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Touring A Coffee Farm

We followed a truck smelling of pungent coffee cherries* south on Highway 11 and into Greenwell Farms on a busy day.

A half a dozen visitors—my husband and I included—trail Gina, tour guide, around the Kealakekua farm on Big Island like chicks behind a mother hen.

On the drying deck, two workers rake parchment** that maybe 24 hours before had been hanging plump on a tree.

One of the 800-some coffee farmers*** in the Kona coffee district pulls up in his truck and parks. He heaves one burlap bag of cherries—hand-picked, just like all coffee in the 21-mile-by-two-mile Kona coffee belt—onto the scales. The digital readout flashes 117.

On this day, in the middle of the harvest season, Greenwell Coffee pays $1.05 per pound. (They topped $1.65 in 2008.) The average picker can fill one to two bags per day. “Three to four bags is flying,” says Gina. This farmer’s morning’s efforts have netted him $122.85. Most farmers do not make their living off coffee. They do it, because it’s in their blood. Their grandparents, great grandparents and, in some cases, their great great grandparents all grew coffee.

Across the yard, Tommy Greenwell, fourth generation Kona coffee farmer and great grandson to the man known for putting Kona coffee on the world map at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria, sits in his office—a picnic table in the shade of a huge tree canopy—conversing with two other men. He wears jeans, boots and a worn Greenwell Farms cap on his head.

Thirty percent of the world’s Kona coffee is processed by Greenwell Farms.

Greenwell Farms started in 1850, the first year in which the Kingdom of Hawaii gave foreigners the lawful right to own land in Hawaii. In 1860, Henry Nicholas Greenwell processed his first harvest of what has come to be known today as kona typica.

The farm encompasses 200 acres with 40 of it devoted to coffee.

Gina leads her brood to “Grandma’s trees,” a grouping of coffee trees over 100 years old. There aren’t too many of these trees around. Most farmers replace their trees when they reach 40 to 45 years of age. Young trees start producing within two to three years. Their most productive years are between five and 15 years.

Coffee trees flower five to six times a year, meaning the tree fruits in cycles and that, in turn means, each tree is touched numerous times during the six-month harvest season of July/August through January/February.

Gina pops a ripe cherry off one of Grandma’s trees—they’re 100 years old and still making fruit. She squishes the cherry in her hand, revealing a single seed inside. Most cherries carry two seeds. The few, maybe 5%, that hold one seed are called peaberry. Gina says they are the “champagne of coffee.” They taste fruity and sweet.

Gina shares more facts: It takes seven pounds of cherry to make one pound of roasted coffee. The average tree produces 1-1/2 to 3 pounds of coffee per year.

I do the math in my head: A bountiful tree yields 21 pounds of cherries per year. That fills less than one quarter of the typical burlap coffee bags that are stacked around the farm.

Once picked, cherries are processed, usually the same day. We walk to the milling area. Here, the seeds are removed from the skin, pulp and mucilage (a sticky layer). Then, the seeds are spread on a deck and dried in the sun for 7 to 10 days. Before the seeds are roasted, they go through one more step—the removal of the parchment and silverskin surrounding the seed. Once this is done, the seed is known as a “green bean” and can be stored for up to 2 years.

Greenwell Farms provides milling, roasting and/or packaging for over 300 Kona coffee farmers. They operate their own pulping and drying facilities, dry mill and green bean grading and storing.

Once a week, the Department of Agriculture comes by to certify the green bean as “Kona” and grade it. The label “Kona Coffee” is closely regulated in Hawaii. You can’t grow kona typica on Maui, say, and label it “Kona Coffee.” A law mandates that if a Hawaii coffee is named on the package, then the package must clearly state the region in which it was grown. And if Hawaii-grown coffee is used in a blend and labeled as a Hawaii coffee, then the blend must contain at least 10 percent (by weight) of the origin named, and the label must clearly state the percentage.

A few of us—me—hang around Gina peppering her with questions while a few others—like my husband—slip away to an open-air “store” to sample—and purchase—Greenwell Farms Coffee.

Coffee farm tours run continuously from 8:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:00 a.m. through 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. There is no charge for the tour.

*Coffee “fruit” is called a “cherry,” even though it tastes nothing like the cherries we know. When the fruit ripens to a bright red, farmers have two weeks to pick the cherry before it becomes a “raisin” and unusable. Picked cherries must be processed within 24 hours before they will start to ferment.

**This is the stage of coffee processing in which the skin, pulp and mucilage of the cherry have been removed, leaving the seed, also called a bean. A rough and papery layer—hence, parchment—still encases the coffee bean. In this state, the bean is stable and can be stored.

***Ninety percent of this total work farms of five acres and smaller.

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