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Biological Threats Loom Large for Local Coffee Farmers, Data Analysis Could Be the Answer

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Hawaiʻi has fewer coffee farmers these days and the biological threats, from the coffee berry borer beetle to the coffee leaf rust, loom large. To many who think coffee is vital, it's hard to imagine mornings without coffee.

"The leaf rust is a very serious challenge and it's a new one for us relatively," said Nicholas Manoukis, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher in Hilo. "We are well-positioned, I think now, to start responding quicker to the leaf rust than we did to the coffee berry borer."

That's because fighting against the coffee berry borer created more active partnerships between the University of Hawaiʻi, the state Department of Agriculture and federal agencies.

Vincent Kimura of Smart Yields, an agriculture technology company, said he is worried about the future of the coffee industry. He pointed to a situation in Puerto Rico that saw the number of coffee farms drop from 10,000 to 4,500 over 10 years.

There have also been higher prices for coffee triggered by poor yields in Brazil due to drought conditions.

"No one wants to see prices go up, and no one wants expensive coffee. So, between these pests and climate change, you know, we really need more research and funds to train and educate farmers and figure things out," Kimura said.

Manoukis said Hawaiʻi coffee farmers have a pretty good handle on using a biopesticide against the coffee berry borer beetle, as well as implementing sanitation practices and changes in pruning.

"Having said that, all of these things cost extra money," he said. "So we continue to try to improve our management recommendations and practices so that the coffee industry remains viable here."

When asked what the industry needs to combat these threats, Kimura said more data — and more sharing of that data. Smart Yields and the USDA are working on an app that will provide data analysis to farmers.

"We see so much siloed information. You can just look at it from the federal side, or the state side, or the county side, or the academic side or the grower side. And there's not a lot of synergy in terms of overlaying all this information together to work collaboratively and comprehensively," Kimura said.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 20, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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