around the state.

This is going to be an interesting year for the Hawai‘i coffee industry.  Aside from CBB now being on 3 islands, there are some legislative efforts that could very well change the nature of the industry.  Stay tuned, Daylight Mind will write about them as they happen!

 -written by Chief Science Officer Shawn Steiman, PhD

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