Harvest season is just around the corner for Hawaiʻi’s coffee farmers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out much of the market to sell what local coffee growers are producing. The plight has been particularly hard for Kaʻū coffee farmers, who have spent the last 15 years making a name for themselves in the local coffee growing industry.
Leo Noberte, 75, works eight hours a day, seven days a week tending to his 50-acre coffee farm in Kaʻū. But as he gears up for this year’s big harvest, he’s scrambling for buyers.
“I sell all roasted to all the store but now no can sell cause nobody buy,” says Noberte. “ ABC Store, Cost-U-Less, KTA, Choice Smart...nobody buying. So every month I losing over $20,000. Every month.”
The coronavirus pandemic caught many of the region’s coffee farmers by surprise, says Berta Miranda. She and her family run a 20-acre coffee farm in Kahuku, which last year began to expand operations to include a coffee shop.
“Two months before the COVID-19, we finished the coffee shop and it was doing really good,” says Miranda.
Then along came COVID-19, which led to widespread shutdowns of many of the businesses that buy Miranda’s coffee. Lou Daniele, who runs Kaʻū Coffee Mill, says he’s frustrated at the lack of federal aid for farmers like Miranda and Noberte.
“Coffee is the second most valuable crop in the State of Hawaiʻi. Yet thereʻs help for people growing papaya farmers. Thereʻs help for people growing guava, brussel sprouts. I mean all these other things,” says Daniele.
Federal assistance in the form of a $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was funded through the CARES Act. It provides COVID-19 relief to farmers but coffee isnʻt included in the list of approved crops. This worries Daniele who’s sitting on $1.2 million worth of coffee he bought last year.
“My warehouses are full. I have all these farmers looking to me to buy their crop. If I can’t move my coffee that I bought last year, how am I going to help these guys?” says Daniele. “Eventually, this is going to be a pinch on them.”
Hawaiʻi’s congressional delegation has urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture expand its COVID-19 relief program to include coffee farmers. No decision has yet been made. Coffee harvest in Kaʻū begins this month.