Market Reports

Kona’s farmers face steep challenges

When Mark Twain announced in 1866 that “Kona Coffee has a richer flavour than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please”, he was foreshadowing the sentiments of the international coffee market, which now prizes Kona’s beans as among the world’s best. Although more than US$30million worth of coffee is grown commercially throughout the Hawaiian Islands per year, it is that which is grown on Kona that has become synonymous with Hawaii coffee. In November 2017, the 47th Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival will again showcase this premium coffee and provide a foundation for the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, where elite offerings from the region’s top coffee farms undergo the formal tasting technique of cupping over a two-day period. Kona Coffee’s prestige can be attributed to the area in which it has been cultivated for more than 150 years. The Kona Coffee Belt, which is nestled on the western slopes in between the huge volcanos of Hualalai and Mauna Loa on the Big Island on an altitude between 240 and 760 metres, is a place of intense sunlight, cool breezes, good rainfall, occasional fog, incredible soil and frost-free temperatures. The area offers the perfect combination of sunlight, elevation and slope – while the slopes allow excess water to drain, the elevation creates cooler nights, which allow the coffee cherries to mature longer and produce a bigger bean inside. Hand-picking enhances Kona Coffee’s status as a niche commodity – due to the region’s steep slopes, it’s impossible to use machinery, so every single cherry is handpicked and sorted meticulously. This makes coffee cultivation more labour intensive in Kona than in most other regions. Only cherries at peak maturity are harvested and since the cherries do not ripen at the same time, each tree is picked several times throughout the season. The strength and value of the industry lies in the dedication of the coffee farmers, millers, roasters, Q-graders and retailers who operate from more than 630 farms around Kona. With an average farm size of less than 2.5 hectares, ranging in elevation from 45 to 275 metres, these farms are operated by individual families. Not for the faint-hearted and not likely to manifest instant wealth, the Kona Coffee industry has had its fair share of losses. Since Kona Coffee made its debut in 1832 as an ornamental, it has experienced several historical collapses of world coffee prices, was periodically pronounced dead by experts but revived time and time again – by the influx of Japanese plantation workers who pioneered many of Kona’s processing techniques and ultimately, the sheer dedication of the Kona coffee farmers. They ingeniously formed ‘kumi’ community support organisations, credit unions and co-operatives which are still in operation today. Challenged by pests that threaten to destroy the coffee bean crops, high pickers wages, rocky terrain that is laborious to cultivate, earthquakes, exorbitant transportation and living costs and the sale of blends that masquerade as pure Kona Coffee, it is difficult to thrive as a coffee farmer in this region of the world. Then there is also the prospect of leasehold, which is very common in the Kona Coffee farming area. The majority of farms are leased by Kamehameha School/The Bishop Estate (KSBE) as they once belonged to royalty. Income from its leases are now left in the private Trust for Hawaiian Children, to operate a free private school system for children of Hawaiian descent. There are pros and cons to these agricultural leases for coffee farmers. While leasehold allows owners to farm, pay a low yearly rent and share a percentage of any proceeds, the property may be periodically inspected to ensure that it is being farmed and all structural changes and additions must be approved by the KSBE as well as the local government. In addition, farmers must tread lightly when using equipment due to the possibility of accidentally destroying ancient artefacts as they work on their properties. But still, the would-be coffee farmers keep coming. The current generation of Kona farmers has evolved from the hippie farmers of the sixties and seventies to a more professional class. Local producers Kona Joe and Hula Daddy regularly win awards for their coffee and have individually thought outside of the square in their approach to coffee farming, seeking expertise and inspiration from outside the coffee industry and changing operations on their farms. In Hula Daddy’s case, this led to acclaim when their Kona Sweet coffee was reviewed as one of the top six coffees in the world by coffeereview.com. Kona Joe’s claim to fame is ‘sideways growing’ Arabica trees – an adaption and patent of the trellis technique, commonly used among grape growers in California’s Napa Valley, which won numerous awards and achieved a Special Commendation from the Governor of Hawaii in 2004. Many local farmers on Kona struggle to compete in the worldwide coffee market when coffee pickers’ wages in Kona are higher than anywhere else due to the labour intensiveness of picking in the area. In addition, the harvest season differs slightly from farm to farm depending on elevation, so some farmers find it is not always easy to get a good crew of pickers when needed. A major thorn in the side of many coffee farmers is the practice of blending, or diluting Kona beans with cheap imports. Throughout the Hawaiian Islands ‘imposters’ sell blends that do not contain more than 10 per cent Kona Coffee, promoting the product as single origin coffee yet disguising its true percentage of blend in discreet text. Hawaiian law requires that such products be labelled accordingly, but this is seldom obvious. It has been estimated that of the roughly 1.8 million kilograms of coffee produced in Kona each year, at least 1.3 million ends up in blends. This creates a challenging market for producers when a bag of around 450 grams of mass-produced Kona blend is priced at US$5, and its value, when comprising pure beans grown on local property, is up to US$40. While there is no apparent solution to the problem, the brand ‘Kona Coffee’ is a federally registered trademark and must by law originate in the Kona Districts of the Big Island of Hawaii. All Kona Coffee must contain 100 per cent Coffea arabica beans and be classified as ‘Prime’or better. The beans are only guaranteed as a true gourmet coffee on passing the Kona Coffee Grading system. Adapted by the Hawaii Agricultural Society, the system takes into consideration numerous factors such as coffee bean size, shape, moisture content and defects and essentially separates the coffee into five grades classified as Type I beans: Kona Extra Fancy, Kona Fancy, Kona Number I, Kona Select and Kona Prime. Peaberry, classified as Type II beans, are the rarest of the Kona Coffee beans (they comprise approximately five per cent of the total Kona Coffee harvest). The peaberry is made up of two beans that merge into one to produce a single, round bean and have a pleasant acidity and fruity taste. Pest management is imperative for all coffee farmers – particularly in the wake of an outbreak of the coffee berry borer (CBB) in 2010. Native to Africa, the pest is a small, dark-brown beetle about the size of a sesame seed which destroys coffee when the female burrows into the fruit and lives its life cycle within the bean. It has the potential to reduce crop yields up to 90 per cent if not controlled, which directly affects the price of Kona coffee. Thankfully, Beauveria bassiana, a concentrated naturally occurring fungus, was imported in 2011 to combat the infection but farmers had to work together to ensure meticulous application. Tom Greenwell of Greenwell Farms was an advocate for the pesticide to be imported into Hawaii, allowed by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture. This ultimately led to the US Department of Agriculture issuing a grant to fund the implementation of free fungal sprays for coffee growers in Kona. Great grandson of Henry Nicholas, who was known as the most prominent coffee shipper of Kona Coffee, Greenwell has been holding the reins of Greenwell Farms since 1992. Together with his family and staff, Greenwell purchases cherries from almost half of the farmers in Kona, processing, milling and roasting their beans and selling green bean in bulk to coffee conglomerates all over the world. Greenwell says that none of the green bean coffee was able to be graded as Extra Fancy, Fancy or even No. I during the 2012-13 season. At that time, more than 75 per cent of the coffee was graded within the Kona Prime categories with the remainder comprising four per cent peaberry and lower, and off grades. Greenwell tells how, in the wake of the CBB crises, he introduced a new pricing scale to 400 coffee farmers, stipulating that from then on, only coffee cherry with five per cent CBB damage or less would be purchased. “Here we were, offering one of the highest prices in the world for cherry and the quality had become one of the worst. Something had to be done,” he tells Global Coffee Report. “All of a sudden we had a severe drop in coffee farmers – there were only about 125 selling us coffee cherry. This continued for about three years in a row. Then, slowly but surely farmers returned, admitting that they had been too embarrassed to sell us their coffee.” “It was a struggle and almost destroyed our company because there was so much resistance and hard work. We pounded away, had farmer meetings and opened up the forum to everybody. I held workshops and brought in experts to keep the information flowing,” adds Greenwell, who observed that the farmers attending the meetings and workshops back then are the ones doing really well now. Seven years later, around 400 farmers continue to sell to Greenwell Farms, many of whomare selling crops of only to one or two per cent damage. It’s a success story as there are now a number of sellers coming in with zero percent damage. Greenwell is also Vice President of the Hawaii Coffee Association, member of Hawaii Coffee Growers Association, Kona Coffee Council, Specialty Coffee Association of America, Pacific Coast Coffee Association, Hawaii Organics Farmers Association, Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference and the Kona Kohala Chamber of Commerce. Driven by a passion to lead the whole area of Kona into a new era, he attributes the success of the farm and its awards to the team overall, encouraging pride and ownership. He hires premium coffee pickers (up to 90 at full capacity) who are paid premium wages and provided with state-of-the-art accommodation. He believes that everyone who works at Greenwell Farms plays the part of a storyteller, helping those that leave there to understand a bit more about coffee and farming. “The average coffee drinker often has little idea how coffee is grown and processed. This district is one of the rare regions in the world where visitors can see a coffee tree and, depending on the season, view the coffee processing and thereafter experience the taste of pure Kona Coffee,” he says. Attending a free coffee tour at Greenwell Farms, along with the nearby Kona Living History Farm, is an educational and engaging experience that was voted by USA Today as one of the 10 Best Food Factory Tours in the nation.
While there are a number of professional coffee tours in the area, Geenwell is keen to see more. “I would like to think that the Kona Coffee Belt could become the Napa Valley of the coffee world,” he says. GCR

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