Kona coffee picking offers quite a jolt
Unsuspecting newbies discover a tedious, arduous, low-paying Big Island tradition
KAILUA-KONA » Not everyone on Hawaii's Big Island picks coffee, but if you live on the same lava rock with America's only coffee belt, it's something to try -- at least once.
On the smaller farms that lie along the island's Kona Coast, this is a job typically done by the landowners, their easily bribed children and anyone else they can badger into helping pick the ripe coffee cherries.
Those who grow up along the belt above the tourist hotels and newer homes along the shore generally spend some of their youth coffee picking.
For more than a century, coffee farming, specifically the picking, has been a family affair.
After the world coffee market tanked in 1899, Hawaii's huge plantations offered to lease small parcels of land to laborers, many of whom had emigrated from Japan, China and the Philippines to work in the sugar cane fields.
Four generations later, some of those immigrant families still till the land.
Today there are more than 650 coffee growers along the Kona Coast, with the majority of farms being smaller estates.
Together, Big Island farmers grew 5.8 million pounds of coffee last year, with a revenue of $31 million.
The bigger companies usually employ seasonal workers, often the kinds who follow crop harvests from country to country.
At the current average of 65 cents a pound, picking Kona coffee cherries is not an attractive career for most islanders.
The coffee, which generally sells in stores for more than twice the price of most -- $20 a pound and more for 100 percent Kona -- grows in the rich soil atop lava fields. The bright red cherries are not the kind of sweet and juicy fruit to be popped into the mouth while picking, so there's no instant reward for the work.
And the branches of the tough little Coffea arabica trees that thrive in the rough, uneven lava fields like to poke the picker.
Allan Frank, owner of Kona Cafe, has 8.5 acres of trees that he magically turns into award-winning coffee, and has a knack for luring friends and family to help with his crop.
"Hey, are you free tomorrow?" he asks a friend who has never ventured into his coffee orchard. "Wanna pick some coffee?"
Frank hands the unsuspecting volunteer a bright yellow bag with a strap to secure around the waist and a big stick with a hook on one end.
He gives two instructions: "They have to be red," and "Go pick!"
The picker is immediately left alone in the wilderness, surrounded by green trees boasting great bunches of bright red coffee cherry.
Farms in other places use machines, but along the Kona coffee belt on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa mountains, every bean is still plucked by a human hand.
Ask anyone. Picking is among the most tedious, arduous and endless of the coffee farming chores, which go on year-round.
Frank tells how his year unfolds. The trees bloom in early spring, sprouting small white flowers, or "Kona snow."
That is followed by the appearance of green berries.
In the summer and autumn months, there is a small window of time to snap off each crimson caffeine ball before it loses moisture and turns into a "raisin." Because each cherry ripens in its own time, pickers sweep through the fields several times during harvest season.
The cherry must be run to the mill the same day for a complicated process of pulping, fermenting, drying and roasting. It takes seven pounds of cherry to make one pound of roasted coffee.
Then, Frank said, the tedious, arduous and endless pruning begins. But the harvesting has to be finished first.
Frank said he might do one more sweep-through early in the new year.
Coffee picking is not difficult but it's not easy, either. The biggest lessons are learned quite quickly.
A big stick carried by pickers serves multiple purposes. It pulls higher branches within reach. It helps the picker balance on the lava. And it demolishes cobwebs.
One warning, though: The work can be tough under the hot sun.
It's also hard to keep track of how much actually lands in that bright yellow bag. Frank's latest victim/volunteer managed slightly more than 62 pounds in nearly 11 hours over two days. That does not even come close to making a dent in Frank's annual crop, or ranking anywhere near the winner's circle at the annual picking contest.
At last month's Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, Maria Valdovinos of Waimea plucked more than three pounds of coffee cherries in the three-minute time limit to win the women's division. Even little Luis Magana of Captain Cook, who won the age-4-and-under division, dumped 1.12 pounds into his basket.