Hawaii’s Kona Coffee Farmers Fight Back

Hawaii’s Kona Coffee Farmers Fight Back

David Wilkinson, left, along with his employee Jose Luis Ibarra, transfers 100-pound sacks of Kona Star Farms coffee beans.

SourceChip Chipman/Getty

Why you should care

Because these underdogs will either win — or go out of business trying.

The west side of Hawaii’s Big Island boasts ritzy five-star resorts, some of this state’s most beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that lap the soft sugar sand of Hapuna Beach Park. All the while, you’ll find copious amounts of coffee — although increasingly these days, there’s a foreign flavor mixing in with what used to be just a popular local crop.

Despite being America’s last arrival to statehood, Hawaii is no stranger to powerful private interests steering public policy — or local consumption habits. It’s a group of islands where you’ll find mom-and-pop shops next to major corporations, much like other landlocked regions, though there’s something different about a recent conflict among small Kona coffee farmers and their larger competition. Unlike places such as Cameroon and Colombia, where farmers lambast their leaders over economic policies they say are crippling them in a global market often led by Brazil, Indonesia and Vietnam, the small Kona coffee growers aren’t asking for subsidies or infrastructure. They just want to level the local playing field, they say.

If the consumers don’t like the type of labeling or the product itself, they’ll stop purchasing it.

Rep. Clift Tsuji, a Democrat for Hilo-Waiakea

Here, 1-pound bags with the Kona coffee label vary wildly in price — from as little as around $5 for the mass-produced blends made possible with cheap land and labor in developing countries, up to $40 for the pure beans and grounds grown on local property. The problem, according to the 250-plus small growers of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, is that the big producers label their packaging almost the same way as the pure coffee producers, except for small print on the bag that says it’s a 10 percent blend. And this year could be the association’s best (and last) chance to have a state law revised that would require these blends to include at least 51 percent Kona coffee — and disclose where the rest of the product comes from. “The danger is, these blends are going to drive Kona coffee to extinction,” says Bruce Corker, the association president who owns a 4-acre farm of his own.

It’s enough of a challenge to make money from coffee when countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam hold an advantage, thanks to a relative low cost of land — less than $3,000 an acre in some places, compared to the $40,000 per acre it can cost for farmland in Hawaii. Labor can run 80 percent less in Southeast Asia as well, the reason even Colombian coffee farmers have gone on strike several times in the last few years while they demanded better subsidies.

Going up against the big guys in Hawaii is another battle. In the past, major sellers never used to have to label their bags with the fraction of their product that was made up of Kona coffee. Smaller growers lobbied fiercely for a 51 percent minimum, and while a new law passed in the early 1990s, it required only 10 percent Kona coffee in the blends. (Hawaii Coffee Company, one of the big coffee producers, declined to comment on the law.)

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David Wilkinson, owner of Kona Star Farms, rakes coffee beans laid out for drying at his farm in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Source Chip Chipman/Getty

Recently, Rep. Clift Tsuji, a Democrat for Hilo-Waiakea, had the power to spark change through a bill that would have addressed this issue. Yet he says he let it die in the House Committee on Agriculture, which he chairs, because the group was running out of time but also because of faith in the free market system. Tsuji notes small farmers and big producers can come to a compromise on their own: “If the consumers don’t like the type of labeling or the product itself, they’ll stop purchasing it,” he tells OZY.

The Kona association prepared to address concerns during the latest legislative session in a number of ways, including less-than-subtle tactics, such as pooling funds together to pay for a study that suggests big producers have an unfair advantage by using almost the same labeling as their smaller competitors. But Corker also believes the law might help his group’s cause. The Harvard-educated labor litigator, who worked at Perkins Coie of Seattle for more than 25 years, has examined court rulings that might apply to this particular case. One rare spot of positive precedence: Less than two years ago a California judge ruled that Coca-Cola (which wouldn’t comment here) could no longer use Pomegranate Blueberry in its labeling of a juice with only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice — because it allegedly misled consumers and hurt POM Wonderful, which produces the real juice.

While the association waits to find out if it can take its case to court, it has had mixed results on its grassroots efforts to raise awareness about this issue. One protest several years ago in front of a Kona grocery chain led to TV news coverage and a label on the store shelves alerting customers to which coffees were a blend and which were fully Kona-grown. But it wasn’t enough to start a statewide movement with other stores and resorts.

Still, today, Corker has a more pressing issue to deal with — a pest on his farm, Rancho Aloha. It was only about six years ago when a certain coffee bean–eating beetle arrived to this area, killing up to a quarter of some farmers’ crops. After Corker breaks open one of the few beans left from last season’s harvest, to show the beetle and the damage it’s done to the inner fruit, he tosses the damaged cherry and returns to the house. It’s an uphill trek, at around 45 degrees, and brings us roughly a hundred feet higher than where we were just standing a few moments earlier. That’s the thing about this area: It takes a bit of effort to get to the top.

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