Battle brews over Kona coffee
Companies are using the label when their blends are 10 percent
There's a debate brewing about how much Kona coffee should be required to qualify as a "Kona blend" product.
Many smaller independent coffee farmers see the valuable Kona brand being diluted by large coffee companies, a situation exacerbated by a state law allowing blends with just 10 percent Kona coffee to advertise as "Kona blend."
Many growers say that 10 percent is such a small proportion that the Kona coffee can't even be tasted.
The 10 percent Kona blended products often sell for a quarter of the price of pure Kona coffee.
Some have pushed for a 75-percent blend. But opposition from the big coffee blenders stopped legislation this past session that would have increased the Kona coffee in blends. Lawmakers called for a study to see how best to market the pricey Kona brand.
Kona Joe Coffee owner Deepa Alban said the blend battle illustrates how coffee makers shoot themselves in the foot when seeking state help.
Alban said the state could and should do more, but government is often hampered by dissension among the farmers.
"There are 12 coffee organizations. It's like 12 screaming children, and the government doesn't know who to listen to," she said. "We'd be stronger if we could all get together."
Gov. Linda Lingle agreed.
"I hope you find relationships at this conference because it helps us in government move your ideas forward when you reach consensus," Lingle said Friday at the Hawaii Coffee Association's annual conference.
"I know it's not always possible. I know that farmers are independent people by nature," she said.
Almost 100 coffee producers and vendors attended the conference at Turtle Bay Resort. Organizers said next year's event in Waikoloa will be combined with a specialty coffee show that could draw thousands.
Lingle admitted she isn't a coffee drinker, drawing groans from the crowd, but said she fully supports the state's fifth-largest agricultural crop.
"Our state -- whether I drink coffee of not -- is a huge supporter of your industry," Lingle said.
Lingle noted how she had prevailed upon the White House to serve Kona coffee at its state functions, explaining that Hawaii is the only state in the nation that grows coffee.
She defended the push for laws to benefit coffee farmers. The initiatives include the Seal of Quality marketing initiative, exempting employers of foreign workers from unemployment insurance, and bills that subsequently failed in the Legislature that would have provided tax credits and low-interest loans to farmers on so-called Important Agricultural Lands.