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Loss of Big Island coffee could yield higher prices

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Reported by: Andrew Pereira of

Published: 10/13 10:50 pm

Updated: 10/14 10:26 am


HONOLULU- A little more than a year since the discovery of the destructive coffee berry borer on the Big Island, growers are finally coming to grips with the true impact of the tiny beetle.

"It is an epidemic,” said Tommy Greenwell, a coffee grower in Kealakekua and president of the Hawaii Coffee Association.

Initial estimates by Skip Bittenbender, a University of Hawaii extension specialist for coffee, kava and cacao, show as much as 25 percent of the Big Island’s coffee crop could be lost to the pesky beetle, a miniscule bug that burrows into coffee cherries and feeds on the beans.

“Twenty-five percent is an educated guess,” Bittenbender told Khon2. “We won't know until the end of the (growing) season in February.”


Thursday evening in Kealakekua dozens of coffee growers attended a meeting at Greenwell's farm. Farmers were urged to take the necessary precautions to keep the berry borer at bay. Mitigation efforts include stripping all coffee cherries at the end of a harvest, setting traps, and spraying fungus that kill the tiny beetle.

“If we do this together and everybody in Kona does it, this industry should turn right around within a year or two,” said Greenwell.

"It's a teachable moment," added Bittenbender, who believes mitigation efforts are working. "The industry is taking up the stand to make sure that their members are well informed."

However in recent months as many as six coffee growers in Kona shut down as the beetle overran their farms. Greenwell believes 90 percent of all coffee farms in Kona have some level of infestation.

“It's a lot worst than I imagined,” he said. “It's really going to impact the coffee quantity this year.”

Meanwhile, some coffee processors have begun paying growers varying prices depending on the quality of cherries that are picked.

Hawaii Coffee Company, which produces the Lion Coffee and Royal Kona Coffee brands, pays growers $1.30 per pound for coffee cherries with low levels of berry borer infestation, $1.10 for moderate infestation, and just.95 cents for heavily infested crops.

“We're hoping that the loss in income really wakes them up and they realize that they've got to take better care of the farm,” said Hawaii Coffee President Jim Wayman.


An ongoing examination of Kona coffee cherries arriving at the Hawaii Coffee plant in Kalihi shows a 13.8 percent rate of berry borer infestation. However the cherries in question are still from last year’s crop.

The current rate of infestation observed by Hawaii Coffee has resulted in the need for more cherries to produce the same amount of coffee. Currently, it takes 5.8 pounds of cherries to produce one pound of Kona coffee. In the past it took the company 5.5 pounds of cherries to produce the same product.

“So that difference between 5.5 and 5.8 (pounds) can manifest itself into hundreds of thousands of dollars when you're buying millions of pounds of cherries,” explained Wayman.

If the current estimate holds true and 25 percent of the Big Island’s coffee crop is lost to the hungry beetles, higher prices will undoubtedly follow.

“It will necessarily make coffee more expensive,” said Greenwell.

At Morning Glass Coffee and Café in Manoa, owner Eric Rose is willing to absorb the higher cost of Big Island coffee, but to what degree and for how long remains to be seen.

“I think most (customers) will stick with it until the price becomes outrageously high, at which point we'll all have to figure out what to do next," he said.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Hawaii’s coffee farming industry was valued at $25.6 million in 2010. However if Kona coffee products are factored in, the entire industry could be worth as much $120 million annually.

Still, coffee growers are struggling to generate funds to fight the berry borer in areas not under the supervision of a farmer or processor. The destruction of 'feral' coffee plants is considered crucial, since such plants harbor large beetle infestations. Greenwell says the industry will lobby state lawmakers for emergency funds during the next legislative session in January.

“We were unsuccessful last year (but) we're gonna try again this year,” he said.

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Tags: Hawaii pest control  |  coffee berry borer  |  coffee pests

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