State coffee production, value up

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KAILUA-KONA — The 2016-17 Hawaii coffee season looks promising statewide with preliminary estimates calling for an increase in production, yield and value.

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KAILUA-KONA — The 2016-17 Hawaii coffee season looks promising statewide with preliminary estimates calling for an increase in production, yield and value.

The state’s 6,900 acres of coffee producing land is expected to result in 36.4 million pounds of coffee cherry during the 2016-17 season, up more than 1 million pounds from 2015-16 when 34.7 million pounds of coffee cherry was produced, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service in preliminary season estimates released in February.

However, Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Suzanne Shriner, who also operates Lions Gate Farms in Captain Cook, said the statewide data is not indicative of what occurred during the growing season that just wrapped up for farmers in Kona. The association represents about 280 member farms; Shriner estimated there’s more than 1,000 farms in the area.

“In Kona, we actually had a pretty terrible year,” she said. “A lot of people had to file for crop insurance because of the extended dry period from October to March.”

Shriner also added that the Kona coffee region did not see an overall production increase as reported in the statewide estimates, noting that the increase could likely be attributed to large farms on the neighbor islands.

“When they (NASS) report the crop is up that includes the big farms on Kauai and Maui, and they may have had some better yield,” Shriner said. “It’s hard, we’d love to see it broken down by county, a few years ago they used to do that and then they lumped it together statewide.”

A breakdown by county or district is no longer available, making it difficult to know just how much coffee was produced on the Big Island. However, based upon a statewide agricultural land use baseline report, Big Island coffee farms account for 4,700 to 5,525 of acreage statewide.

The next federal Census of Agriculture providing such data is slated for release in February 2019, according to the USDA.

The 2016-17 was also a “down” year for many Kona Coffee farmers in the wake of a strong 2015-16 season. Shriner estimated her crop was 20 percent less this past season.

“The flowers didn’t set up and coffee has this like a two-year crop anyway, it’s big one year and down the next year,” she explained. “Last year, (the 2016-17 growing season) was a down year anyway, but the weather just really slammed us hard and the flowers didn’t set up.”

Walter Kunitake, a third generation coffee grower and owner of Country Samurai Coffee Co. in Holualoa, said his 2016-17 crop was OK, noting he also had a good flowering but didn’t receive enough rain.

Andrea Kawabata, an extension agent with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said the overall Kona coffee crop was smaller in 2016-17 due to drought, which inhibits growth and therefore overall yield and production. Despite the smaller crop, controlling the coffee berry borer, a small beetle that burrows into the coffee bean causing damage, was easier, resulting in a higher quality crop.

Value up 15 percent

With each pound of the cherry selling at $1.71 this year, the USDA valued the Hawaii’s 2016-17 crop at $62.2 million, up $8 million from 2015-16, but down $400,000 from 2014-15, according to the federal data. The difference in value between 2014-15 and this year can be attributed to the per pound price for cherry being 1 cent higher though production was nearly the same. In 2015-16, the crop was affected by weather events and the coffee berry borer.

Coffee cherry is the entire fruit when it is picked, prior to removing the pulp, drying and milling the beans for roasting and, finally, consumption. By the time the fruit reaches the “green bean” state, it’s about 1/5 of its weight at picking. The service valued parchment, the step prior to green bean, at $9.68 per pound and green bean at $11 per pound.

Shiner said Kona growers were getting about $1.85 per pound of cherry that had no more than 10 percent coffee berry borer damage during the 2016-17 season. Accordingly, the price drops as damage from the borer increases.

However, CBB infestation is down substantially compared to the days when farmers saw more than 40 percent of their coffee damaged by the pest, such as occurred in 2011 after CBB was discovered in Kona in 2010, she said.

The small beetle, which spread to Ka’u in May 2011, Oahu in 2014 and Maui in December 2016, bores into the coffee “cherry” to lay its eggs. The larvae feed on the coffee bean, reducing the yield and quality of the bean.

“We’re doing a lot better with CBB. CBB averages are coming down under 10 percent damage for Kona region,” she said. “It’s really, really much better but 10 percent still is a little too high especially when you look at Columbia, they are looking at 2 percent. But we’re getting a handle on it, we’re coming along way and are better than we were two to three years ago.”

“That would be a great goal,” Kawabata said about getting the infestation rate down to 2 percent. “I don’t know how realistic that is based on an industry but for individuals definitely — we see it already that they are reaching these really nice low numbers, but it’s great goal for everybody to strive for.”

2017-18 outlook

Though the 2016-17 season may not have been a bumper crop for Kona Coffee, Kunitake, Shriner and Kawabata all said the 2017-18 season is looking better.

“We’re looking much better than last year as once again we are in the swing of things and we should have an up year. We just had a big flowering a week ago — the flowers were all the way to the end of the branches, which usually indicates a healthy crop year for us,” Shriner said, noting that rain is needed in the next couple of weeks to set the flowers for the growing season.

Kunitake’s 2017-18 crop also flowered substantially with blossoms on branches from trunk to tip in recent weeks. The prognosis for his 600 trees this coming season is looking good.

“It’s going to be a good crop, I’m trying my best,” he said. “It will depend on how much precipitation we get from here on to sustain them. Water is life — if you get no water all those guys (trees) will abort.”

Derek Wroe, a forecasters with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, expected a dry weekend for the Big Island. There is also no significant rainfall expected into next week, however, trade winds will likely fuel some precipitation for the Kona slopes.

Kawabata confirmed the major flowering recently, noting that some farmers may have multiple crops or a huge crop that comes in all at once for the 2017-18 season, which could cause some hardship in finding pickers. She is hoping that the weak La Nina currently in place will remain and not transition to El Nino providing for another season with less CBB damage.

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However, that doesn’t mean farmers can be lax in their pest management plan.

“They definitely need to remove any raisins off their trees, field sanitation and to start sampling and monitoring (for CBB) and spraying if they need to,” Kawabata said.

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