Coffee leaf rust, small farms, and innovative research initiatives

That was the description of this year’s first educational in-person event sponsored by the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. It sounded like just what we needed. We’ve just returned, and I feel mildly disappointed.

The longer description was: Dr. Jennifer (Vern) Long will join us to talk about the research World Coffee Research is currently doing and how building a shared research agenda that includes Hawaii’s interests with those of global growers and U.S. coffee businesses can unlock increased federal support to address Hawaii’s newest challenge.

Most of the talk seemed to be an infomercial of this organization and the advocacy it does. Very few concrete take-aways. Still, it was worthwhile and interesting to have attended. The key players were there, and it’s always interesting to hear the questions asked. And to hear/feel the angst, “What do we do if Coffee Leaf Rust kills our trees?”

World Coffee Research (WCR) is only a ten year old organization, mostly funded by coffee roasters. They’re trying to get more research money to be used for coffee. In the presentation, she stated that there are 6,640 varieties of strawberries and 111 varieties of coffee (including both Arabica and Robusta within that). They spun that as strawberries have 59x more innovation than coffee. The speaker said that other commodities like soy beans, corn, sorghum, etc. have longstanding investments in R&D, and a pipeline of research. The relative R&D investment in coffee is very small.

My impression was this organization was putting most of their research efforts, pertaining to rust, into evaluating rust-resistant varieties. They say that worldwide, it seems that research into integrated pest management, fungicide, and nutrition are done at a national level; so they don’t research that. One resource WCR offers is their catalog of coffee varieties: https://varieties.worldcoffeeresearch.org/

An audience member asked when some of these varieties will be available for us. It seems like it’s at least three years away just to get seeds. And then if we start planting other rust-resistant varieties, will the flavor profile match what our customers expect out of Kona coffee?

It seems like most of us small farm folk just want to know what our options are for dealing with rust and keeping our trees alive and producing. There are more options coming, but will it be timely?

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