Kaua‘i Coffee braces for leaf rust arrival

KALAHEO — Kaua‘i Coffee General Manager Fred Cowell is concerned about the recent findings of coffee leaf rust confirmed in the islands by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Identification Services.

CLR, an invasive fungus, is one of the most devastating pests of coffee plants, and is established in all coffee-growing areas of the world, but was never previously found in Hawai‘i before its recent discovery on Maui and Hawai‘i Island earlier this month.

“I don’t want to say it was inevitable and the coffee industry anticipated it, but we didn’t know when this was going to show up,” Cowell said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

Cowell paralleled the effect of CLR to rapid ‘ohi‘a death, a fungal disease rapidly killing forests of native ‘ohi‘a trees, and has spread quickly to kill hundreds of thousands of indigenous Hawaiian trees.

The only defense mechanism a coffee plant has in response to being infected with the fungus is to shed its leaves.

“We don’t have it here yet,” Cowell said. “How soon it will show up, and how contagious it will spread, you can’t see. This isn’t like the coffee borer beetle. The fungus can even travel on clothing.”

Changing approaches in production is one inevitability Kaua‘i Coffee and other coffee producers big and small will face.

“Anytime you have a pest that forces you to declare more labor and materials, it potentially forces an increase in the cost of production, and a decrease of your yield,” Cowell said. “When you combine those elements, you create a compounding effect.”

Cowell said the Kaua‘i climate isn’t conducive for the fungus’ survival and rapid spread.

”We aren’t as rainy as other areas because we have lower elevation, and because of our climate we have less water and less moisture then other coffee-growing areas” Cowell said. “This decreases the likelihood for fungus to grow on the leaves themselves, because the surface-irrigation’s water goes to the root zone and not on the leaves themselves.”

Cowell credits the University of Hawai‘i Cooperative Extension Service for their prompt response in dealing with this potential issue for Kaua‘i’s coffee industry.

“Our industry has to pull together at this point because there is no other choice,” Cowell said. “The industry certainly desires a solution because it is made up of so many independent businessmen and women and individual corporations. We have to rise above our differences in opinion to focus on how we can be stronger as a result.”

The coffee industry is an estimated $54.3-million industry in Hawai‘i.

For Cowell, the concern will remain, but he said he maintains a positive outlook on the potential situation even after the coffee borer beetle was confirmed on the plantation in October.

“The coffee industry is in the same position as the rest, forcing us to adapt, and 2021 will be an incredible year of transition,” Cowell said. “We must learn how to adapt and be stronger in the backside definition of resilience, and figure out all the answers we know we must.”

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