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Organic Farming

Farmer Gary

Our farm is not organically certified.  The only people that can realistically grow organically certified coffee are either very small farms that are content with inferior beans and low production or very large farms that grow one tiny organic plot so they can advertise "organic coffee" even though 99% of their production is not.  You have to check carefully to see which products are organic certified and which are not.  We might be able to charge more for our coffee if it were organically certified but the small increase in profit does not even begin to make up for the extra time and expense of production.  On the other hand, we might have to charge less because the quality of our coffee would likely go down.

Coffee cherries In my opinion, there are two good reasons to choose an organic product.  First, some crops, such as grapes, are better if they are grown organically.  If you've never had organically grown grapes, I suggest you try some.  They're tiny, gray and all shriveled but they are absolutely delicious.  I'd happily pay extra for organically grown grapes, if only I could find them at the local grocery store.  With coffee, there is no way to tell if it is organically certified unless you are told.

The second reason in favor of organically grown crops is to help prevent damage to the environment.  Many chemicals found in fertilizers and pesticides can be harmful if used improperly or too often.  Unfortunately, some crops, such as tomatoes, are susceptible to a large number of insects and diseases.  Pesticides and high powered fertilizers are often necessary in a competitive market.  With organic farming, costs often go up and yields often go down.  There's a reason that most organic crops are more expensive.  Like it or not, fertilizer and pesticides are vital for most modern farming.

Hawaii, being the most isolated land mass in the world, has fewer natural pests that most other parts of the world.  Kona coffee trees do not have the problems with pests that many other crops do.  As long as I keep my coffee trees healthy there is no need for pesticides.  Advertising Kona coffee as "pesticide free" is about as informative as saying it's "cholesterol free".  Of course it is, nearly all Kona coffee is. 

While coffee doesn't require any pesticides, it does require fertilizer.  Lots of it.  Well, require isn't strictly true, but coffee is a very heavy feeder and if not fertilized properly it quickly becomes anemic, less productive and susceptible to diseases and pests.  Organic coffee farmers try to use chicken manure or other organically certified fertilizers but these just can't compete with modern manufactured fertilizers.  Look at other farms around here and if you see any weak, diseased looking trees, you can bet it's either because they've been abandoned or they're organically grown.

Weeds In order to get organically certified, besides all the bureaucratic red tape and inspections, the coffee has to be grown without pesticides (not a problem since that's already true), without any manufactured fertilizers (a big problem if you want healthy trees and enough production to actually make a profit) and without any herbicides for at least three years.  That last one is another show stopper.

Everybody has heard of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane).  Unfortunately, all that most people know about DDT is that it is a "deadly poison that has been banned."  That is true, but it's not the whole truth.  The whole truth isn't nearly so straightforward.  DDT is extremely effective at combating malaria which kills far more people every year than DDT ever could.  DDT has good and bad qualities.  There is still plenty of controversy surrounding the subject but DDT was overused so much during the 1940's, 50's and 60's that it caused problems and was banned in the U.S. in 1972.  I wish us humans could be responsible enough to use something like DDT wisely but I'd rather be safe than sorry.  Unfortunately, the problems with DDT have given many other chemicals a bad name too.

DDT is a pesticide.  That is fundamentally different than an herbicide.  Since Kona coffee trees do not have a large problem with pests, there's no need to use DDT or any other pesticides.  There is however a need for herbicides.  Coffee grows in the tropics along with about a zillion other types of plants.  During the rainy season our lawn can grow almost a foot high in as little as two weeks.  The weeds grow even faster.  If I don't constantly keep after the weeds they quickly get out of control and can overgrow and even kill the coffee trees.  Unless you've lived in the tropics, it's difficult to imagine how quickly things can get overgrown here.

Glyphosate Roundup (or any product with glyphosate as the active ingredient) does a great job of killing weeds.  Glyphosate herbicides work by inhibiting a specific amino acid in plants.  This amino acid is present in plants but not in animals.  Unless you photosynthesize, you are not at risk.

Again, like anything else in life, glyphosate has good qualities and bad qualities.  But many of the problems attributed to glyphosate herbicides are actually caused by the surfactants added to the product and not the glyphosate itself.  Now that Monsanto's (the inventors of Roundup) patent has expired, there are lots of other competing brands.  I use a cheaper brand that does not contain any surfactants.  I have to apply it more carefully and it takes longer to see its effects but with a little patience it still works fine.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, the EC Health and Consumer Protection Directorate, and the UN World Health Organization have all independently concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.  That is, it does not cause cancer in humans (if you're really interested, you can read about some of their studies here).  That's good to know because after spending a few hours spraying the fields I can get completely covered in the stuff.  I've had it in my eyes, in my mouth, in my lungs.  Other than kinda tasting bad, I have yet to noticed any ill-effects.  My own sweat stings my eyes more than the glyphosate does.  Maybe I'm toxic.

Even though glyphosate is relatively harmless, the EPA has still set a maximum glyphosate residual of one part per million in coffee beans.  Glyphosate has been approved for use on coffee which means that even if you spray the beans directly, there will not be more than one part per million residual in the beans.  So glyphosate is harmless to humans AND it does not make it into the coffee beans.

Trees If the coffee leaves get too much spray on them they will stop growing.  I want my coffee trees to grow vigorously so I spray sparingly, spraying only the weeds under the trees and not the trees themselves.  It takes about two weeks before the weeds finally wither and die.  The trick is to hit them before they go to seed so that they don't grow back.

Another commonly sighted problems with glyphosate is it's effect on frogs.  This is primarily the reaction to a single study from an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.  He applied Roundup to aquariums containing tadpoles then discovered that many of the tadpoles died.  First, it says right on the label "Do not apply directly to water."  Second, it was later shown that it was an added surfactant (polyethoxylated tallowamine) not the glyphosate that killed the tadpoles.  Some of the retail brands use surfactants but most of the concentrated commercial brands do not.  Third, only some types of frogs are affected.  We have plenty of frogs in our fields, both before and after I spray.  In my experience, the frogs are in more danger from the tractor tires than they are from the herbicide.  Hawaii is currenly experiencing a serious invasion of non-native Koki frogs.  If RoundUp killed Koki frogs I bet the state would give the stuff away for free.

I don't like spraying because it is time consuming and expensive.  I've looked into possible alternatives for weed control.  Some of the organically certified farms use a large propane torch to burn away all the weeds.  Burning all that propane isn't exactly environmentally friendly nor is it cost effective, not to mention the safety issues.  Some farmers use weed-eating geese.  That would be great except I'd need a few thousand geese.  I'm a coffee farmer, not a goose rancher.

Coffee The most common weed control alternative is the good-old weed whacker.  One of my neighbors refuses to use herbicides.  I hear him out there almost every day with his weed whacker for hours at a time.  Which is worse, a chemical which kills weeds with few, if any, side-effects or a constantly running two-cycle gasoline engine which is a known polluter and major green house gas contributor?  Personally, I'd rather go with what I consider the environmentally friendly route even if it means I can't get organically certified.

Nothing in life is all good or all bad.  It's quite possible that we may some day discover properties of glyphosate that outweigh its benefits.  That's true with everything in life.  We have to do the best we can with the evidence available to us.  For me, the benefits of using a glyphosate herbicide far outweigh the potential drawbacks.  Still, I will use it as responsibly and sparingly as I can.

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