Coffee, Tea and Trivia
For a number of reasons, not the lest of which is old age, I am not growing as much coffee as I have in the past.
As you may know, I have had a coffee and fruit farm for about 23 years now. When I ‘retired’ I moved to Hawaii and was able to buy a leasehold farm at a very reasonable price, however I had to keep it in agriculture. It was originally planted in Macadamia nuts but there were issues finding pickers.The mac nuts also didn’t garner much in the way of income. I could fill my truckbed to overflowing with bags of the picked nuts but after selling them I might get a couple thousand dollars and still have to pay the pickers. I decided to convert to coffee.
Over the years I worked to build a brand, find pickers for the cherry, have it processed, roasted and then I personally filled, labeled and shipped every bag of every order. I was like one of those entrepreneur you might see on TV’s Shark Tank, except I never went looking for financial help. I probably should have.
Over time I had problems finding pickers for the coffee and coffee is way far more work intensive than mac nuts. We got a coffee borer beetle and then a disease called coffee rust. My farm was also very suseptable to what we call ‘cane grass’. This is an obnoxious, tall and fast-growing weed that reaches heights of 8 feet or moe. It is also very difficcult to kill. The little tiny fibers will stick in you causing itching and pain. One way to kill it is with poison (think Roundup) but the better way is to dig it out. This is not easy.
Another issue we coffee farmers have had was that many companys had been selling ‘Kona Coffee’ or blends which contained little or no Kona Coffee. Our legislature seemed to look the other way every time we came up with bills to fight the fraud. The fraud was not always the retailers fault, yet they were part and parcel of the financial loss t othe farmers by not requiring their suppliers to accurately descibe and attest to their product. Let’s say that you advertise a product as ‘Ice Cream’ that you are buying but in reality, it really is ‘Ice Milk’ as it does not contail the required amount of cream. That was kind of the problem. These retailers (Costco, Safeway, World Market/Cost Plus and even the owners of Bed, Bath and Beyond were selling fake coffee, whether they knew it or not. The public who was buying Kona coffee direct from the farm could obviously tell the difference. We farmers knew tha tthere was fraud. We knew how much coffee each plant can produce, how many trees can fit in a specific area and how big that area was (Kona has specifically defined borders). Thus if we counted the pounds of the 10% of the contents of the 10% blends and the pounds of 100% KOna that were being sold, we found the numbers to be tremendously higher (like an order of magnatude) than we could have ever produced. Finally a company was able to create what amounts to a chemical analysis (sort of a DNA test) of Kona coffee and we went after the fraudsters. We won in a multi-million dollar class action suit. In fact there have been multiple settlements as some companys waitied to see if other settled first or fought the alligations. You can read the charges and the way we determined if these coffee sellers were cheating here. The ‘Plaintifs’ are al members of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, which I am also a Founding Member. We created this organization after out previous organizations was taken over by blenders and people fighting to allow the cheap blending of of product. We ensured that the members of our new KCFA organization essentually had to make their living off coffee they produced (not bought) and also critical that no one could vote proxies, which was how they took over the original group. A blender and his minions went t oevery employee and had them sign a form allowing the company to buy all sorts of memberships (with cash to speed up the process) and vote for that person. The persdon never having attended any meetings before nor after; literally a bought vote which allowed them them take over the Board and organization. Within weeks we created a new org and had many members. Now we farmers are finally receiving money from that suit but it has been a long time coming.
In the meantime I have been getting older. I am now aproaching my mid 70’s and you may not believe me but farming as a new career si not something to be taken lightly. I have been constantly fighting the weeds, disease, sales, finding laborers and so on. The requirement of my lease to have the farm in agriculture and be a good steward of the land. I have failed at that recently. As the coffee is very labor intensive, I am converting much of that area over to fruit. You see, I have to be a productive farm and fruit is easier to care for. Fruit is locally sold so I don’t have shipping costs to pass along. I don’t need to website for distant sales and in fact, I could even allow local food banks to come pick what they need. The difference is that with coffee, I had to keep working to create income to then spend it on materials and pickers and the website, bags, roasting costs and so on. My involvement is a lot less and isn’t that what retirement is all about?
So I am currently on a short-term lease. COVID didn’t help and I am up against the time to have my long-term lease issued. In fact, my inspection is this week and I am far from ready. The orchard will be half planted and the coffee field is a mess still. I am clearing it and having an agronomist determine if the coffee there is really the best crop. All thinks considered, I think I may just replant with fruit. That replanting will cost alot and I have already taken money out of my IRA at a higher rate than I would like. Still, once I qualify for the long-term lease I could sell the farm and retire, or at least have fewer worries than I have now.
So I had a guy punch holes in the orchard for new fruit trees and since my local Home Depot and Lowes are lacking in plants, I tried to go to the source. My other fruit trees I purchased directly from a nursery, but they have chnaged hands and prefer you to go to a retailer. They will sell to me in bulk but they want cash, no checks or credit cards. My bill for these new trees to fill out the current orchard would cost me upwards to $6,000; cash I don’t have at the moment. I looked to credit card advances and so on, but finally decided that I might have to get a Lowes credit card and use their minimum payment and no interest for 6 months, to let me buy a boatload (sorry, a truck-load) of plants and pay that off in January when I take out my next RMD from my IRA.
So with two days until inspection, I drove to the other side of the island (4 hours round trip [why it’s called the BIG ISLAND] and met a woman who had some inexpensive plants she grew. In cluded are some Avocados and citrus. We met in the parking lot of Home Depot in Hilo for the exchange. I didn’t think much of checking Home Depots nursery as our HD doesn’t really have a great selection like Lowes does (my side has the onbly Lowes on the island). However, I found lots of plants I could buy and literally filled the truck bed and the interior of the truck with plants. It made it diffult to see out of the passengers side window and I had to put the other plants in the truck bed and tie a tarp down to protect the plants and leaves from the wind. Although most of the island is limited speed, the cross-island road is now 60 MPH, which means many do faster than that.
That trip between across the middle of the island is on what we call ‘Saddle Road’ althoug it has a Route 200 designation, having been fought for and funded by our late U.S. Senator. The name Saddle Road came about because you travel up and down between two volcanos on the island, those being Mauna Kea (White Mountain) and Mauna Loa (Long Mountain). The trivia answers, not that you knew that there were pending questions, is that first, these ‘mountains’ get snow. Yes we can have blizzards in Hawaii and temperature up top can be well below freezing! We have snow plow operators on island. The observatories up there are above the normal cloud cover and thus can see far into space. So how far are they above sea level? just 14,000 feet or so. So the other trivia answer is that these two peaks are the talles mountains in the world! Waiy! You are thinking that 14,000 feet is nothinga nd in fact you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet here in like a n hour. 14,000 feet is not tall. But what you don’t realize is that mountains are measured from base to peak. All those other mountains start at a level already raised well above sea level. Even so, our Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa bases are 20,000 feet below sea level, making them like 35,000 feet tall from base to tip; they just happen to be half covered in water.
So here I am on Saddle Road at about 5,800 feet elevation and that is Mauna LOa in the distance. Mauna Loa just had a lava event within the past yaar.
Here is Mauna Kea as I headed back from Hilo.
Finally, here is a view across the channel to Haleakala peaking above the clouds.
I know the views are not as impressive as they could be, but in some cases I was actually driving because I could not stop along the road. You get what you get 🙂
I hope this posting gives you a bit of background why I have not been selling coffee recently and the future of my farm. I am getting old and tired and physical labor is not as easy as it was, even before the heart surgery.