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Kona Coffee farms suffer from most severe drought in their history

August 23rd 2011

Kona’s coffee trees should be covered with flowering white, fragrant buds by now, yet they are either dead, losing their brittle leaves by the bundle, or, at best, are still resting dormant.
Slightly better faring are irrigated farms, but with catchment tanks empty and county water prices at a premium, their harvest projections and year end profits are in serious doubt as well.
“We have many hundred year old trees with a very developed, deep tap root system. Never needed artificial irrigation. Some of them would be dying right now if we wouldn’t water them by hand.” says Demetria Farmier, a coffee farmer in South Kona. “That kind of drought obviously hasn’t happened to them before within the last century.”

The local rain data, collected by the University of Hawai’i in Kainaliu, South Kona, goes back to 1931. The last comparable droughts indicated in those stats happened in the early eighties and the late nineties, all caused by similar, prolonged El Niño events, and were resulting in a disrupted weather pattern over the Big Islands western districts of Kona, Ka’u and Kohala. Ms. Farmier doesn’t need a trickle of rain, but wishes for an onset of the rainy season: “If we get a bit of rain now and then nothing again, the resulting flowers will not be able to develop itself to fruits. But simply will be shed by the tree as it needs all moisture to survive.”

What does it mean to Kona coffee prices - will they go up because there will not be enough around to cover demands by year end? Not necessarily, because last season the large processors didn’t buy any coffee parchment at all from the 700 or so small Kona coffee farms; most likely because of the weak economy. Many farms still have plenty of good parchment left therefore.

Properly stored, green coffee lasts up to 2 years without any loss of aroma quality. Kept in its protective parchment husks, beans can be stored even longer, according to Jean Wintgens, one of the most renowned coffee experts and author of the coffee industry ‘bible’ “COFFEE: Growing, Processing, Sustainable Production.” So the Kona coffee market and its fans may simply coast through this projected shortage without major interruptions or higher prices. There are positive side effects to the missing rains as well: During the last decade the Black Twig Borer beetle (xylosandrus compactus) had caused increasing damage to coffee trees by drilling holes in fruit bearing branches and new shoots. The unprecedented drought seems to have disrupted the beetles life cycle and currently can’t be found anymore in the trees, according to some coffee farmers.