Coffee Berry Borer: Part 1
Kona coffee farming has changed forever.
1 October 2011
I still remember the sound of the rain. I could tell by the cadence of the first few heavy drops on our tin roof that it wasn't a light shower or a passing storm but rather the return of the steady, reliable seasonal rains. It was a welcome sound because it meant the drought was over. That was more than a year ago, in the late spring of 2010.
It had been an unusually severe drought. We lost only a few trees but suffered substantial leaf drop. Every tree looked tired and weak. Our trees were healthy going into the drought so we didn't experience the big losses that many other farms did. Still, the next year's production levels were lighter than usual because the trees were trying to grow coffee at the same time they were trying to recover from the drought. It took an entire season for the trees to fully recover.
With plenty of care and proper pruning, our coffee trees are fully recovered now. This year's harvest looks like it is going to be our largest harvest ever. We've had plenty of rain, excellent weather and tons of blooms this year. The trees are absolutely loaded with plump coffee beans. That's good because we need a good year to make up for the past couple bad years.
Last year's challenge was the drought which caused an unusually small harvest. The previous year's harvest was normal but the bad economy meant low prices and no customers. We were forced to sell most of our coffee at well below cost. This year we have a strong harvest, strong prices and plenty of customers but we have a brand new challenge: the coffee berry borer.
How big of a deal is this coffee berry borer? From the consumer's perspective, it's probably not that big of a deal. The only effect consumers are likely to see is an increase in prices. If worldwide demand for Kona coffee stays steady but the berry borer causes a decrease in supply then prices will inevitably go up.
The good news is that the quality of Kona coffee should remain stable. Coffee beans are usually either entirely destroyed by the berry borer or left untouched. There may be far less Kona coffee available but what we do have will still be as good as ever.
A short sighted Kona farmer may think that increasing coffee prices are a good thing. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. While the consumer will see higher prices due to a lower overall supply, the farmers will receive less income because a lot of coffee will be destroyed by the berry borer. With less coffee to sell, prices would have to sky rocket to make up the difference.
If prices go up too much, that may cause more harm than good. Kona is already one of the most expensive coffees in the world so there's not much room for a price increase. Even a small price increase may drive away customers and cause all sorts of turmoil in the industry. Some farmers would love to see the large processors go out of business but without the mills to buy coffee cherry, few farmers could survive. It would be like removing the top predator of a food chain; the whole system would collapse.
Consumers may have no urgent need for concern but if you're a Kona coffee farmer and you aren't concerned about the coffee berry borer then I predict that you won't be a Kona coffee farmer for long. I predict that this little bug will put a significant number of Kona coffee farmers out of business. Some farms have already lost 100% of their crop. Every single bean, gone. This year's harvest has just started and from what I've seen so far in Kona, the average cherry loss is already approaching half. If your income was cut in half, could you survive?
An abandoned coffee farm is a dangerous thing because a neighbor's infestation will soon become your infestation. The coffee berry borer can fly and does not understand things like property boundaries, quarantine laws or eviction notices. If Kona coffee farmers start to go out of business, whether it is the large corporations, private estates or part-time cherry farmers, we will all be affected.
Some have suggested government intervention to handle abandoned farms and feral coffee. I am hesitant because in my experience the government isn't so good at managing things in a quick and efficient manner. The last thing I want is the government telling me how to farm. I would much rather see cooperation among farmers and a unified community effort.
One of the things I do to try to help is organize farmer education workshops. When I first started workshops about the berry borer, I tried to find an expert on the subject. Then I realized that there is no such thing as an expert on CBB in Kona. It is too new to Kona and everybody is still learning how to deal with it here. Even if there were an expert, we don't need an expert so much as we need help spreading the word in very plain, practical terms.
I don't pretend to be an expert but I have spent a lot of time learning about the berry borer and I am happy to help others. So I have been volunteering my time to organize workshops. I try to always have the workshops on a farm where we can show the bug first-hand and demonstrate actual control methods rather than just talk about theory.
The workshops have all been very popular so far. Plenty of full-time professional farmers show up, which is great because they can help answer questions and share their experiences, but mostly it is the part-time farmers that need help. Farming has always been a difficult profession and the berry borer is a serious challenge. Other coffee farmers have dealt with this pest and with the right information, I think we can too.
In the next post I will cover the basics of dealing with the coffee berry borer in Kona. It may not be very interesting to the average coffee drinker but if you live in Kona and have any coffee trees, whether on a farm or just in your yard, I implore you to learn about the coffee berry borer and do your best to control this potentially devastating pest.