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Will the warm, sunny winter weather ever end?
25 January 2010

Dieback

Rainfall Years and years ago, I remember a commercial on TV that showed a grumpy old farmer that was walking through town, being grumpy to everyone that said hello.  Then it started pouring rain and the farmer was out in the middle of the street dancing.  I don't remember what the commercial was advertising but I feel like that farmer right now;  the grumpy part, not the dancing part.

Winter is our dry season and I've been told that the past three months are the driest on record.  Those records go back to the 1930's so that shows how dry it's been.  The coffee trees are showing the stress, they're very yellow with a lot of leaf loss.  Many other types of trees are smart enough to drop their crop when the tree gets stressed but coffee is not.  Too dry and we get a lot of "overbearing dieback" which means the trees have too heavy of a crop for the stressful conditions.  This causes the coffee tree itself to wither and even die.  If we don't get rain soon, it could be bad.  Unfortunately the rains don't normally return until April so things may get worse before they get better.

Kona coffee trees like a couple gallons of water per day.  That's a lot of water.  If the ground wasn't so porous because of the lava rock then that much rain would rot out the roots of the trees.  The high rainfall combined with the rich, well drained soil makes ideal growing conditions for coffee.  At least it does in normal years.

Hilo, on the windward side of the island, gets far more rainfall that Kona, which is on the leeward side.  However, at just the right location up the mountain on the Kona side, there is a small area where the sun and rain conditions are perfectly balanced for growing coffee.  That is the Kona coffee growing region and Kona Earth farm is right in the middle of it.

Water truck With irrigation, it's possible to grow coffee outside this region.  Unfortunately, we're too far up the mountain to get city water.  With the hard, porous lava rock, digging a well is next to impossible.  We get all our water from collecting the rain off Keiki our roof.  With 80,000 gallons of catchment capacity, that's plenty of water for household use, coffee processing and even brief irrigation.  Catchment water doesn't work so well in an extended drought though.  Without rain, there's no way to fill the tanks.  When there's enough rain to fill the tanks, then there's no need to irrigate.

Many of our neighbors have had to start purchasing water.  For a few hundred dollars, a tanker truck will bring a load of water up to the farm.  Our primary water tank can hold several truck's worth of water.  It's impractical to purchase enough water for irrigation.  Even with city water, it costs thousands of dollars to irrigate in a normal year and during a dry year may not even be possible to get enough water on the trees.

The baby trees are at the biggest risk of dying.  I somehow had enough foresight to not plant many baby trees this year so I may lose a few but not many.  The mature trees that are loaded with coffee will experience some severe dieback but they were healthy enough that I think they'll survive.  The early part of the crop was great, it's the later part of the harvest that worries me most.  I'm not worried about quality, it's the quantity that worries me.  We will definitely lose some coffee this year because of the dry conditions.  In the long run though, as soon as the rains return, I expect the coffee trees to make a full and happy recovery.  It's just a matter of keeping things alive until then.

Yellow




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