One of Hawaii’s premiere crops, coffee, had a disappointing last season with a drop in sales as reduced production overshadowed higher prices, according to a recent federal report.
There also was more bad news in the report, which dramatically reduced production figures for the prior two seasons in revisions to previously published results.
As a consequence, the value of coffee sold by farmers statewide sank to a 4-year low of $43.8 million for the 2017-18 season. That was down 10 percent from $48.9 million in the previous season and down 30 percent from $62.6 million in the 2014-15 season.
The double whammy was reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Kathy King, the agency’s Pacific region director, was surprised by the decline last season and said coffee farmers reported that a labor shortage was largely to blame. The report also mentioned that the coffee berry borer pest remains an industry concern but that controlling measures are “showing signs of progress.” The coffee berry borer was found on Hawaii island in 2010 and later made its way to Oahu and Maui.
Louis Daniele, manager of Kau Coffee Mill on Hawaii island, said attracting laborers to pick coffee is particularly difficult because many local residents, especially younger folks, aren’t interested in such work. He also said attracting immigrant farm workers has been harder recently and that even filling retail jobs in the farm’s store has been challenging. “Labor is a big issue,” Daniele said. “We just don’t have access to the laborers.”
Hawaii’s unemployment rate since late 2016 has been under 3 percent, which economists generally consider full employment. For the last 10 months, Hawaii unemployment has ranged from 2 percent to 2.1 percent. The report said there actually were new farms that increased coverage of fruit-bearing coffee trees to 7,200 acres last season from 7,000 acres in the prior season.
However, average yield decreased and resulted in 24.6 million pounds of coffee sold last season compared with 28.6 million pounds in the prior season. The average price farmers received per pound of coffee was $1.78 last season, up from $1.71 in the prior season.
Figures in the report for two seasons before the last season were revised downward for an unexplained reason, and resulted in coffee values being lowered to $48.9 million from $54.2 million in the 2016-17 season and to $46.7 million from $62.6 million in the 2015-16 season.
King said the revisions were made by USDA officials in Washington, D.C., and that she’s not sure why. An explanation could not be obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser from an agency statistician for coffee in Washington, D.C.
The agency’s reports are based on surveys of coffee growers and millers conducted with the assistance of the state Department of Agriculture. The federal agency states generally that survey data is used to make estimates and that the estimates are reviewed for errors, reasonableness and consistency.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service changed the way it measures coffee production, prices and value in 2014 to better reflect the dominant form of sales by farms.
Since 2014, production and sale values have been based on cherry coffee, which is the bean covered by its red fruit after being picked from trees. Removing the fruit produces what is called parchment coffee, which is the green bean covered by a fibrous membrane.
Hawaii coffee farmers sell beans in three forms — cherry, parchment and green — though most sell cherry coffee. Prior to 2014, USDA converted all coffee to a parchment equivalent for its reports. Because of that, data before and after 2014 cannot fairly be compared.
A season is defined as starting in late summer and extending to early the following year, though coffee harvesting happens year-round in Hawaii.
By Andrew Gomes, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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