Kona Coffee Farming: Escape or Reality?

Kona coffee haiku.jpgWhat actually makes a Kona coffee farmer, who are they, why are they doing it, or just for the mental exercise: Could I too become a filthy rich, days-in-the-sun, surfing, shooting-the-breeze Hawaiian coffee farmer? This is a highly subjective, behind the scenes explanation of the most pressing question folks seems to have on their minds when they meet one of us coffee dudes. So for the sake of it, let’s categorize:

Cherry farms
are often held by the same family over three or four generations. These farms originated to provide additional income to the day jobs working the sugar cane fields in the 19th century. The high number of children and grandparents enabled the owners to do the unpaid coffee field work in the mornings, evenings and Sundays. Most Kona coffee is grown in the vicinity of family farmer’s residences; planted between rocks in irregular patterns, ranging from 100 to 1,000 trees per acre, often interspersed with other crops and some shade trees. Nearly all is sold as freshly picked coffee cherries to large processors, who also throw in a few bags of free fertilizer. The parcels range between 1 to 5 acres and are often leased in 40 year terms. This is and always has been the backbone of the Kona coffee industry. None of the farmers has to worry about government inspections regarding pesticide or herbicide usage, or coffee quality standards. The cheap lease of the land, which requires some agricultural practices, justifies the small profit. Living and housing in Hawaii is expensive and the rural lifestyle eases the financial burden a bit. Most cherry farmers have a Japanese, Phillipine or Hawaiian background and reside in the South Kona district. Age group: 50 – 90, 2 to 3 family generations under one roof. Many are members of the Kona Pacific Farmers Coop and not linked to any farmers organization. No web presence or farm tours offered.

Coffee Plantations
in Kona are increasing in size, but there are only a few names in this category. All are owned by corporations or individuals with financial backing from the mainland. Their sizes range from 20 to 60 acres, and often contain other outlying parcels. In this production system recommended seedlings are used, the rocky land is being bulldozed, row planting, proper cover crops, mulching, manuring, weeding, and pruning methods are practiced. Nearly all use chemical fertilizers and herbicides as they are purely profit driven. Their coffees are always inspected and certified by the State. Most of their harvested coffees end up as highly profitable “Kona Blends” to duped tourists, who believe this coffee being pure Kona beans. The rest is sold to green coffee brokers in Japan and the US mainland. In addition to their own production they buy from smaller farms freshly picked coffee cherries at a fluctuating per pound price. They also pulp, drymill and grade coffee for farmers lacking the required big equipment. When buying from them look for their private labels, otherwise you’ll get the coffee pooled from many farms. Traditionally these large plantations in Hawaii went bust in recessions because of their high overheads. Some of them are in serious trouble right now and seem to be running short of cash, not being able to pay the cherry farmers on time as required by law. Owners and managers are nearly all long time Caucasian residents of Hawaii, who are experienced with the local political culture. They organize in the Hawaii Coffee Association and Hawaii Coffee Grower’s Association to maintain the faulty legal status of the Kona Blend laws. Age group: 35 to 65; ‘good old boys’ networkers; SCAA members and exhibitors; all offer guided farm tours, farm stores, and professional websites. Their Kona coffees and Kona Blends have a strong presence in US mainland and Hawaiian stores.

Gentlemen farms
or “Snowbird farms” grow coffee on their properties as a hobby, as a tax incentive or because a vacation property is zoned as ‘agricultural’. One can completely relinquish the actual work to one of the larger plantations, who then in turn provide some roasted coffee upon request just in case the owner wants to sell a few bags under his/her own label. These types of farms are not meant to be profitable but this doesn’t indicate if their coffees are good, bad or excellent. Some are organically cultivated. The owners have other sources of income and only reside part time in Kona. Under US tax law a property qualifies as a ‘farm’ when generating more than $1,000 in sales p.a. Gentlemen farmers are mostly Caucasians who strife for living a calm, easy Hawaiian life and have a story to tell when asked for what they are doing all day long. Geographically in the North Kona district centered around Holualoa. The 55 to 80 year old group consists of retired, married couples, single women. They have no professional affiliation or only nominally memberships at the Kona Coffee Council and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. Some have websites and generally no farm tours are offered by them.

Boutique farms
are yet another category but constitute the fastest growing segment. The vertical integration of the growing, processing and direct marketing to the customer and owning all means of production is essential. A small profit margin is indeed possible but it needs a multidisciplinary approach by the owners to keep any outsourcing to a bare minimum. About a quarter of them practice organic farming and they are environmentally concerned. Yet the combination of advancing age, hard physical labor and lack of computer literacy are challenging for many. But also big egos nurtured in prior high flying professions stand in their way: farming makes you humble but not instantaneously. A number of these farms defaulted during the current recession, because their owners overlooked that equipment needs to amortize and public awareness of Kona coffee was always low. Building a solid customer base for a farm takes approximately 5 years. Learning the ins and outs of coffee farming about 3 years. This group of farmers sees the faulty Kona Blend law as the largest stumbling block to a higher price for Kona coffee. Yet they oppose quality control and state inspections of their product, which doesn’t fly with the government. Owners are mostly mainland Caucasians and are sometimes married into Hawaiian families with various ethnic backgrounds. One can meet a colorful assortment of the human species in this group: The aging hippie, the retired colonel, the liberal professor, the activist lawyer, the Silicon Valley mini tycoon. They organize occasionally and challenge the legal status quo of the legislature. Age group: 40 to 75, couples, gay couples, single women, single guys. Affiliation: Kona Coffee Farmers Association or none. Mostly homemade webstores, shop presence in a few Hawaiian stores, farm tours offered upon requests.

There you have it. None of this background info indicates that a particular Kona coffee tastes better than the other! As long as it’s not a ‘blend’ or fake of course. The border lines between the categories are also not so well defined as one farm can be a ‘boutique’ but also offers processing. Or it could appear like a large plantation with managers and all, but is held afloat by the partnership income of a big time law office in L.A. Or a fourth generation Japanese cherry farm made it successfullly into the cyberage with a dazzling webstore.

Kona coffee beans grow regardless and despite of the local politicking on their behalf. A coffee tree doesn’t judge its farmer by skin color, age, sexual orientation or prior profession. Just if it gets its leaves properly tickled from time to time…

Joachim always tries to tickle the leaves of the BLUE HORSE KONA COFFEE trees the way they like it. Their farm in South Kona was developed from pure cherry farming into a boutique/family farm, but also offers wet processing and sun drying to neighbor farms.