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Kona’s farmers face steep challenges

From the October 2017 issue.

Despite its strong international reputation, coffee farmers on the Hawaiian island of Kona have to overcome a number of competitive disadvantages.


When Mark Twain announced in 1866 that “Kona Coffee has a richer flavour than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please”, he was foreshadowing the sentiments of the international coffee market, which now prizes Kona’s beans as among the world’s best.

Although more than US$30million worth of coffee is grown commercially throughout the Hawaiian Islands per year, it is that which is grown on Kona that has become synonymous with Hawaii coffee.

In November 2017, the 47th Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival will again showcase this premium coffee and provide a foundation for the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, where elite offerings from the region’s top coffee farms undergo the formal tasting technique of cupping over a two-day period.

Kona Coffee’s prestige can be attributed to the area in which it has been cultivated for more than 150 years. The Kona Coffee Belt, which is nestled on the western slopes in between the huge volcanos of Hualalai and Mauna Loa on the Big Island on an altitude between 240 and 760 metres, is a place of intense sunlight, cool breezes, good rainfall, occasional fog, incredible soil and frost-free temperatures. The area offers the perfect combination of sunlight, elevation and slope – while the slopes allow excess water to drain, the elevation creates cooler nights, which allow the coffee cherries to mature longer and produce a bigger bean inside.

Hand-picking enhances Kona Coffee’s status as a niche commodity – due to the region’s steep slopes, it’s impossible to use machinery, so every single cherry is handpicked and sorted meticulously. This makes coffee cultivation more labour intensive in Kona than in most other regions. Only cherries at peak maturity are harvested and since the cherries do not ripen at the same time, each tree is picked several times throughout the season.

The strength and value of the industry lies in the dedication of the coffee farmers, millers, roasters, Q-graders and retailers who operate from more than 630 farms around Kona. With an average farm size of less than 2.5 hectares, ranging in elevation from 45 to 275 metres, these farms are operated by individual families.

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