HONOLULU - Kona coffee farmers worry that a bill before a legislative conference committee could lead to the demise of their industry.
Under state law, coffee marketed as Hawaii-grown must be inspected and certified by the state Department of Agriculture. However, House Bill 280 would make that inspection and certification process voluntary, rather than mandatory.
Since 2009, budget cuts and layoffs have left the Agriculture Department with one coffee inspector position in West Hawaii, where much of the state's coffee is grown. The staffing shortage means it could take one to four weeks for coffee to be inspected and cleared for export.
"The demise of coffee inspectors and certifiers because of a lack of funding or reduced funding has played a major and very critical role," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Clift Tsuji.
Tsuji, D-Hilo-Glenwood, is drafting a new version of the bill before a conference committee hearing on Wednesday. He said he hopes his draft will be more palatable to all sides.
"I have a good feeling we'll pass it out," he said.
Kona coffee farmers have been raising significant opposition to the measure since it was introduced in February. They're already concerned that coffee blends can use the Kona name when only 10 percent of it originates in the West Hawaii region. They fear eliminating third-party certification would tempt counterfeiters to market inferior products under the Kona name, as was seen in the 1990s.
Bruce Corker, of Rancho Aloha Organic Coffee, said Kona farmers usually have to wait about a week before their coffee is certified. Delays can be problematic, but he suggests that the state increase fees to pay for a second inspector rather than eliminate state oversight requirements.
Corker is one of more than 300 people who have signed a petition urging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to veto House Bill 280 if it passes the Legislature. "It's a bad bill and it should die," he said.
If Hawaii coffee companies can self-regulate, Kona growers worry that the quality and integrity of the coffee that region is known for will suffer, and its value will drop. Some coffee aficionados will pay two to five times more for coffee from the Kona district, where specialty coffee has been cultivated for more than a century.
"If the coffee growers are not able to get premium prices for Kona coffee, this industry is going to die," Corker said.
However, the bill does have support from the coffee industry statewide.
Chris Manfredi, president of the Kau Farm Bureau, told the House Finance Committee in March that the inspector shortage "has led to long delays, hurting customer relations and crimping cash flows for growers and processors."