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Coffee Research
9 March 2009


There's something alluring about farming the old fashioned way.  An old Ford truck parked out in a field seems idyllic.  Juan Valdez and his donkey seem like they're living the simple life.  Life on a Kona coffee farm must be so relaxing and fun.  Of course reality is a bit different.

Juan Juan Valdez is a fictional character created by the Colombian government in 1959 as a marketing campaign.  Very few modern farmers own donkeys.  Even Colombian coffee farmers prefer a nice, reliable pickup truck if they can afford one.  And a modern fuel-injected, all-wheel-drive F350 can easily out-perform that old Ford left over from the 1960's.

Today's professional farms are far more productive than ever before.  There's no way Juan and his donkey could harvest the huge quantities of coffee that modern farms can.  Not only are our machines better but science has also given us powerful tools to help manage pest, disease and soil nutrition.

I don't immediately embrace every new idea that comes along but I do want to know my options so I recently spent two days at a meeting on coffee research.  The meeting was organized by HCGA (Hawaii Coffee Growers Association), CTAHR ( College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii), and HARC ( Hawaii Agricultural Research Center).  The meeting consisted mostly of several scientists presenting their current research as well as asking for feedback on possible future research needs.  Topics included pest control, ground cover, shade grown, agronomy, GMO, coffee hybrids and several other topics.  I'm fairly well versed on many of the topics but there was still plenty of information that went right over my head.

DNA Not all research is needed right away but that doesn't mean it's not necessary.  Hawaii is the only place in the world that doesn't suffer from the coffee rust fungus, or coffee borer beetle and we'd like to keep it that way.  There are strict agricultural import laws but that won't protect us forever.  Thankfully, much of the research being done at HARC will prepare us for these and other eventual problems.

Besides trying to avoid potential disasters, some researchers are also looking into how to increase yields and decrease costs while maintaining coffee quality.  This seems to scare some people because it often involves things like fertilizer, pesticides and maybe even hybrid plants.  Personally, when used properly, I don't think any of these things are too scary and I'm glad there are well educated people looking into the pros and cons for me.

Another controversial topic is GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms).  Genetic engineering (GE) does basically the same thing we've been doing for millenia with hybrids except GE can target individual genes directly.  By modifying a single gene at a time, a GMO plant can be largely unchanged with the exception of one or two specific traits.  For example, genetic enginnering can make plants frost resistant or less susceptible to certain pests.

Gun I'm no expert so I'll save a more lengthy discussion of GMO for later.  The short version, concerning coffee, is that there isn't really any dramatic news yet.  Some research has been done on uniform ripening which would allow the crop to be harvested all at once.

Research has also been done on making a caffeine free coffee bean.  Nature has already produced a plant that produces caffeine free coffee beans but the coffee tastes horrible.  A GMO plant may eventually produce better decaffeinated coffee than the current chemical decaffeination processes can.  Neither of these things are being done on a commercial scale yet and they may never happen.  Coffee related GMO research doesn't receive nearly the funding and interest that other crops do.

After all the presentations we had the opportunity to tour the labs where the scientists work.  The molecular biology lab has a "gene gun".  I was wondering if the gene gun serves the same purpose as adding a little chlorine to the gene pool but apparently it doesn't.  The gene gun is used to inject cells with genetic information.  I know a few people that could use a little extra genetic information but I was told that the gene gun won't help with that either.  I won't pretend to understand how the gene gun works.  I did get to see it in action though.  It was rather undramatic, nothing but a little pop noise.  To me, the little green dot looked exactly the same after she fired the gun as it did before.  I was hoping for a three-eyed frog to come jumping out or something but no such luck.

Worms During the tour we also had the opportunity to look at some root knot nematodes.  These are microscopic little worms that can devastate an entire coffee field.  As a Kona coffee farmer, I'm afraid of root knot nematodes.  I've had my soil tested and am happy to say that I don't currently have a problem but I still hate the little buggers.  Nematodes are completely natural and organic but Kona coffee might have died out if researchers hadn't figured out how to control them.  I enjoyed looking at the nematodes under the microscope where they seemed to be squirming uncomfortably in the hot light.

After the lab tours we drove out to the research field.  It was interesting to see all the different types of coffee trees they have.  Some looked really weak while others looked super healthy and loaded with coffee beans.  They had all sorts of different hybrids and grafted trees.  One of the best ways to control nematodes is with grafted trees.  It's common to graft Kona Typica onto Fukunaga (a liberica root stock) but some of the plants at the research center may turn out to be even better.

Hybrid We ended the two day meeting with a tour of the Waialua coffee farm owned by Dole.  When I was visiting Oahu with the family a couple months ago I commented that I would like to take a tour of the Dole coffee farm.  We didn't stop because I wasn't interested in the tourist tour, I wanted an insider coffee farmer tour.  This time, not only did I get an insider tour but I was there with several other coffee farmers.  It was great to talk shop with the head manager instead of just listening to the typical sales pitch.

It seems like two days isn't all that long but by the time I got home I felt like it had been a week.  I still need to review the detailed notes from the various presentations.  Then I will take the most interesting parts and figure out how to present it to other Kona coffee farmers.  I may also expand on some of the subjects here.  Some of the technical details can get a bit complex and, dare I say it, boring.  You may need to be ready with a fresh cup of Kona coffee.

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