Kona Coffee Farmers at a Crossroad by karen Paterson

The Kona coffee industry is at a crossroad. One road is the traditional path where Kona coffee farmers maintain the status quo until they are driven out of business by higher costs and foreign competition. The other path is the creation of top quality coffee grown in a renowned tourist destination.

Kona coffee farmers are in a bind. Production is down after two years of drought and the scourge of twig and berry borers. At the same time, major coffee distributors are damaging the brand by selling low quality Kona coffee, blended and unblended, at prices below the cost of quality production. In addition, competition from foreign coffees is increasing. Foreign farmers, who sold mid and low grade coffee in the past are beginning to create high quality coffees that are attracting coffee gourmets. For the same price as an average Kona coffee, a consumer can purchase any number of 94+ rated coffees from foreign farmers. Some of the foreign competition is only a few miles away in Kau, Hilo and Puna. For example, a Kau coffee has scored above Kona coffee two years in a row at both the Specialty Coffee Association of American and the the Hawaii Coffee Association cupping competitions.

Kona coffee is at the same point in history that the Napa wine industry was before 1975. Before the 70’s Napa was a small agricultural town know for cattle and cheap bulk wines. Then, in 1975, the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association stated that it would not support wine grapes such as Napa Gamay and Chenin Blanc. The Association urged growers to convert to top quality grape varieties. Leaders in the Napa wine industry accepted the challenge “A…result was the transformation of Napa from a poor, backwater country whose economy was based on cattle to a cosmopolitan leader in wine production.” Bottled Poetry, James T Lapsley, Univesity of California Press (1997)

Napa Valley became a leader in world wines because of the vision of some of the Napa Valley’s growers. “How did this region, representing roughly 5 percent of all California’s wine grape vineyard acreage, become synonymous with wine quality and achieve such dominance? The short answer is that Napa producers were leaders in defining wine quality and creating a market for such wine. As leaders they expended the initial energy – planting the vineyard, so to speak – and as leaders they have reaped the harvest.” Bottled Poetry ibid. The return for the Napa farmers was better grape and wine prices, increased land value and more and better paying jobs in the community. Kona coffee farmers have the same opportunity.

There is a strong parallel between the average wine produced in Napa before 1975 and the coffee produced in Kona today. Kona coffee typically scores in the mid-80’s in cupping competitions. The mid-80’s are near the bottom of the Specialty Coffee cupping scores and substantially below the 94+ of top rated coffees. (That is not to say that all Kona farms score in the mid-80’s, on any bell curve there are always scores above and below.) However, the median Kona coffee, today, is best described by Tom Owens, owner of Sweet Marias and a 2005 Gevalia Kona Coffee Competition judge: “In a historical sense, coffees like Kona are the pinnacle of a particular definition of what “good coffee” is … clean, pleasant, mild, good aftertaste. This is a notion of “good coffee” handed down from a time when low grade coffee was called Brazil Rio and it had a seriously foul, dirty taste (so awful it is still called Rioy in defective coffee terminology). The best coffees were considered the polar opposite: island coffees…mild, delicate and clean. Certain Specialty Coffees we now appreciate as intense and desirable cups, Yemeni coffees, Ethiopian Harrar, Dry processed Sumatras for example, would be considered terrible in this definition. If you love these intense coffees, Kona may seem too light, too simple, too mild. The even scores in the mid-80’s indicate balance and solid quality.”

Kona coffee farmers can’t expect consumers to buy average Kona coffee when they can buy top rated coffees at lower prices. However, consumers will buy top rated Kona coffeee at top prices. The question then is whether Kona coffee leaders will work together to promote the Kona brand, the Kona coffee region, introduce new varietal coffees, and adopt new methods and science. The alternative is to do nothing, continue on the current path and watch the reputation of Kona coffee wither.

Kona farmers cannot rely on the local coffee trade associations to become the leaders in improving the quality of Kona coffee. The Hawaii coffee trade associations spend more time taking shots at each other than they do promoting quality Kona coffee. The Hawaii Coffee Association, the Kona Coffee Council and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association are fixated by issues relating to cheap Kona coffee and Kona coffee blends. As one example, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association opposes the introduction of new coffee varietals into Kona, even though those varietals are scoring higher than traditional Kona Typica in cupping competitions.

The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in its annual festival and cupping competition is the one standout. However, the KCCF refuses to divulge the cupping scores of the coffees in its competition. While, in the short run, not publishing the scores may protect some farmer egos, in the long run, it disincentivizes farmers to improve their cupping scores. The pain of receiving a low score is a strong incentive to improve quality next year.

Nor can farmers expect much from the State Department of Agriculture. There has been a need in Kona for new standards for green coffee grading for some time. As one example, the DOA has been “researching” a standard for Kona dry natural green coffee for the past three years.

If farmers in Kona want their coffees to remain a factor in Specialty Coffee they are going to have to do 5 things:

1. Focus on Quality

Small scale farmers can only compete with the large distributors by focusing on quality. The majority of Kona farmers pick their coffee cherries and sell them to the mills. In a typical year, a farmer receives around $110 dollars for a hundred pound bag. One hundred pounds of coffee cherries after processing is about 15 pounds of roasted coffee. The mills sell the 15 pounds of coffee to roasters and retailers for prices around $225. The retailers sell then sell the coffee for about $450. Even taking into account the cost of production, marketing and transportation, the majority of Kona coffee profits goes to the mills and the retailers. The farmer who spent 12 months feeding, watering, pruning, and picking the crop gets the least amount of profit. Without a quality product, farmers are at the mercy of the mill. However, a farmer with top quality coffee can demand a higher price from the mills or contract for processing and sell directly.

2. Publish the Cupping Scores for Kona Coffee

Kona farmers need to know how their coffees score compared to other coffees on the world market. Publishing the scores gives each farmer a measuring stick for improvement. In addition, it will end the magical thinking engaged in by some farmers – that average Kona coffee competes with the best world coffees. It may be painful. at first, when outside coffee experts give a famer’s coffee a low rating. However, in the end it will result in an increase in the quality of Kona coffee.

3. Encourage Cooperation for Quality

If farmers want to increase the reputation of Kona coffee it will require a group effort. A few outstanding Kona coffees won’t create a world reputation. One key to the reputation of Napa wines has been the open cooperation of the growers.

“There a lot of cooperation among winemakers. That’s what is expected and you’d be foolish not to do it. You help your neighbors in times of trouble, you share information, you visit other wineries, you go tasting. All of this helps you discern quality so that you can benefit and make your own wine better. So, in this sense, this constantly tasting other peoples’ wines means you can strive to make your wine better, and if everybody is doing that everybody is making wines better.” From co-operation to competition; market transformation among elite Napa Valley wine producers Ian M. Taplin www.emeraldinsight.com/1751-1062.htm

By and large Kona coffee farmers do exchange information and cooperate. However, there are a few farms large and small that have “take, but don’t give back” attitudes. It has become more common to hear about “secret trees” and “secret drying processes ” from some farmers. Kona farmers are all in the same boat, we are either going to sail together or sink together.

4. Encourage Quality Improvement

The reputation of Kona coffee will only improve through the introduction of new coffee varieties and better production methods. Quality improvements are going to start at the bottom. Large growers, mills and distributors are not going to risk their profits by taking chances on quality improvement.

“The innovators in this industry have been the small folks such as myself, with flair and creativity that keeps the industry and quality improving. It might sound conceited but having worked for Mondavi and other big ones I realize that we’re the one that take the big risks, not them.” From co-operation to competition; market transformation among elite Napa Valley wine producers Ian M. Taplin www.emeraldinsight.com/1751-1062.htm

There is some evidence that quality changes are beginning to happen in Kona. Some farms are trying new production methods including milling only red ripe fruit, dry fermenting, double fermenting, dry naturals and pulped naturals. Others are learning that Coffee Boost is not the answer to quality coffee. Within the last few years, coffee farmers in Kona have started harvesting different coffee varieties. Some of the new varieties growing on farms in Kona are Bourbon, Catura, Catuai, Maragogipe and Blue Mountain. Some farmers have entered these coffees into the KCCF contest and have won or placed near the top.

5. Create a Federal Appellation for Kona Coffee

Farmers in Napa learned quickly that unscrupulous distributors would try to capitalize on their success. Just like with Kona coffee there was more Napa wine sold than was actually produced in Napa. One answer was the creation of a wine appellation for Napa wine with nationwide rules for the Napa label.

Specialty coffee growers all over the world have realized there they need legal protection for their coffee regions. Jamaica, Colombia and Costa Rica have established legal appellations for their coffee regions. Ethiopia has a United States trademark for Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar coffee. Other countries are considering similar approaches.

Only a governmental agency can create a coffee appellation. The only federal protection for Kona coffee is the State’s trademark for the words “100% Kona Coffee.” Other than the trademark, the State of Hawaii has done very little to protect the Kona coffee name. It is ironic that third world countries are doing more to protect their coffee heritage than the State of Hawaii.

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