NPR logo

Destructive Bug Infests Hawaii's Kona Coffee Fields

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Destructive Bug Infests Hawaii's Kona Coffee Fields


Destructive Bug Infests Hawaii's Kona Coffee Fields

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


One global commodity markets, coffee prices have spiked more than 50 percent this year. Analysts say crop shortages and growing demand from developing economies are making espressos and cappuccinos more expensive.

In Hawaii, the price of a famous bean, Kona coffee, is also rising, but for a different reason. As Hawaii Public Radio's Ben Markus reports, a destructive bug has infested these beans.

BEN MARKUS: The Kona coast of the Big Island is to coffee what the Napa Valley is to wine. The elevation, combined with a moderate tropical climate and volcanic rock, help produce some amazing beans.

Jason Stith is a Kona coffee grower with a young, hippy quality. He learned how to grow coffee in Latin America in the Peace Corps. The sloping acres of his peaceful farm are filled with some valuable trees.

Mr. JASON STITH (Coffee Grower): We were finalists a couple times in the cupping contests. So we can demand a good price for the coffee, but, and we sell it all.

MARKUS: There just got to be coffee to grow.

Mr. STITH: There's got to be coffee to grow and coffee to sell.

MARKUS: First, the farmers were hit with a damaging two-year drought. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Stith discovered something that made him sick to his stomach. It was a tiny hole at the end of a bean, where an insect had bored in. Stith pulls a branch down and picks a green coffee bean off it.

Mr. STITH: So you see that? See where he got in right there? And now there's nothing in there. It's just old, rotten bean.

MARKUS: He sent samples to the University of Hawaii for testing. Scientists there confirmed the worst fears of farmers and ag officials: It was coffee berry borer. Stith says about half of his crop is infested. Immediately, ag officials in Hawaii went into emergency mode. They quickly called for mandatory treatment of all beans leaving Kona for other islands.

Michael Conway is an agriculture manager for Dole Food Company, which farms 150 acres of coffee on the island of Oahu. He spoke at a recent hearing in favor of mandatory treatments to protect the state's other farms.

Mr. MICHAEL CONWAY (Agriculture Manager, Dole Food Company): This is the first time in my entire ag career that I've seen this type of problem come up where and insect is contained to one area that has this potential to devastate an entire industry. And we really have to act accordingly.

Professor SKIP BITTENBENDER (Agriculture Specialist, University of Hawaii): My guiding principles on this are: contain the coffee berry borer, and then kill the coffee berry borer.

MARKUS: Skip Bittenbender is an agriculture specialist at the University of Hawaii. He says the treatment mandate will give him time to devise other strategies to beat the pest. He says in the meantime, growers will have to keep their fields clean, picking up any leftover beans. They'll have to set traps and spray insecticides, some of which are still under development.

Neil Reimer is with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. He says the USDA is still investigating how the bug got here. But in the meantime, it's here, and farmers must adapt.

Mr. NEIL REIMER (Hawaii Department of Agriculture): Now if you're in a third world country, or, you know, somewhere in South America or Central America, whatever, you can probably get by because labor's really cheap, land is cheap. Where in Hawaii, you know, you just get a small percentage reduction in yield and it could knock you under. So that's - it's even more serious, I think, in Hawaii.

MARKUS: He adds that nowhere in the world has coffee berry borer been eradicated. It can only be controlled. Reimer says it's hard to know for sure what the impact of the bug will be on Kona coffee. But he says based on experience in Latin America and Africa, the insect has the potential to reduce crop yields by up to 90 percent.

Back in Kona, Jason Stith says the drought and the coffee berry borer together have decimated his season's coffee crop.

Mr. STITH: Yeah, because it's like - well, there's my - this year...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STITH: ...right, and it's not looking so good.

MARKUS: Nor is it looking good for the hundreds of other independent farms that dot the Kona coast. And fewer beans harvested means a higher price for a cup of Kona coffee.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Honolulu.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.