What is the world’s most devastating (fungal) disease of coffee?

The world’s most devastating insect pest, coffee berry borer (CBB) beetle, was discovered in Hawaii in August 2010, according to UH CTAHR (University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources). The fungal disease is coffee leaf rust (CLR) and was discovered in Kona just a year ago.

And now our farm has it. Ugh! It was inevitable.

We had already been preventively spraying as if we had it. But we still got it, and it has rapidly spread. This has been weighing on us for weeks, an ever-present downer. Another farmer estimated they had it on around 8% of their trees and within a month that became about 35%! He’s now concerned about saving their trees. My aunty just shook her head, saying “I don’t know.” I inferred that meant, “I don’t know what I”m going to do. I think I’m going to throw in the towel.”

Without effective management of CBB and CLR, coffee yield will suffer because of defoliation and berry loss. Other countries with CLR have been managing with systemic and contact fungicides and planting resistant coffee varieties. The rotating block pruning we do to (successfully) control (but not eliminate) CBB beetle should also help with rust. We are not going to plant new coffee varieties or any more coffee seedlings. We just planted new trees this year, and it seems like money thrown away.

That’s why I’ve been paying attention to any other possibilities about what to grow on our agricultural lot. Ken Love, tropical fruit guru and maven, says fruit is the way to go. But we already had coffee. Before we embarked on this coffee resurrection, we invited the local CTAHR extension agent to visit our farm and evaluate what we had and advise what we could do. Because we already had coffee, coffee was the crop to cultivate.

I had always thought the proper way to control beetle was overwhelming. Now with just the sanitation protocol for rust, let alone managing the rust, I feel defeated. The protocol isn’t hard, but day in, day out? I guess, just like with CBB beetle, you can know the gold standard and strive in that direction even though you can’t achieve it.

The other day I weeded, trying to only work in fairly open areas, staying away from any tight clusters of trees to avoid disturbing and spreading any rust. When I took off my shirt, I found rust on my back.

Rust spores also carry in the wind. We’re right on the Mamalahoa Highway, and there are areas where things in the air simply travel and fly along. There are also daily breezes that travel up and down the mountain.

And who can control the pigs? We certainly can’t. They’re back again. A few weeks ago, one afternoon we heard crazed squealing at our neighbor’s for a period, then it stopped. We thought they must have trapped a pig and someone took it away. We didn’t have any pigs for a few weeks after that. But they’re back, performing their usual shenanigans — pushing and turning over things, tossing rocks around, rototilling, chomping on small plants. They travel through many people’s properties and all over our land. They’re certainly contributing to spreading rust spores.

Even if we chose to abandon the coffee endeavor, we can’t just simply stop. We’d be the bad neighbors with the feral coffee. That’s what frustrates farmers who try to control CBB and CLR. There are still large former farms with uncared-for coffee. Beetles and rust don’t respect property lines.

As for weather, we’re entering our dry season, and it has been quite a difference. The faucet has been turned off. So far this month, over half the days have been dry, and when it has rained, it has been a drizzle or light, and not for long. We’ve only had one day early in the month with some hours of medium rain. And since the volcano started erupting, last week we finally had some nicer blue days where the horizon was clearly visible.

4 thoughts on “What is the world’s most devastating (fungal) disease of coffee?

  1. It has been many years since I rubbed shoulders with Midwest farmers but the theme of your post has a familiar ring to it – crop diseases, pests, pigs and volcanoes. Well, okay, no volcanoes or feral pigs in Iowa but still, farming is not for the faint of spirit. I recall the morning when I went to feed the cattle and discovered a very expensive steer, stiff legged and bloated, and the day my cousin shot a nail gun into his hand, and the day his older brother died in a grain elevator when the grain collapsed, suffocating him. Not for the faint of spirit. But keep your chin up, Sharlene. You are, after all, farming in paradise.

    1. Thank goodness, no people injuries or deaths for us! I bet UH, Number One Son, doesn’t regret turning down coffee land.

  2. I hope it’s legal to kill feral pigs. If it is, BY ALL MEANS. Organize and shoot them. They are a problem on the mainland too. Same with other animals in LA. Ironically, cats! Too many people had them before the pandemic and they were not fixed. Animal control stopped taking them in. The other day I was bitten by a female feral cat. Having to put it down was painful, but necessary.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about the cat bite. We are trying to find someone to help us “take care of” the pigs, but there are various issues and the pace of island time in operation, too.

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