Coffee picker shortage hurts Big Island farms

Coffee picker shortage hurts Big Island farms
Updated: Dec. 30, 2016 at 5:28 AM HST
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KAU, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A bumper crop is usually good news for Big Island coffee farmers, but this year, many are facing a severe shortage of pickers. Businesses in both Kona and Kau are losing thousands of dollars.

Farmer John Ah San is struggling to find workers to pick the abundant harvest of coffee cherries ripening right now.

"It's hard to recruit younger people so we're depending more on the Marshallese migrant workers and a few local people," explained Ah San, president of the association.

Other members of the Palehua Ohana Farmers Association in Kau are facing the same problem.

"We've heard of several farmers not having enough pickers on time or couldn't get pickers and pretty much lost an entire round," said Ah San.

The seasonal workers usually start in Kona then head to Kau, but there is an unusual overlap of the harvests due to the weather this year.

"We're both fighting for the same picker and so we're having 50 percent less pickers in the fields and this is kind of hurting our production," said Ah San. "One of the biggest buyers for the products is Starbucks Coffee company."

The two cooperatives in Kau produce a total of roughly 1.5 million pounds of coffee cherry annually. Competition for pickers is fierce since timing is critical.

"We've had many cases where a farmer will come to your field and tell your pickers if you come to my field, I'll offer you 5 cents a pound more," said Ah San. "This has been kind of an ongoing thing and it's kind of a price war."

Some farmers must now rely on their relatives to help out with the harvest.

"Hiring outside is a real battle because we only get limited pickers out here," said Delvin Navarro, vice president of the Kau Coffee Growers Cooperative.

On the other side of the island, Sugai Kona Coffee is also scrambling to find enough pickers.?

"We probably lost about one-fourth of our crop on the trees that dried out or dropped to the ground," said Kay Dixon, general manager of Sugai Products Inc.

Strong winds have caused a lot of overripe cherries to fall, raising concerns about a possible resurgence of the devastating coffee berry borer.

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