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:

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?

Mid-April photo update

We happily received over six inches of rain in March and almost three so far in April, and the trees have responded. (Of course, so have the weeds.) It has been enough rain for the trees to come out with fresh, new growth. I see hardly any signs of rust, which makes me hopeful the trees will survive. There haven’t been any decisive blossoming rounds, and it’s getting late to hope for another one, let alone a good one. I’m very curious just how much lower the yield will be.

The next tasks are to fertilize and to weed more regularly. Spanish needles are sprouting up and sticking to us when we walk the land, and the vines are back, ready to seize their moment and spread all over and spiral up when possible.

The stumps are leafing out, but not as vigorously as three years ago, the last cycle this block was stumped.

Below are some other scenes from the farm today.

Why the compulsion to write our names on things?

Today’s themes are autograph trees and pigs. Hubby and I spent several hours this weekend working in the stumped block trying to clear away autograph plants and schefflera. We had sprayed a systemic on the trees before they were stumped to help with the coffee leaf rust problem. After the trees were stumped and the cuttings chipped, and with no rain, the area looks pretty brown … the undesired autograph and schefflera plants pop out in their healthy green, so they’re easy to see and remove. We’ll be done soon. Then we can enjoy one moment in time when they were under control in one area. The ‘ulu co-op is almost done with their weed tree removal, so that should also help with the problem (fewer autograph tree and African tulip tree seeds).

Autograph plants are everywhere! In the rocks, the ground, within pockets of the coffee trees, entwined around trees. Our coffee trees are so old, we think some of them might only be standing because of the autograph tree growing from its center or encircling it. J.R., I have not forgotten your request to explain why the autograph tree has its name. The leaves are tough enough — thick, fleshy, dark green, and smooth — that you can carve your autograph into them, and that will last for years. You let these plants take hold and grow, and it won’t be long before you have a monster.

The other undesired greenery that can quickly become a tree are schefflera. Luckily, they are brittle and easy to remove while still relatively small.

The pigs … they’re around pretty much nightly. Lately we’ve been seeing three, either seeing them in real life or caught on camera at night. Three is better than seven (January), which is better than 14 (August). Until we do our electric fence, as the dry season continues and they get more destructive, hubby feels compelled to at least try something to protect what we can. Since the pigs have been re-munching on the coffee seedlings, hubby has gotten rather creative as to how he protects them. Maybe we should call it Bea’s Knees Sculpture Garden.

This year is looking very grim for our farm

Most of my recent posts have all been about peripheral topics — visiting family and friends, bananas, and pigs. Last season’s harvest was over, and we were getting into the new year. In December we had decent rain and a big farm-wide blossoming. January revealed the trees recovering from the October/November dry spell (November’s rain was 8% of an average November), and all our pig-damaged new trees were growing back. And here we are … at the end of February already.

Last week hubby and I went to our first in-person (since the pandemic started) coffee education workshop at the nearby University of Hawaii’s CTAHR extension office. They offer regular informative, relevant coffee-related workshops, which we’ve gone to in the past. We attended one pandemic workshop offered on Zoom shortly after coffee leaf rust (CLR) rapidly appeared in the islands during the pandemic. Last week’s workshop was about rust, what has been learned over the year-plus that it’s been here, and was offered in-person and on Zoom.

Of course, there were some technical glitches (slides weren’t advancing for the remote people), but it wasn’t disruptive. There were only about ten of us there in person and many more attending virtually. You pick up so much more from an in-person event. You could feel the moments when the information and guidelines felt overwhelming and burdensome to the farmers. And there are frustrations — systemics and herbicides used against coffee leaf rust that are allowed in other countries aren’t allowed here. Sprays that are allowed here on vegetables and edibles, still have to be explicitly approved for use on coffee, and that process is slow.

There were more mumblings in the audience, it got louder, there’d be side discussions and grumblings, and they seemed on the verge of heckling the presenter. I’ve seen this dynamic happen at coffee berry borer (CBB) workshops. What they ideally recommend you do seems impossible. I truly admire Andrea Kawabata for her ability to convey information, acknowledge the deep discouragement people might feel, yet still encourage us to do what we can, and to give us some hope that feels realistic.

They are now recommending block pruning farms. Because of our terrain and the way our trees were initially planted by my grandfather, we have already been stumping in blocks (vs. row by row). So the same technique to manage beetle can be used to manage rust. It’s just that more steps have to be taken to manage rust spores. It’s quite a program, which I won’t go into here. The stumping was helping control our level of beetle infestation. And the care the trees were receiving was improving our yield, despite losing 1/3 of our trees to stumping every year. But beetle only damaged the fruit in a season, not the tree’s life. Rust can cause leaf drop, which can cause the tree to die.

I had been hopeful after December’s rain and flowering and a new calendar year starting. But now over a third of our trees are stumped. There will be no fruit from those trees. None of the remaining trees look absolutely healthy with lots of rust-free leaves and fruit developing. Most of the trees that were stumped in 2020, which should be our big producers this year, didn’t set much fruit from that big December flowering. We hardly got any new flowering from the rain we got in January or February, probably because the trees are too stressed. The best looking trees with fruit seem to be from the ones stumped last year. One tree, despite not having a lot of leaves, can have fruit, but its neighbor might not have any fruit. At the moment, I’d be surprised if we get even half the cherry we got from our lowest yielding season.

The pigs have been here nightly for a few weeks now. We were surprised because they hadn’t been particularly destructive. But they’re resuming their antics. Maybe because it’s getting fairly dry again. They’re digging up big rocks to rummage for the moist things underneath. They’re eating and knocking off the ti plant cuttings of the few they had earlier left alone. They’re revisiting the young coffee trees they already butchered and eating the new young growth. I don’t think young trees that get repeatedly attacked will thrive or necessarily survive. In hindsight, planting new coffee trees feels like it was money and effort down the rusty pig drain.

On another note, the ‘ulu co-op next to us will be removing their big weed trees. They’ve even hired people to help. This weekend was a big effort. It always is an adjustment when big trees are removed. The owner up hill from us, Kona Castle Ranch, removed many weed trees and seeded grass. We’re now accustomed to that change in landscape. We’ll have to get used to seeing the ‘ulu co-op, but they and we will probably plant something on the boundary.

We fantasize about removing the coffee, getting heavy equipment to level out the terrain, plant tough grass that keeps weeds out, and just mow the grass with a seated mower like our neighbor above does. Our friend, whose parents grow wine grapes in CA, reassures me that every farmer has the dream of plowing it all under.

From drought to rain to Kona snow!

Snow on top Maunakea and Mauna Loa, and Kona snow on the coffee farms.

November’s rain in Kainaliu at 0.25 inches was a measly 8% of an average November rainfall. The majority of that came at the very end of November. (Last year in November we got seven inches of rain.) Then it rained 1.5 weeks ago during the summit blizzard warning. It rained almost four inches over four days or so, which isn’t that much for our area. Prolonged dry period, then rain. Now we have Kona snow!

We have a large amount of blossoming. We think it looks larger than the largest blossoming round all of last year. And it has come so early. That means mid-July picking. Usually the first round of a new season is light. I’m curious what the rest of the blossoming rounds will be like … somehow I think they’ll all be smaller. I’m a little anxious to see what effect the rust will have as we go through an entire season when the trees already started off with rust.

The three year olds (3YO), the ones due to be stumped soon, have so many beautiful blossoms. It’s such a shame to know those flowers will just get whacked off along with everything above the main tree trunk. We’re happy to see that the one year olds that were stumped earlier this year have blossoms. But since the trees are smaller, there aren’t as many flowers as the 3YO. This is the pruning discipline we apply to manage beetle and rust.

We are very pleased to share that our newly planted young trees, despite pigs and water stress, are all alive (except maybe a couple) and looking as well as possible given what they’ve endured.

So, for now, good news and we carry forward and roll with what life brings us.

In case you eat meat, a customer shared that they had recently eaten a fancy coffee rubbed smoked tenderloin at someone’s house. He shared this recipe:

That’s beef tenderloin. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to a recipe I had shared three years ago for pork tenderloin.

Bea made it, but I think she used pork loin, which is wider and fattier than a tenderloin, and often comes in a two- or three-pound package. Pork tenderloin will usually weigh around a pound, be about three inches wide and have little visible fat.

Calamondin marmalade is an ingredient in my version of that recipe. We have since had to cut our large, very dangerous- and difficult-to-harvest calamondin. It was in a pit near a lot of loose lava rocks. We have a new tree planted elsewhere which does have fruit, but we don’t yet have enough for marmalade.

In the meantime, a friend who has a farm with sushi-grade rice in Yuba County, CA, raved about the Nordmann seedless Nagami semi-dwarf kumquat. She said she had waited three years to get her tree and some small ones were available from a nursery, and they could ship to Hawai’i. The shipping cost two-thirds the cost of the tree. Nordmann means Norwegian person in Norwegian. Nagami is a Japanese name. My Chinese heritage isn’t represented in this tree, though; sorry, Dad. I felt we should have this tree and I acted immediately. The tree made it over beautifully.