THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE BEAN

Who are Hawaii’s coffee growers? Because Hawaii is a very diverse state, it should Coffee Farmer Gary, tired after a long day of working on the farmcome as no surprise that all kinds of people grow coffee, and that they do so using different types of agricultural and business models. Strategy aside, coffee farmers have one thing in common: they are passionate about their plants. The mystique and grandeur of coffee captures the growers’ spirits. It builds a yearning that drives them to work for something beyond profits. They have a hunger for the land and love the labor of working with their well-cared-for plants.

Sole proprietors and families typically operate three to five acres of land, either owned or leased. They tend to maintain the farm on their own and derive a portion of their income from it. Workers are often hired seasonally to pick all, or part, of the harvest.

Many of these farmers sell their freshly picked cherries to large processors. The processors then handle the coffee and sell the final product under their own label. Others hire someone to partly, or completely, process and roast the coffee. The farmers then sell the coffee under their own label. More complex small farms are vertically integrated; they grow, process and roast the bean on the farm and sell direct to consumers.

Cooperatives are a second type of grower. There aren’t many co-ops in Hawaii, but they are an effective method for small groups of people to farm coffee. Individual farmers join together and pool their resources to acquire equipment, manage land and help each other when needed. Like the individual / family farmers, the co-op farmers have the same options for processing and selling their coffee.

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Company-owned farms are the largest producers. With the cessation of sugarcane as a viable crop in the 1980s, many of the sugar-growing companies diversified into coffee production. These sizable farms — more than 150 acres (60 hectares) — are highly mechanized and completely integrated.

Because all of Hawaii’s farmers aim to grow high quality coffee for the specialty market, they tend to take very good care of their fields. If the farm isn’t too big, growers are often quite familiar with individual trees. Accordingly, each farm is uniquely cared for and maintained, as each farmer is a little different from the next.

HARVESTING & PROCESSING

Traditional hand picking is still the most common harvesting method used around the state, particularly on the Big Island where the terrain is not suitable for mechanized harvesters and on small farms found on Kauai and Maui. However, the large farms on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu have all given up on hand harvesting. Labor is expensive and agricultural workers are scarce. The land is also much flatter in these regions, making mechanical harvesting the ideal choice. Though cherry selection via this method is much less precise, all mechanically harvested operations in Hawaii intensively sort their coffee so that only the highest quality beans are sold for consumption.

Once off the trees, coffee cherries typically undergo wet processing, either by fermentation or mechanical removal of the mucilage. The practice varies widely from farm to farm but many implement some form of fermentation for complete mucilage removal.

Some of the large mechanized farms also use the dry method for a portion of their crop simply by virtue of collecting dried cherries still left on the trees while harvesting the fresh cherries. However, small farms are increasingly beginning to experiment with both the dry and pulped natural (often called “honey”) methods of processing to create new, exciting flavors and add value to their crop.

Natural & Dry Coffee Processing Methods