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Invasive coffee pest common to Big Island spreads

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HILO, Hawaii — The invasive coffee pest with which Hawaii Island growers have struggled for the last four years now has been found elsewhere in the state.

The state Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday the coffee berry borer was discovered last week on farms owned by Dole Foods in Waialua, Oahu. Personnel with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service discovered the pest while conducting a study on the flowering of coffee, according to a press release.

The pest was first detected in South Kona in September 2010, and has continued to spread around the Big Island, including into Ka'u, North Kona and Hilo.

In response, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture established a quarantine to prevent the transfer of unroasted coffee beans that could be infested with coffee berry borer to neighbor islands, cutting off a potential source of income for Big Island growers.

Now that the beetle has been found on Oahu, area coffee growers are asking whether the quarantine will be lifted, potentially opening up another revenue source in a highly competitive market.

"We've been barred from sending green coffee to Oahu without jumping through hoops. The rules and regulations were so onerous, we just decided to stop all shipments to Oahu," said Bob Smith, who, along with his wife, Cecilia, operates Smith Farms in Honaunau. "It wasn't a whole bunch of coffee we were sending there, but it did represent something."

Bruce Corker, a farmer at Rancho Aloha in Holualoa and a member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, agreed, saying that cutting the Oahu coffee market wasn't a huge blow to isle farmers.

"That was never a large business anyway," he said. "For small farmers like us, most of us have some home roasters that buy green coffee on the mainland, but if someone on Oahu or Maui wants green coffee, we wouldn't be able to sell to them," he said.

Now that the bug has spread to Oahu, however, "there's no reason we can't start selling green coffee to Oahu again," added Smith, who also serves as chairman of the Kona Coffee Growers Association's pest and disease committee.

"That is definitely a possibility," said Darcy Oishi, plant pest control manager for the state Department of Agriculture. "The matter is going to be discussed at the next Board of Agriculture meeting next Tuesday at 9 a.m."

In addition to discussing lifting the ban on transporting green coffee beans from Hawaii Island to Oahu, the board also will discuss placing a quarantine on green coffee beans traveling from Oahu to other neighbor islands that have not yet been infested by the berry borer.

Oishi said much has been learned by the state and various partners during the last four years as they have worked to control the pest on the Big Isle, and that information will help Oahu farmers confront the problem. However, the fact that the larger farms on Oahu rely on mechanized harvesters instead of farmers handpicking the coffee beans could mean the pest will be harder to control there.

Farmers on the Big Island have successfully controlled the bug by picking beans up off the ground and those left on trees, known as raisins, after harvest, thereby preventing the fruits from becoming breeding grounds for the beetle. Harvesting machines are unable to provide the same kind of sanitation measures, Oishi said.

"This represents the first time in the state of Hawaii that CBB is present on a farm that has not had hand harvest," he said. "It doesn't necessarily change what needs to be done, but we can't just say 'Take the formula used by the most successful farmers from the Big Island and use that. It adds a new dimension to the control project."

Suspected samples of the berry borer, or CBB, were turned into the ag department Dec. 4, and a confirmation was made that day by entomologists. The following day, a 30-member joint crew made up of personnel from the Pacific Basian Agricultural Research Center, the Department of Agriculture, the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, and Dole began to survey Dole's two Waialua coffee fields, which total 155 acres.

"CBB was found to be established and disributed throughout the area in varying densities," the press release reads. "Based upon this information, HDOA will not be conducting an eradication project but will work with Dole Foods to contain the CBB. HDOA will also be revising the quarantine zones for CBB."

Scott Enright, chairman of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, said that the discovery of the berry borer is concerning.

"We are committed to determining the extent of the infestation and working with the industry and partners in containing and controlling the infestation and determining the source of the infestation," he said.

"It's devastating for any farmer when a serious pest like the coffee berry borer hits their farm," added Neil Reimer, acting administrator of HDOA's Plant Industry Division. "We appreciate the swift cooperation from Dole Foods and also their concern and support in containing this infestation as soon as possible."


Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, http://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/

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