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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Drought slows coffee growth

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Drought has caused 20 percent to 30 percent damage to the Kona coffee crop, and farmers pray for rain in what is ordinarily the Kona wet season, a critical time for the growth of the coffee bean.

Veteran coffee grower Tom Greenwell of Greenwell Farms said yesterday that if the drought continues for another two or three weeks, half of the crop could be wiped out.

"We're in serious trouble," said Christine Sheppard of the Kona Coffee Council. "It looks like bean size is going to be much smaller this year."

Adequate amounts of rain are critical for the development of the coffee bean in the four-month period after the trees flower, generally from January to May. But recently Kona has been "shockingly dry" and lacking the signature afternoon clouds that usually bring a rainstorm, Sheppard said.

National Weather Service data show that the Big Island has endured far lower levels of rainfall than usual over the past year. In April, rain gauges in the Kealakekua area registered less than two inches of rainfall, or about 30 percent of the normal precipitation.

May is usually a time for sporadic showers, farmers said, but this year those downpours were generally missing.

Growers at lower elevations, where the coffee trees flowered earlier in the year, have been affected most by the drought.

Even at the middle elevations, where Sheppard's farm is nestled, the ground is parched.

"I'm sitting here watching my crops wilting," she said.

What coffee farmers fear most are the "floaters," the coffee beans that don't develop to full size. They're called floaters because the cherry includes a deformed bean and a pocket of air that makes it lighter than water. Healthy Kona beans sink in water, and most reputable processors toss those that are not into the mulch pile.

Greenwell, a grower and processor, said he's in a better position than most because his 35-acre farm is equipped with irrigation. But he buys coffee for processing from 200 others farmers, so it will hit him in the pocketbook as well.

But the ultimate effect of the drought won't be known until harvesting time in August and September.

"It can only get worse from here," said Bob Smith of Smith Farms in Honaunau.

Whether consumers will feel the drought in the price of Kona coffee is hard to say, Sheppard said. In recent years, the price to coffee drinkers has generally remained stable even as wide fluctuations in prices occurred at the processing level, she said.

Despite talk of an extended drought statewide, farmers are hoping the typical convection showers that usually keep the Kona highlands green all summer start to kick in soon. Smith said he got four-tenths of an inch Monday night.

"I hope that's a good sign," he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.