Hawaii farmers seek solution to combat potentially devastating coffee leaf rust

Updated: Dec. 7, 2020 at 5:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than a month after the devastating coffee leaf rust fungus was detected in Hawaii, farmers are still looking for a viable solution in their fight against the potentially devastating plant disease.

So far, coffee leaf rust has been found on Maui and Hawaii island and the state has since put a ban on transport of plants from those areas.

The exact scope of the problem is not yet known, but the head of the Hawaii Coffee Growers Association has witnessed how damaging it can be.

“I’ve seen it in real life,” said HCGA president Kimo Falconer.

“I know what it can do. It’s not like an insect pest where insects would just take care of your yield, but this thing will actually kill the trees if it’s not taken care of or if it’s not treated properly.”

For the last several weeks, Falconer has been in constant communication with his fellow farmers and government agencies to find a solution.

He says there are sprays to repel the rust, but nothing currently available in Hawaii to completely eliminate it, which allows more time for it to spread.

“It does move very quickly,” Falconer said.

“It’s very damaging in areas where it’s damp, wet areas, more humid. The drier places are not as bad, but if you have a bad infestation, it can do the damage just as bad.”

Due to their climate, farms on Kona are more susceptible to infection.

But at Kona Rainforest Coffee, operators have taken preventive measures to keep their crops healthy and no leaf rust has been detected.

However, there is the concern of spread from feral farms, abandoned properties where spores can form and travel through the air.

“Nobody’s there to take care of it and of course with wind and everything, if there’s any kind of disease on the leaf, it’s gonna get spread that way,” said Dawn Barnes, owner of Kona Rainforest Coffee.

Along with other growers in Hawaii, Kona Rainforest has explored a long-term solution—growing new varieties of coffee that would be resistant to the fungus.

“The coffee community is very supportive of each other and we pretty much all look out for each other, so I think that’s been really helpful,” Barnes said.

Falconer says it could be several months before a treatment that eliminates coffee leaf rust is approved for use in the islands.

Those who believe they’ve spotted areas of infection are advised to contact the Department of Agriculture.

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