Big Island Agriculture
This farm makes sure its coffee delivers on flavor.
Coffee is always on the menu at this farm on Hawaii.
Hawaii makes most people think of palm trees and vacations. But on the island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island), it’s hard not to see our agricultural heart. Kona coffee is the crown jewel of our state’s variety of products—from macadamia nuts and papayas to traditional food crops and cattle. Kona coffee is specific to the leeward (more arid) side of the Big Island and is grown on the slope of an active volcano: Mauna Loa. Our mild weather and rich volcanic soil give Kona coffee its distinctive mellow flavor with sweet highlights its fans seek. Three generations of my family farm here. My parents, Diane and Bill Shriner, own the original farm with 5 acres of coffee (there are about 800 heirloom trees per acre) and 5 acres of macadamia trees. Our brand, Lions Gate Farms, is named for the stone lions perched at the top of their road. Bill Jr. lives and works at Lions Gate. My partner, Jacque
Wikum, and I have another 5 acres down the road. Jacque’s daughter Maile and granddaughter Mahealani have 3 acres nearby, and all the products from each farm are sold under the Lions Gate name. Our operation has changed since I came into the business in 2003. My parents warned me I couldn’t make a living on coffee. Traditionally, coffee was sold as cherries (the red berries that contain the beans) to large processors, with no way for small farms to connect with buyers directly. In 1997, on a whim, my parents used a rural development grant to create a website. Back then nobody bought anything online. During the past two decades, everything changed. That website allowed us to sell our handpicked coffee around the globe. Good thing I didn’t listen to my parents! MONDAY October is late for us to be making our first big harvest round. In past years, half our crop would have been harvested already. But the spring rains came late and so did the flowers that precede the beans. Our larger wholesale customers call daily, needing unroasted coffee in time to get it roasted and on the shelves for the holidays. The stress level is high. So now, six weeks delayed, we are waiting for our workers. But they also work on several other farms. Finally, we got a late-evening text. Our harvesters will start Tuesday. TUESDAY I awoke to the sounds of a coffee harvest: the tok, tok of cherries falling into buckets, laughter and singing among the crew in the field, and myna birds chiding from above. The crew started early to beat the heat. By noon it was in the high 80s with humidity to match. Like all farm work, it is not for the faint of heart. At 5 p.m. the truck, overflowing with burlap bags, pulled up to the mill. We weighed red, ripe cherries and dumped them into hoppers. We were thrilled to see big beans, which means the trees got enough water and fertilizer at all the right times. We started up the mill and began pulping the cherries immediately. Coffee is at its best right off the tree. If we delay, the beans will ferment in their skins and impart a sour or bitter taste to the cup. So while our harvest crew went to their muchdeserved dinner, we got to work. The pulper separates the seeds (which are the coffee beans) from their skins. The skins go into a compost pile, then eventually back to the farm as fertilizer. The beans go into a demucilager, which spins and removes the last of the fruit. From there they go into a wash tank to soak overnight. We finished up close to 9 p.m. WEDNESDAY We drank our morning joe (Kona, of course) on the go. The sun hadn’t yet cleared the mountain, but better to start early. The beans must be rinsed and spread on the drying deck, or hoshidana, which is a rolling roof. We pushed open the hoshidana roof and pumped beans onto the wooden deck. We raked them into rows and then raked again several times an hour to evaporate the water quickly. Water is coffee’s enemy at this stage because caffeine and flavor are both highly watersoluble. We shoot for an 11 percent moisture level, which takes about five days if the sun cooperates. By noon the temperature on the deck was 120 degrees, and the coffee was dry enough to cut back raking to once an hour. We were thankful, because it’s a sauna up there. At around 5 p.m. we rolled the hoshidana closed for the night. The harvest trucks pulled up to the mill with more cherries. We fired up the pulper and ate dinner on the fly.
THURSDAY Slight problem this morning: There was no room to spread out the wet coffee. Our hoshidana was nearly full, with all 1,600 square feet of deck space covered ankle-deep in beans. The sun has not cooperated, so we shifted to Plan B: the coffee dryer. Hawaii has the highest electricity costs in the nation, so we limit how much coffee we run through that machine. But at peak times we have no choice. We dropped in the driest coffee so we could flip it out quickly. The harvest crew finished after sunset. We pulped till almost 10. FRIDAY Today we bagged dry coffee in 70-pound burlap bags lined with moistureproof barriers. The bags get stacked on pallets, where they will rest for 30 days to stabilize the beans. This is the parchment stage, and it doesn’t yet look like the coffee you see in a shop. The beans still wear their endocarp layers, which are similar to peanut shells when dried. Once the rest period is up, they’ll be hulled and polished. What is left is green coffee, ready to roast. SATURDAY Sunset brought us more coffee. We are into the groove, and pulping goes smoothly. Every day the stacks of parchment grow higher and our smiles get a little bigger. SUNDAY Rain. Rain. Rain. Six inches came down in a tropical deluge. The storm blew through, leaving hot, sunny weather. As we walked the field, our hearts sank. Trees are damaged, and it appears we will lose about 20 percent of our crop. What a blow. We called in some favors and borrowed a crew to harvest the rest of the coffee that’s ripe now. A good portion is gone, though. We decided to buy a bigger dryer. It’s a significant investment, but we’ll be more flexible and able to handle a larger crew. By harvesting more in one day, we may avoid issues like we had with the storm. Weather events will never go away, and may get worse, so we need to be more efficient. In the coming weeks we will finish more harvesting rounds and ship green and roasted coffee. We roast beans in small batches, and often they’re still warm when they hit the post office. We’re lucky to know most of our customers by name. We feel blessed to live and work in close proximity to family. As we say here, “It’s a beautiful day in Hawaii nei (beloved Hawaii).”
It can reach 120 tropical degrees on the hoshidana, a traditional rooftop deck on which Suzanne Shriner rakes coffee beans to dry in the sun.
Ripe, red coffee cherries on the trees signal a new harvest in Hawaii’s Kona region. After picking the beans by hand, harvesters unload them in burlap bags at the family’s mill, where they are inspected by Suzanne Shriner.
Once the beans are clean of their pulpy skins, they get an overnight soak in a wash tank. In the end, the farm will have dry beans, ready to roast and ship.