Paradise by the Pound
By Tim Ryan Photos By Tim Ryan
The handwritten directions by Una Greenaway to her Kuaiwi Farm are as colorful as the five-acre organic piece of paradise she shares with her husband in Kealakekua, Big Island.
The map shows the Kealakekua Ranch Center, Capt. Cook Post Office, a large palm tree at the Bamboo Road turnoff, an A-frame house and, finally, her home’s dual geodesic domes bordered by a 6,000-gallon water tank—one of five on the property.
Greenwell and husband, Leon, are among some 50 organic Kona coffee growers on the Big Island out of the island’s 775 coffee farms. The couple has lived and farmed here for nearly three decades, caring for and nurturing land that had been farmed using chemical fertilizers and herbicides. (Kuaiwi Farm has been certified organic since 1999.)
“When my [first] husband and I leased this property we could tell that the land needed caring and healing,” said Greenaway. Kuaiwi Farm’s award-winning coffee is the couple’s cash crop.
Sales skyrocketed last year when the Greenaways’ Kona Old Style coffee won top prize at the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival’s cupping contest. Although the couple raised the price from $25 to $36 a pound, demand was so great that they had to limit sales to two pounds a customer.
“Winning gave us the courage to raise prices,” Greenaway said.
Some Big Island coffee farmers say the number of organic coffee farmers is increasing about 50 percent a year,
driven by the demand for organic Kona coffee and customers willing to pay a premium price and because of the
Slow Food movement.
While coffee is grown on every Hawaiian island, only the Big Island has the right conditions to grow the coveted
Kona bean. Coffee growers across Hawai`i in 2006–07 generated $37 million in farm sales of raw coffee beans with
Big Island growers accounting for $25.6 million, or 69 percent, of that total.
“When people think of Hawai`i coffee they think Kona coffee,” said Robert Barnes, co-owner of Kona Rain-
Forest Coffee’s farm. “In all the world there is only this narrow slice of land right here where Kona can be grown and
it can’t be expanded.”
(To be labeled Kona coffee the coffee must come from the geographical regions of North or South Kona. Check
labels to make sure your selection is 100 percent Kona coffee and not a blend made up of only 10 percent Kona coffee.)
Organically grown coffee carries the label of the Hawai`i Organic Farmers Association (HOFA), a nonprofit membership organization that administers organic certification in the Hawai`i.
Organic farming is not a simple undertaking, Greenaway and Barnes agreed. It requires more weeding and mowing, since no herbicide sprays are used, and approved organic chemical fertilizers can cost three times more than conventional sprays.
Kona RainForest raises about 6,000 organically grown coffee trees on eight acres of gently sloping land on Mauna Loa’s southern flank, bordered by South Kona Forest Reserve.
The farm sits in a kipuka, a hole in the lava with a’a lava flows on both sides, and deep rich, rocky, lava-free soil within. A large part of the 42-acre farm—nine acres are planted with coffee—is undisturbed rain forest with giant, native ohia trees, tree ferns, hapu’u, wild orchids and numerous other native Hawaiian plants.
Barnes and his wife, Dawn, who was born in Hilo, moved to the Big Island about 2½ years ago after some two decades in Papua New Guinea. The couple had no experience in farming anything, much less the most expensive coffee in the world.
“One thing about Kona coffee growers is that everyone helps everyone else with advice, pest issues, mechanical breakdowns, whatever’s needed,” said Robert Barnes.
Kona RainForest last year only produced only 18,000 pounds of cherry beans while the couple revitalized the trees with proper fertilizing, trimming and weed removal. This year the couple expects to harvest 54,000 pounds.
“We properly fed and nursed the trees back to health,” Dawn said. “It hadn’t been done for a very long time.”
The business had to turn down a 10,000-pound order for its roasted coffee from a South Korea business because it didn’t have the product.
Weeding is an ongoing ritual for Barnes and company. They’ve
planted grass as ground cover to smother the weeds.
“We all pull by hand, or cut with a weed whipper or mow with the tractor,” Barnes said. “The good thing is that the constant mowing produces literally tons of mulch to help with soil building.”
Kona coffee farmers are coming around to understand that customers want their beans to be organic, agreed Greenaway and Malia Bolton, owner of Kona Coffee & Tea Emporium, which produces the popular Malia Ohana coffee. Bolton expects her 8½-acre farm to receive its organic certification this year.
“Our mainland customers want just organic coffee,” Bolton said during a visit to her farm 2,000 feet above Kailua-Kona. In 2007 Bolton’s 6,000 trees produced 33,000 pounds of cherry beans.
“Organic is the right thing to do for people, customers, the `aina,” said Bolton.
Some organic Kona coffee sells for as much as $40 a pound—usually the peaberry known as “the champagne of Kona.” A normal coffee cherry has two beans while the peaberry is just one bean and almost perfectly round, which some growers say allows for more even roasting.
Even the most expensive organic Kona coffee flies off the shelf so fast that growers have to limit the amount sold to a single customer and have started making waiting lists for next year’s crop. Bolton limits her organic beans to 12-ounce packages because it’s in such limited quantity.
Greenaway’s Kuaiwi Farm is blessed with a gentle slope and relatively deep soil, and after three decades of rock removal it is relatively easy to mow without breaking a blade.
Greenaway calls it “a wonderful example of an intact piece of the pre-contact Kona field system.” The kuaiwi are low rock mounds, which separate the kihapai, or growing fields, that are still easily identifiable on the farm.
“The last ali’i to own this land was Keohokalole, the mother of King David Kalakaua,” Greenaway said. “After the mahele, it was owned by the Rev. John D. Paris, who then sold it to H. N. Greenwell, who leased the land to Mr. Kunitaro Motomura, who hand-cleared the land and planted the coffee trees around 1900.”
Most of the coffee trees on Kuaiwi Farm are 100 years old.
The farm does seem like a rustic Garden of Eden with acres of organic fruits and vegetables dotting the property. At every turn there seem to be large compost piles, new crops sprouting or a piece of land cleared. The Greenaways want the farm one day to be completely self sufficient in producing its own energy and food.
“It’s all right here,” she said. “We just have to tap into it.”
E-commerce has changed the face of Kona coffee sales because now growers can market and sell their own products.
A huge customer base is people on the Mainland West Coast, New York and New Jersey who “have to have Kona coffee,” Barnes said.
But can you really taste the difference between organic and nonorganic Kona coffee? Even some organic growers (who didn’t want to be named) said they couldn’t tell the difference.
“Well, organic coffee did win the contest last year, didn’t it?” Greenaway said.