NEW YORK TIMES
The Kona Coffee Council trade association is abuzz over recent board elections that could potentially affect efforts to tighten the definition of Kona coffee.
Beans of discord
The issue of what it means to be Kona coffee boils over during a trade association's elections
During the Kona Coffee Council's 20-year history, elections for its board of directors typically have been low-key affairs in which there often were just enough people running to fill the vacant seats.
But this year's election and its aftermath have some members steamed.
» Roger Dilts*, president
» Bob Foerster, vice president
» Bryce Decker, treasurer
» George Fike*, secretary
» Colehour Bondera
» Bruce Corker
» Grace De Aguiar
» Tom Greenwell*
» Roger Kaiwi-Machen**
» Dave Bateman**
» Donna Woolley**
*newly elected to board;
** incumbent re-elected to board; other members' terms were not up for election
Source: Kona Coffee Council, staff research
As the Big Island trade association's new board prepares for its first meeting today, some members are crying foul, saying the election was swayed by candidates who used questionable -- but completely legal -- tactics to vault themselves into power. And some say this could have significant consequences for coffee producers and consumers.
Two bills have been introduced in the state Legislature that would create stricter requirements for coffee carrying the Kona label. One would require such coffee to contain at least 50 percent Kona coffee; the other 75 percent Kona. The current law allows the Kona name on packages containing only 10 percent Kona coffee, although that coffee must be called a blend.
Only pure Kona coffee can be labeled 100 percent Kona.
Although the proposed labeling requirements could help farmers who sell unprocessed coffee cherries by creating more demand, it could hurt blenders who mix the Kona coffee with cheaper imported beans and sell the result as a Kona blend. The Kona Coffee Council's election brought only three new members onto the 11-member board, but some current board members fear that will be enough to tip the balance of power away from those who support the bills.
"My personal sense is that this is a concern: that the Kona Coffee Council will not take a stand and be a front runner when it comes to these bills, which have been 10 years in the making," said Colehour Bondera, a board member of the Kona Coffee Council who owns and operates Kanalani Ohana Farm.
Bondera said he has requested that the board put on the agenda for tonight's meeting a vote on whether to support the legislation. But he said he is concerned the board will refuse to support the measures.
In fact, Bondera's requested item has not been put on the agenda for tonight's meeting, said Roger Dilts, the newly elected president of the Kona Coffee Council, who runs Aloha Farms and A Place of Refuge bed and breakfast on the Big Island. Instead, Dilts said, the board will discuss presenting the legislation to its membership.
"That's what I was worried about," said Bondera, who added that he fears the council will simply let the bills languish by failing to take a position.
Although Dilts said he was an ardent advocate of 100 percent Kona coffee, he would not say whether he supports the measures because the council's membership has not weighed in.
"I can't make a decision because I haven't heard from my membership," he said.
Virginia Easton Smith, an agricultural extension agent with the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said she believes at least some of the council's board members have been unfairly characterized as not supportive of 100 percent Kona coffee. But the board's stance will become clear only when it begins to act, she said.
Last month's election was the culmination of tensions that had been brewing since last summer. A major point of conflict involved a coffee processing and distribution center proposed by PLK Air Services Group LLC to be located at Kona Airport. The proposal initially spawned united opposition from the Big Island coffee community. But some farmers later came out in support of the new center, saying that processors and potential wholesale competitors of PLK were engaging in a campaign of misinformation against a project that would benefit farmers.
The matter reached a crescendo when Sandra Scarr, who was president of the council at the time, wrote a letter to the editor of the West Hawaii Today newspaper in support of the PLK project. The letter angered some members of the Kona Coffee Council, who said Scarr did not have the power to speak for the council.
By the time of the board election, the rift had deepened. The election attracted 14 candidates for six seats, demonstrating extraordinary interest in the volunteer positions, according to people familiar with the council.
George Fike, a Kona coffee farmer and newly elected board member, said he had "never seen such interest" in a council board election.
But what really raised eyebrows was the extensive use of proxies, or forms that allowed people at the meeting to vote on behalf of members who could not be there. Although several candidates gathered at least some proxy votes, Roger Kaiwi-Machen, general manager of Captain Cook Coffee Co. Ltd.'s Big Island facility, gathered more than 100 of them, said Bondera and fellow board member Bruce Corker.
Furthermore, Bondera and Corker said, Kaiwi-Machen obtained many of the proxy votes from new members that he appeared to have recruited.
"He signed up a bunch of people," Corker said. "We're not sure about any of these folks. They've never come to coffee council meetings or events, and they obviously chose to not show up for the annual general meeting" where the election was held.
Bondera called the election a "well-managed hijacking."
Kaiwi-Machen refused to comment, demanding all questions to be submitted to him in writing.
Despite the simmering questions, not all are convinced the board will falter in its support of 100 percent Kona coffee.
"I think it's sort of unfortunate that there were (candidates) who had all of these proxies," said Easton Smith. "But I think they're all good people; they're all for 100 percent Kona."