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As coffee leaf rust spreads across state, Hawaii farmers race to save their crops

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 5:44 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 23, 2021 at 5:45 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After being discovered in October, coffee leaf rust has made its way to all of the major islands in Hawaii and experts aren’t sure how far it reaches.

According to the state Department of Agriculture, the devastating fungus that can cause severe defoliation of coffee plants is still in its early days of infection.

“Think of this as the first phases of the first wave of the COVID pandemic,” said Darcy Oishi, the acting manager for the Plant Pest Control Branch at the Department of Agriculture.

“Numbers are still going up and will continue to go up.”

Oishi said while many parts of Maui have seen widespread infections, other areas are untouched.

“The core issue here is we don’t know what this particular race of rust will do,” Oishi said. “How virulent it is, all the long-term impacts, we’re just getting that kind of information now.”

Fred Cowell is the general manager for Kauai Coffee Company, Hawaii’s largest coffee grower. The pathogen is on the island, but not on that farm yet.

Cowell said he’s confident that even if that farm starts to see the rusting leaves, they have the resources to fight it. Not everyone does.

“One of my biggest fears is small farms without the resources to fight them, might give up,” he said. “And that means that we lose some of the most important members of our industry.”

He’s worried about his family’s five-acre farm back home in Kona.

“What I’ve seen firsthand looking at the coffee near my dad’s house,” Cowell said. “Just little pinches of yellow on the edges of the leaves.”

Cowell said he’s hopeful that the family business, Kowali Farm, will produce a sustainable crop this year.

“It’s hard to see what was a beautifully manicured farm, perhaps begin to lose that,” he said.

Hawaii’s coffee industry generates about $58 million a year. There’s a statewide ban on transporting live coffee plants, and the EPA recently approved a powerful fungicide for use in Hawaii.

“There’s no chance for eradication, and our growers are going to have to learn and adapt to dealing with the new pests,” Oishi said.

“So they’ll have to be managing one of the most deadly diseases of coffee in the world.”

There are constant meetings about the disease and how to get a hold of it such as tactics to separate plants, avoiding shade, and using fungicide.

“Many of the coffee farmers realize this isn’t a zero-sum game,” Cowell said. “If we all survive, we do better.”

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