Nude Kona Coffee Farmers Make Their Point, Naturally

The string should be wrapped tightly between two points and twisted, so the branches can be held vertically in place while the concrete dries.

While they don’t normally farm naked, eleven of Kona’s farmers dared and bared it all to raise awareness about false advertising on coffee labels. The tasteful and fun photos of these mature women grace the pages of a 2009 calendar, reminiscent of the Alternate WI Calendar, the inspiration for the movie Calendar Girls. While the calendar was a bit of light-hearted humor, these farmers are serious about protecting the trademark of Kona coffee. And they should be.

Currently, coffee labels are allowed to use terms like “Kona blend,” “Kona style,” or even “Kona coffee,” even if the package contains only ten percent Kona beans. The remaining 90 percent of the beans come from other regions like Brazil or Columbia.

Kona farmers are concerned that the mislabeling dilutes the integrity of this unique variety. That integrity does have value when you examine how the coffee is produced and the Kona Coffee Farmers mission to protect Kona farmers’ economic interests in 100% Kona coffee, to protect the Kona coffee heritage, and to seek greater legal protection of the Kona coffee name.

I contacted Christine Sheppard of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association to find out more about this unique variety. Interview follows the jump.

EDB: Are workers paid a fair wage in producing the coffee?

People hired to work and pick in the Kona Coffee Belt are in high demand. They work under US labor laws and receive U.S. level wages. Pickers, for example, last year received at least 50 cents per pound of cherries picked. A diligent and practiced hand can pick 400 lbs per day at the height of harvest.

That $200/day possibly exceeds any agricultural wage for seasonal work anywhere in the world. At one time it was proposed to set an hourly rate for pickers, but the pickers objected, they like the rate per pound as then the level of compensation is up to them, and there are many friendly rivalries in the coffee fields as to who can pick the most (and make the most money) including an official picking competition in November.

Most of our coffee is grown on family farms of 2-10 acres. Our farmers sell their coffee to processors, or sell roasted coffee direct to customers all over the world.

EDB: Is authentic Kona coffee grown in a sustainable method? Please describe how and why.

This is a big subject and we break it into four sections that seem to mean most to people… Habitat protection, rainforests, migratory birds, and shade grown.

HABITAT PROTECTION

The district where Kona coffee grows was first cleared of native forest and planted over a thousand years ago. It has stayed in cultivation ever since. Ancient Hawaiians long ago replaced the native forest habitat with their subsistence plantations of breadfruit, taro, sweet potatoes, coconuts, sugar cane, `awa (kava), and paper mulberry. Indeed, those ancient crops may still be seen here and there scattered among the coffee, macadamia nut and other modern crops. As coffee cultivation expands today in response to the specialty coffee boom, it typically moves onto neglected existing coffee lands, macadamia orchards, or old pastures.

RAINFORESTS

There are very good reasons why coffee in Kona is little cultivated at the rainforest elevations above 2500 feet. Coffee is not a rainforest crop. Coffee prefers climates with a dry season. When farmers occasionally try to expand onto “rainforest” stands of native ohi`a and tree fern that dominate higher, wetter elevations above 3000 feet, they face discouraging practical difficulties. The municipal water system seldom serves such high elevations. It is cloudier and rain falls year round, so the coffee trees tend to bloom repeatedly and bear cherries all year long.

Harvesting in the rain is cold and miserable. Fermentation of pulped cherry is slowed by chilly air, and drying demands transport to decks at lower, more reliably sunny elevations or resort to costly mechanical dryers.

The long-standing threats to rainforest habitats in Hawaii today – ranching and industrial agriculture – continue to decline. Kona coffee grows on ancient farmlands that have been cultivated for many centuries.

MIGRATORY BIRDS

“Bird Friendly” in third-world terms means that farmers have restored the forest canopy as a necessary habitat for migrating birds. No migratory species frequent Hawaii’s mountain forests or coffee farms, and none are threatened by coffee planting, or any other kind of tropical horticulture. Hawaii’s migratory birds  are all shore birds that fly down from Arctic lands for the winter.

One of them, the Pacific golden plover also likes large open spaces: lawns, pastures, and golf courses. Many colorful birds live in the Kona Coffee Belt, but none are seasonal migrants. They are resident year-round.

SHADE GROWN

The concern about shade trees in coffee groves relates primarily to their value as a habitat for migrating birds, along with reputedly superior flavor associated with shade-grown coffee. The Kona coffee belt is blessed with shade from clouds borne upslope on the afternoon sea breezes, especially in the warm summer months. But nonetheless, as you might expect on small family farms, there are, in fact, all kinds of trees growing together with coffee in Kona.

EDB: Please explain your commitment to preserving this Kona-specific variety any key issues you are struggling with such as the use of “Kona blend” on labels, and how this issue has  impacted your business.

GMO

GMO coffee is a huge issue with us. I attach our KCFA position statement on GMO, but here is a precis. GMO coffee has the potential to completely eliminate Kona as a gourmet product. The Specialty Coffee Association of America does not consider any GMO product a specialty coffee. Our markets in Europe, Japan, Australia etc, and many of our markets in the US would not buy it.

A significant proportion of our Kona product is organic, and any taint of GMO immediately disqualifies it as organic. It would not be the 200 year-old stock for which we are famous. Even a trial planting in our island would contaminate us as coffee cross-fertilizes.

This is the ONE issue on which ALL of the coffee organizations in Hawaii agree, and have formed a coalition to fight GMO coffee. While many of us (me, personally, included) abhor GMO in all forms, even those of our farmers and processors who support GM in other crops are fighting GMO coffee because it is a pure marketing disaster.

KONA BLEND
The other big issue for us is the “10% blend labeling law”. This is where processors are allowed by Hawaii law to put the name “Kona blend” on packages that contain only 10% Kona and 90% foreign beans that are not usually even identified.

Kona blends confuse consumers that they are real Kona, just lower priced. But they contain mostly 90% foreign beans, and the price you pay because the name “Kona” is on the package is far too high for these cheap foreign beans.

Every time a coffee drinker drinks a blend and thinks it is Kona and tastes a disappointing cup no different from any other coffee it damages our reputation.

The most famous instance is when Consumer Reports compared Kona coffees, and reported that most were disappointing and tasted harsh. When we growers, in horror, looked at what they were tasting, more than two thirds of them were Kona blends, and labeled so, but even the experts at Consumer Reports had not realized that a “Kona blend” is not a blend of Kona’s, but a blend of 10% Kona with other foreign beans.

You have to really WANT to read the label to figure it out. This damage to our Kona reputation, plus the flood of cheap coffees labeled “Kona”, are keeping our prices artificially low, especially to the small farmer who typically sells his cherry straight from the tree to the blender. The price per pound that the blender pays to the farmer hit a high in 1997 that was ALMOST an economic return, then the blenders forced the price down, and it has not yet risen back up to those 1997 levels.

For the past 3 sessions of the Hawaii State Legislature (2006, 2007,and 2008) we have endorsed and worked for Truth-in-Labeling bills which would have:

  1. Required a minimum of 75% Kona coffee in any package labeled as a “Kona Blend”; and
  2. Required clear country/region of origin labeling of the non-Kona portion of “Kona Blends”. Despite a factual finding by the State Legislature in 2007 that “existing labeling requirements for Kona coffee causes consumer fraud and confusion and degrades the ‘Kona coffee’ name”, and despite strong supporting resolutions from the Hawaii County Council and the Hawaii Democratic Party, the Honolulu-based corporate blenders were again this year able to bottle up in committee and kill the Truth-in-Labeling bills in the legislative backrooms.

The blenders have a strong incentive to protect the enormous profit margins they make from selling what amounts to commodity coffee at specialty coffee prices because of the deceptive use of the “Kona“ name.

We recognize the political and financial power of the Honolulu blenders, but with help from the broader coffee community we will continue to cast as much sunlight and attention as possible on what most fair-minded observers see as a basic fair marketing issue and much needed protection for Kona’s coffee farmers.

This is the issue that prompted our lady farmers to bare-all to gets some attention. NO other product that we know of suffers this same fate legally the way Kona coffee does. Napa, Sonoma, Vidalia, Maui, etc all protect their geographic origin products.

If you would like to learn more about the issue, purchase 100% Kona coffee direct from the farmers, or get a calendar, you can visit the Kona Coffee Farmers Association web site.

2 Comments

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  1. Big shocker that the Hawaiian State House would side with big business and basically screw the small coffee farmer. The small farmer is most likely a far better steward of the land and certainly more concerned with the product by mostly offering only 100% Kona Coffee so what’s the hangup here? Same as always, the money. So call and write your representatives and insist that the laws be changed now. It’s only right. It’s either real Kona coffee or it isn’t and much of what’s sold isn’t…

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