Hawaiian coffee battling inflation and plant disease

WAIALUA, Hawaii — Inflation has hit the coffee industry hard, with prices up 15% year-on-year. Some of the inflation is due to weather and crop pests entering the country’s highest coffee-producing state.

“Hawaii is the only state that produces coffee on a commercial scale,” said Kyler Barber, who manages the Waialua Coffee and Chocolate farm. “It’s an interesting industry and coffee has a long history here.”

Hawaiian coffee contributes less than 1% to global coffee production but averages about $50 million per year.

However, some challenges have hampered coffee production in Hawaii over the past 10 years.

“You have a responsibility to explain it to your customers because it affects the price,” said Michelle Yamaguchi of Waialua Coffee and Chocolate.

Some of the problems Waialua Coffee has experienced are due to a pest called the coffee cherry borer, which invades the coffee beans and hallows the beans, according to Yamaguchi.

“These yields stayed the same,” Barber said. “But you bring in 100 pounds of beans, but the beetle has 20 to 30 pounds of beans and you can’t sell them. So they do the same amount of work, but we lose a lot in processing. We have solved many of these challenges and once we have solved them, this new disease will come. The coffee leaf rust, which is new to Hawaii but not new to the industry.”

Due to the recent introduction of coffee leaf rust, which is reported to have started in 2020, growers are constantly trying to prevent the spread of the leaf rust. Hawaiian coffee prices have risen slightly due to lower yields from rust-affected plants.

“You’re going to see prices go up a bit because growers like us are spending more to deal with the problem,” Barber said. “They’re losing some yield and need to get more for every pound of coffee they bring in.”

To combat this problem, the Hawaiian Agriculture Research Center was awarded $1.37 million for research into preventing its spread, since coffee leaf rust can result in a 70% or more crop loss on average.

“Right now we don’t have tourists on the farm because it’s risky,” Yamaguchi said. “Coffee leaf rust is even tougher because it’s a fungus, an insect you can see but a fungus you can’t see, so it can be transmitted from your clothes or whatever.”

“It’s been difficult to get federal funding for these small crops, so the funding will help,” Barber said. “And the Hawaiian Agriculture Research Center has been growing coffee for years. They know the industry and will be the best solution to solve this problem.”

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