Coffee flourishes where sugar once grew
By Dan Wheat
KALAHEO, Hawaii -- It looks something like a vineyard but it's row after row for acre after acre of head-tall coffee trees on a downward slope through the Kauai Coffee Company plantation on the south shore of Hawaii's Garden Isle.
Most people don't think of coffee as a U.S. crop but it's big business on the big island and even bigger business on Kauai. The Kauai Coffee Company claims its place as the nation's largest coffee grower with more than 4 million coffee trees on 3,100 acres.
The company produces more than 50 percent of Hawaii's annual coffee crop at 2.5 million to 3 million pounds per year, selling some green to other roasters but utilizing most for its own products, Darla Domingo, Kauai Coffee's retail operations manager, said.
It's Sunday afternoon, Aug. 18, and Domingo is at the company's gift shop where tourists sample a variety of Kauai Coffee blends, buy sandwiches and gifts and take a short walking tour through plantation trees.
Start of harvest is just a few weeks away and runs from September into December, but three weeks earlier a mere 200 pounds was picked by hand because they were ripe, Domingo said.
Fourteen picking machines, converted Korvan blueberry harvesters from Washington state, handle most of it. They pick 60 acres per day.
There are some 600 coffee companies on the big island, many of them small, Domingo said. Many of them hand pick, enabling them to harvest the coffee berries or cherries containing the beans at optimum maturity, said Chuck Barnum, Kauai Coffee tour guide. Kauai Coffee aims for a certain percentage at maturity with the picking machines, he said.
The berries go through wet processing where they are sorted by three levels of ripeness. The pulp of the berries is then separated from the beans. The beans are dried for 18 to 36 hours in heated drying elevators before resting on parchment and then milled to remove parchment and silverskin. There's final color sorting electronically for quality and then grading, state inspection, roasting, packaging and shipping.
The company grows five varieties of Arabic coffee from Brazil, Guatemala and Jamaica. The company has 100 year-round, union employees and another 70 during harvest, Domingo said.
The land was in sugar cane for more than 100 years, but sugar beets in West Coast states became a cheaper source of sugar and Hawaii's once large sugar cane industry is now much down-sized and only on Maui.
With the decline of sugar, there is a new era of diversified specialty crops of exotic fruits, coffee, macadamia nuts and flowers and foliage for domestic consumption and export, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. There's also pineapple, taro and other crops.
While tourism is huge, agriculture generates $2.9 billion to the state's economy annually, providing 42,000 direct and indirect jobs. Agriculture plays a major role in preserving green space and being part of eco-tourism through farm tours, the state says.
Thousands of acres of former sugar cane plantation west of Kauai Coffee Company remain idle and are noticeably visible in a flight around the island with Wings Over Kauai. Owner and pilot, Bruce Coulombe, holds a doctorate in agronomy and once worked for Pioneer, one of several international seed companies with large crop research on Kauai and the other islands given the climatic ability to raise crops year-round. The research includes GMO (genetically modified organisms) which has resulted in deep divisions on Kauai and the other islands between pro- and anti-GMO sentiments, Coulombe said.
Tensions have been high between the bio-tech giants and opponents who have vowed to make Hawaii ground zero in a national and international battle over GMOs, according to press reports.
Bills in Hawaii's Legislature would restrict use of GMOs and pesticides.
"There needs to be a forum or a series of workshops where the science can be presented to get beyond the shouting matches," Coulombe said.
Kauai Coffee Company notes on its website that it "is proud to say it uses no GMOs."