Big Island coffee farms face a new threat: A labor shortage

Published: Feb. 16, 2018 at 6:30 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2018 at 3:08 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Big Island coffee farmers faced a steeper shortage of workers to pick their beans this past season. It was felt from Kau to Kona.
Farming leaders said attracting local labor is tough.

"Unemployment is at a record low, two percent. It's hard for farmers to compete with other businesses as far as wages," Hawaii Farm Bureau executive director Brian Miyamoto said.

Steve Hicks of Greenwell Farms in Kona said the harvesting period wasn't spread out over several months so it was harder to entice foreign workers.

"We needed a lot of pickers to get the cherry off the trees in a very short period of time. For someone to commit to come all this way to help us and we have a short duration of harvest time, that made it very difficult this year." he said.

Without adequate help smaller coffee farms were hard pressed to harvest as much as in the past.

The labor shortage also was also felt after harvest when trees need to be stripped of all coffee berries and fields cleared to protect against new infestations of an invasive pest that destroys beans.

"If you're not strip-picking at the end of the season you're leaving berries in the field which act as a reservoir for coffee berry borer," said Chris Manfredi, president of the Hawaii Coffee Association.

University of Hawaii entomologist Mark Wright said left untreated an infestation can infect 90 percent of a farm's coffee beans and drive up costs for the farmer.

"If you have an infestation present in the field at the start of your season you're going to have a new infestation.You're going to have to apply other treatments which are expensive and not necessarily as effective as you like," he said.

Miyamoto believes tying other crops to coffee could attract more foreign workers and alleviate some of the labor shortage in the future.

"We're looking at possibly working with the Department of Labor trying to see if we can develop these programs where the farm labor workers would just go from commodity to commodity, maybe offering them full-time employment under those types of situations," he said.

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