The hippie straightened over his metal rake in the glaring Hawaiian sunlight. He surveyed his work with a grunt as he wiped his brow. He had three foot long dreads and was shirtless and tan, a pair of loose, oil-stained jeans hanging on his skinny hips and flopping over his sandals, the ones with the holes worn through the heels. Heaving a long sigh, he bent to go back to clearing the rocks and pebbles that were trying to strangle the newly planted coffee trees. Then he saw me and smiled, kicking the rake to the ground before loping over with his wide strides.

His name was Sean MacKay and he was a coffee farmer.

Each day he tended the multiple coffee fields at the small farm on Painted Church Road in Captain Cook, just south of Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. When I met him, he had been the main workhand there for years, but knew his boss only as “Kelly,” the ambitious Irishman driving the team of random transients Sean rounded up for him each week to produce some of the world’s most popular coffee.

Coffee was first introduced to the islands in 1825, when Captain Lord Byron brought plants from Brazil to Oahu. Three years later, Reverend Samuel Ruggles brought coffee plants to the Kona region from Oahu for the first time. Nearly 200 years later, the small coffee farms of Kona continue to produce some of the world’s best quality and most expensive coffee, averaging $25-$50 a pound, all hand-picked by farmhands like Sean.

Sean first set foot on the Big Island years before, a teenaged transplant from Minnesota. He hated the cold, he’d told me, and the ambitious northern attitude. When I met him, he was in his early 30s and said he figured he’d be there for life, in spite of his repetitive work. He’d been with Kelly for more than five years after stumbling upon a crudely painted “Help Wanted” sign while trying to hitch a ride to Hilo, on the other side of the island. He was hungry and figured he could make enough to pay for lunch before going on his way. But he never left.

“There’s nothing to do,” Sean complained to me that morning. He kicked at the dry dirt beneath our feet and leaned over, placing his elbow on my battered tourist’s convertible. I was renting out a room in Kelly’s main residence while I visited my father, who lives on the island. Sean had his own place, an 8’ by 4’ shack with only three walls, no toilet, and no room for anything other than his bed. The coffee farmer bathed at the workers’ shower attached to the outside wall at Kelly’s. Some nights he and the other workers treated themselves to “the spa”—splashing and cavorting in a huge trash drum they filled with water the night before and left out in the sun to warm all day. Sometimes they watched a flickering television screen, the picture obscured by giant moths and geckos running across it, attracted by its gaudy light.

Kona Coffee

When he wasn’t raking rocks, Sean picked the choicest beans from the mature trees on the other side of the farm. He’d pick a cherry, roll it around in his roughened fingertips, look at it askew, as if it had just insulted his mother, then pop it in his mouth, raw. “If they’re sweet enough, they’ll make good coffee,” he had told me one day, weeks before. If the beans passed muster, he gathered them from the branches, one by one, and plopped them into his five-gallon bucket. The process took hours, but he didn’t mind. It gave him something to do, he said. Sean was one of the fastest pickers in Captain Cook; he could pick eight to ten buckets of cherries in a shift–anywhere from 120 to 200 pounds’ worth. As such, he was one of Kelly’s most valued workers, despite his habit of picking up in the middle of the afternoon and taking hours off to go exploring.

Hawaiian coffee is known for its rich and fruity flavors, which are the result of the nutrient-dense volcanic soil, intense sunlight, and multiple rainshowers a day. In the 1850s, many of the original sites of Hawaiian coffee farms gave way to sugar plantations, which had strong financial backing from investors who sought to capitalize on worldwide demand for sugar. However, the hilly terrain in Kona was unsuitable for the large sugarcane machinery; the land really was best for coffee. Historically, coffee has been a volatile export for Hawaii, tied to the laws of supply and demand. For instance, in the early 1860s only 50,000 pounds of coffee were exported, but that number ballooned to 450,000 pounds in the early 1870s, only to drop again to 150,000 pounds by 1877. That drop occurred when Hawaii signed an agreement with the United States to allow goods to be sold there without taxes or tariffs. The sugar industry’s value shot up. In return for the increased sales, Hawaii agreed to a U.S. naval base on the islands–Pearl Harbor.

The one area where coffee thrived throughout these ups and downs was Kona, thanks to the that inhospitable terrain, precluding other, more valuable, crops. The small region is now home to more than 800 small coffee farms, averaging five to 12 acres each, like Kelly’s. At one time, those farms were connected on large plantations but the 1899 global coffee crash forced plantation owners to lease land to their workers to stay afloat, splitting the plantations into the smaller individual farms seen today. Many of the farms that survived were owned by Japanese farmers and workers, and that legacy continues today. Kelly, however, is an Irishman, and takes pride in differentiating his treatment of his transient workers from other farms. “Treat people well, and they’ll treat you well,” was a favorite refrain of his, often muttered under his breath as he forked over cash at the end of the day to each of his farmhands.

Man drying out coffee beans in the sun, Hawaii, February 2004 (credit: Keith Levit)
Man drying out coffee beans in the sun, Hawaii, February 2004 (photo credit: Keith Levit)

“Picking’s not that bad today,” Sean told me as he moved his rake to one side, and beckoned me to follow him up the dirt driveway to his old Geo Prism. “I already got enough, and I’m sick of raking rocks. Let’s get out of here.” I hopped in the passenger side, the seat wet from last night’s rain. Sean’s windows don’t roll up anymore, but it’s just as well, he said, since his car isn’t air-conditioned. I learned quickly not to ask where we were going on these adventures. He never knew, but always got us there somehow. Soon after my arrival, Sean became my unofficial tour guide, and with him I’d seen everything from hidden groves of pineapples with their golden, spikey skins peeking out from thick fronds on the ground and glinting in the sunlight to picturesque waterfalls only found after hiking two miles through Hawai’i’s dense forests of palms and pines. The water there bubbled green at the bottom of the shallow river into which it fell; with a guide like Sean, it was possible to climb the rotting felled tree trunks and angle up the slippery, mossy rock face to have a picnic behind the cascade.

On this particular day, we listened to the soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou” coming in tinny from the old cassette tape through the beaten Geo’s speakers as we made our way around the only main road on The Big Island. It circled the entire island, and while there were smaller roads in the towns leading to residences and a few businesses, there was no way to cut through the center of the island by regular car. The most adventurous sometimes attempted crossing through the center in an all-terrain vehicle, but Sean told me the journey wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck out there. Inside the border of Hawai’i lay a dense wilderness, as yet hardly touched by human construction.

The absence of human technology is noticeable in the coffee industry, too. Sean’s baskets of cherries went through a small wash cycle to rid them of any dirt or stems that may have been clinging to them. Kelly had two methods of washing his cherries. He either winnowed them—which involved tossing the batch into a gigantic sieve and spraying water over the top of it, using large, smooth sticks as spoons to toss the fruit over and clean it from every angle—or he put them through a small crank machine that acts similarly to a dishwasher, pouring water in from one side, vibrating it to get around all the fruit, then sluicing it out the other side.

Once cleaned, the coffee was put into long, skinny troughs of water where the bad cherries floated to the top and were skimmed off by the workers before the drying process began. All this manual work made Sean’s hands as tough as leather gloves, and when we parked next to a jagged cliff by the waterline, and he looked at me with a grin, I knew my own soft, unworked hands were going to pay for this afternoon’s adventure. “Want to see a spider as big as your face?” he asked me. You’re damn right I did.

We’d traveled more than an hour up the coast to an unnamed area between Hapuna Beach and a town called Hawi, where Sean said there were some little-known caves he wanted to explore again. To get into the caves, however, we had to climb the cliffs, and in Hawai’i there are rarely any paths to guide the way. The lanky man sprung up the face quickly, jerking his long, pant-covered limbs over the sharp, gritty hand- and footholds. My legs didn’t fare as well; I stumbled and slipped behind him, feeling blood trickle down my shin as we pressed forward. There was no room for complaint in Sean’s adventures.

About 30 feet up, he called down to me, “I found it; hurry up!” Right there, tucked neatly into the rock was a large hole and through that hole, a cave that went on indefinitely in pitch blackness. Sean lit a cigarette as he waited for my suburban self to haul my body the rest of the way up. When I arrived, and took my first shaky steps into the darkness, he hollered at me to duck. There, hidden in shadow, was a stalactite so large and long it reached almost to the cave’s bottom, the width of three men across. And I’d almost walked right into it. I turned around to see his silhouette in the natural porthole and only knew he was laughing at me by the muffled sounds he made as he joined me inside.

We searched for the elusive wolf spiders with only the aid of Sean’s flashlight and the flash of my camera for the better part of two hours before getting too hungry and hot to continue. With hardly any air circulating in the cave system, and tunnels that can go from large enough to stand comfortably to lying down on your belly to squiggle through the pass, it would have been unwise to continue any deeper. Dirty, hungry, and bedraggled, I let him lead me out, never questioning his innate knowledge of where the original opening was located. We were out in 20 minutes.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we pulled back up to the farm, and Kelly greeted us with an annoyed look on his face. “Your friends are here,” he said to Sean, “but they only pick four baskets a day, and we’re behind. No more taking off this week.” He looked at me, too, as if I were the cause of this wanderlust. “Turn the cherries before you go to that concert,” Kelly warned, heading back toward the house. “You’ll be a mess tomorrow, and they’re set to mildew if we wait any longer.”

“You got it, boss,” Sean replied, loping toward the drying fields in the dying light. Drying fields aren’t actually fields but elaborate setups of thin concrete slabs inside two-by-fours, all slightly raised from the ground. The cherries are left there to dry in intense sunlight. The process could take up to a month, and the dewy, humid, overnight hours could be perilous if a worker hadn’t raked the fruit over to prevent rotting and molding on the bottom where the light hadn’t yet hit. After the green coffee is dried and ready to be hulled, the farmers store it in large silos to be shipped. Kelly didn’t hull, mill, or sort his own coffee. It was easier for him to ship it to a larger facility where the sorting and grading of beans is done mechanically. The mill took the stock Kelly provided and got rid of the outer layers of the dried fruit in one fell swoop and prepared the coffee, sorting it by size and density, to be shipped out to the world, presented in the way the way we know it before it’s brewed and hits our morning mugs.

kona coffee-2

Small coffee farms like Kelly’s take up more than 3,000 acres of the western side of the Big Island. The farms eventually formed The Kona Coffee Farmers Association to support their fellow farmers, increase their international selling power, and promote 100-percent Kona coffee over cheaper Kona blends, which can use as little as 10-percent Kona coffee. Kona coffee is some of the most expensive in the world because of the manual labor involved in harvesting it and, by extension, its limited production compared to other coffees. Formerly banded together by cooperatives, many farms asserted their independence between the 1970s and 1990s, taking control of their own sales and exports. As the gourmet coffee industry grew during that time, multiple counterfeiting outfits popped up, which Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture blames for the two Kona coffee crashes in the 1980s and 1990s. During that tumultuous time, even more farms left the co-ops to set their own prices and take over their own business management–and many still exist without their own label or brand, simply exporting their coffee to businesses that will brand and sell it.

Kelly’s farm has no label or brand, and is not a part of the Farmers Association just yet, though he’s considering it. Right now, he operates independently, shipping his goods to other companies who take care of the business and marketing for him. While coffee now stands as the world’s number two export (second only to petroleum), and worldwide consumption has increased to 12 billion pounds a year, Kona produces only three million pounds of coffee annually. The entire state of Hawaii produces eight million pounds a year, mostly hand-picked.

As the owner of the farm, Kelly makes a good living. He pays his workers a fair enough wage for their time and is able to keep to himself for the most part. While coffee tourism is on the rise on the Big Island, Kelly scoffed at the farms taking part in the trend. “Big sellouts,” he said one evening as we walked back to the small house from the fields. “We should be selling coffee, not tickets.” His attitude toward his trade is one of purity and single-mindedness, and he represents a good portion of the farmers there who wish to simply do their work in peace without the public glancing into their lives. On the other hand, the farms that do participate in coffee tourism have opened themselves up to greater sales, not only of coffee, but of knickknacks and souvenirs–another reason for Kelly’s disdain.

For him, it’s coffee or nothing.

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About Darlena Cunha

Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned freelance journalist and mother of twins. She writes for TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, amid others. You can find her on Twitter @parentwin.

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