Columnist home after volunteer coffee, bamboo projects in Haiti

Just returning home from Farmer to Farmer coffee and bamboo projects in Haiti, I have never been more acutely aware of how blessed we are here.

Of course most folks know that Haiti is a poor country, but the news is misleading. Yes, the capitol of Port au Prince was devastated by the January earthquake, but folks who live in rural areas were not as affected. Voltaire Moise and I traveled from north to south and found life much as it had been for decades in the countryside.

The land is rich, plus Haitians are hard-working and self-sufficient. Lack of medical help, schools and good roads makes life difficult, but not impossible.

The city, on the other hand, was literally destroyed.

There were more than half a million people killed and over a million are now living in cardboard and tarp structures until homes and buildings can be rebuilt.

As we left Haiti, an outbreak of cholera had affected thousands and as I write this, Hurricane Tomas is forecast to hit Haiti with 100 mph winds! Folks in the makeshift tents have nowhere to protect themselves. It is heartbreaking! If you want to help, you can make financial donations to the Farmer to Farmer Program of Partners of the Americas. The contact person is Megan Olivier, program director, 1424 K Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20005. The funds will reach Benito Jasmin, Haiti country coordinator of the program. For as little as $50, you can keep a child clothed, fed and in school for one month.

It is hard to make the shift from there to here, where we are in the midst of celebrating the Kona Coffee Festival and everyone is happy and well fed. So I am attempting to focus on our many blessings.

There, the Haitian coffee farmers are trying to produce a top-grade product. They have good coffee, but lose about half their crop to the coffee berry borer, which was first discovered there less than a decade ago.

Here, Kona coffee has finally made its mark. According to some top coffee marketers, Kona coffee is now considered to be the world’s most sought after gourmet coffee. This year looks like another quality crop and, to celebrate, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is in full swing.

It is time to take a casual drive through mauka Kona to appreciate what we have. It is a beautiful sight, especially when our coffee is in bloom or fruit. We now have more coffee grown in Hawaii than at any time in years. This expansion of Kona’s coffee is not the first time we have had a boom, but now that our coffee is considered gourmet, we are working together to avoid the boom and bust syndrome. We also have new challenges ahead with the discovery of the coffee berry borer here.

The Kona coffee industry was born with a few coffee trees brought over from Oahu. They were first planted in 1828 by a missionary-teacher, Samuel Ruggles. These were descendants of plants which had come to Oahu from Brazil a few years earlier. Over the next 150 years, Hawaiian coffee has had many ups and downs, but creative marketing and cooperative efforts have ensured a bright future.

Coffea arabica is the species grown here exclusively. Other species of any commercial importance, but not grown here, include C. robusta and C. liberica. Kona coffee is comparable to the finest of Central American mild coffees. The beans are heavy and flinty, with relatively high acidity, strong flavor, full body and fine aroma. It has been in demand as a blend, and in recent years as 100 percent pure Kona coffee.

Although coffee can be grown in many areas of Hawaii, the Kona district is ideal. Being situated on the western leeward slopes of the central highland mass of the Big Island, it is protected from the prevailing north-east trade winds by Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes.

The rainfall pattern is characterized by a dry period from November through January and rather frequent, almost daily, afternoon showers during the remainder of the year. The average annual rainfall within the relatively narrow “coffee belt” of Kona, which follows the contour of the Mamalahoa Highway between 600 and 3,000 feet in elevation, is 60 to 70 inches. Afternoon cloud cover and rainfall combine to create the perfect environment for top quality. Good coffee is being produced elsewhere in the state but it does not yet have the international recognition of Kona coffee.

Coffee has a long history in Kona. It has persisted despite many adversities, overcome economic depressions, and for many decades was considered to be the economic backbone of the Kona District.

The late Edward Fukunaga, a well known and respected coffee expert in Kona, pointed out to me that when he first became Kona County agricultural agent in September, 1941, the coffee industry was in a terrible state. The farmers were deeply in debt, yet world coffee prices continued falling. Debt adjustments and government relief were the order of the day. Over 1,000 acres of coffee were abandoned in 10 years following the price crash. Another 1,500 acres were to be abandoned before 1950.

Perhaps the most tragic thing that took place during the coffee depression was the exodus of the younger people from Kona. Only the aged were left to tend the farms in many families. However, things perked up after the war as world coffee prices rose and farmers thrived through the 1950s.

During the ’60s and the ’70s, fields were again neglected and coffee beans wasted for lack of harvesters. Tourism was the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to work at the fancy hotels and restaurants.

The awakening of today’s vibrant and romantic coffee industry is complicated, but the key was teamwork. The concept of gourmet coffee, according to Curtis Tyler Jr., who was manager of the American Factors Coffee Mill in Kailua, came up as early as the ’50s, but it took years to bring the concept to fruition. Wing and Mayflower Coffee companies were the first to roast and package the highest-quality Kona, but it was tourism that ultimately exposed Kona coffee to the world.

Pacific Coffee Cooperative led by Yoshitaka Takashiba and Kona Farmers Cooperative managed by Les Glaspey and Bill Koepke were active in revitalizing the Kona Coffee Council. Tom Kerr, as chairman of the council, was instrumental in bringing all the diverse interests of the industry together.

Today we have a new breed of coffee farmers producing world-class estate coffees. Some original farms have survived the years and are thriving. Others are owned or operated by entrepreneurs from the mainland, Japan, Southeast Asia and Latin America. When it comes to coffee, we should be proud and thankful for the privilege of living in one of the most rich, culturally diverse and beautiful places where coffee is grown.

Hawaii’s Big Island is also noted for its rare bamboos, thanks to the Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society. In fact, they are having a new-membership meeting Sunday, Nov. 14, at Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka, Kona. It starts with a potluck noon lunch, short meeting and tour of the bamboo forest. Free bamboos will be given to new members. For further information, call Donna Manion at 557-7669. Next week’s Tropical Gardening column will be on Hawaii’s bamboos.

Over the last 35 years, many species of bamboo have been introduced to
Hawaii from Asia and the Americas by the Hawaii Chapter of the American
Bamboo Society. Quindembo Nursery and Kim Higby have been among the most
prolific introducers. Plants from these introductions were then donated
to the ongoing Haiti planting project. Columnist Norman Bezona stands
beside a huge bamboo, one of 30 species introduced from Hawaii, a
clumper called Dendrocalamus asper which can grow as tall as 100 feet
with a diameter of 12 inches. – Voltaire Moise/Farmer To Farmer Program

The weekly Tropical Gardening column is presented by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Hawaii Tribune-Herald :: Hilo, Hawaii > Features

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