HONOLULU - The U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend $1 million to fight the coffee berry borer, a pest plaguing coffee farms in the Big Island's Kona district, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono announced Thursday.
The pest has affected up to 80 percent of coffee farms, Hirono said, leaving some coffee fields in such bad shape that they've been abandoned, creating havens for the beetle.
"This is great news for Hawaii and our coffee industry. I'm really pleased the USDA has recognized the threat of this borer to our industry," Hirono told reporters during a conference call from Washington.
The insect is smaller than a sesame seed and bores its way into coffee cherries, digs homes and lays eggs. The beans from those cherries aren't usable for making coffee. The pest has reduced the coffee crop and in some cases made farms impossible to harvest for commercial purposes.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the department's plans to combat the pest in a letter to Hirono this month after she wrote to him in April asking for help.
The senator said the money is the first major federal commitment for specifically fighting the borer. It will add to state efforts, which include $500,000 appropriated by the Legislature.
The federal government will work with coffee farmers, the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii on the project.
Officials plan to distribute the most effective repellent and train farmers to use treatments. They also intend to research new types of pest control that could be more effective at killing the borer and study the insect's genome to find out how it might be similar to or different from other pests.
Hirono said the money would be spent over a three- to five-year time span. She said she's hopeful the federal and state governments will contribute more funding.
"The first thing is to get this going," she said.
Coffee farmers welcomed the news but said they would need more money and help to fight the insect.
"We're delighted the money is appropriated. We think it's a good first step, but we've got a real emergency in Kona," said Bruce Corker, a board member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. "The economic viability of this crop is threatened, and we need to see more."
The beetle, formally known as Hypothenemus hampei, is native to Africa. It was formally identified in Hawaii in 2010 after farmers reported spotting it for a couple years.
No one knows how it arrived in Hawaii, but it's seen in many other coffee-growing regions throughout the world.