Amid the crops brought by Polynesian settlers in the Hawaiian Islands, as early as 300 a.d., sugar cane, or kō, served to sweeten medicine and satisfy the appetite of chiefs. In the 19th century, westerners came to the islands looking for business opportunities. They saw kō growing wild and soon began contracting sugar masters from China to subdue it for juicing and crystallization. Promising hybrids were planted. Within decades, sugar cane grew to be Hawai’i’s most profitable crop, drawing investors from abroad. Sugar changed the demography, ecology, landscape, culture, language and economy of Hawai’i. Since the American mainland provided sugar’s prime market, ties between the Kingdom and the mainland were tightly forged.
More rugged than the other islands by far, Hawai’i Island posed its own challenges. Water had to come from remote and inaccessible uplands. Transportation required railroads across steep ravines and along treacherous coast lines. Plantation villages clustered around large, smoky mills and lay in utter isolation. The investors’ land acquisitions at times occurred in circumstances far from clear.
By 1884, Hawai’i Island counted more than thirty plantations, many of them in the Hilo area. Immigrants were arriving by the thousands, mostly from Asia. They fulfilled labor contracts and afterward stayed on.
In North Kohala, construction for a seemingly impossible railroad began in 1878. In 1899, a second railroad began construction in Hilo. From the early 1900s onward, an elaborate system of tunnels and flumes brought water to thirsty cane fields in Ka’ū from pristine rain forests far above. Other aqueduct feats opened up in Hāmākua and North Kohala. Punctuated by the piercing whistle of the sugar mill, which announced the beginning and the end of long work days, six days a week, sugar ruled life.
Mechanization allowed centralization starting in the early 1900s, causing the large investors to merge outlier assets. In Hilo, in 1973, Hilo Coast Processing Company emerged as C. Brewer’s consolidated unit, neighboring the Hamakua Sugar Company. In Ka’ū, Kau Agribusiness continued as the sole operator. Other giants formed elsewhere. Technology jumped production and profits, but decreased the need for laborers.
Other countries began to outcompete Hawai’i for sugar production toward the mid-1900s. Economics were changing. The decline of sugar on Hawai’i Island began in the 1970s. Ka’ū was the last district on the island to cease sugar farming, in 1996. The old sugar villages remained around their old industrial sugar mill compounds, but opportunity drew younger generations toward larger towns, like Hilo with its university, open since 1970. In Hilo, sugar had altogether been hampered by two tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, when dozens of homes and businesses washed out to sea.
The sugar plantations, for better and worse, had continued a tradition of farming, but around the turn of the 20th century, the future of agriculture was uncertain at best. Making a living with agriculture seemed no longer viable. Imported food had long become the norm. Sugar had brought a vibrant multi-ethnic community, mom-and-pop stores, a continuing connection to the land and its resources, which gave water, beauty, and clean air. Could agriculture really end?
The Edmund C. Olson Trust has been fortunate to inherit large chunks of sugar history, in buildings and archives, but above all, in prime agricultural and conservation lands with communities that are home to descendants from Hawai’i’s farming pioneers. The Trust reflects on over 150 years of sugar and, in earlier days, Hawaiian farming in an effort to revitalize agriculture and its benefits for Hawai’i into the future. The Trust believes that agriculture as a lifestyle can be viable once again within the coming decades when coupled to right stewardship of the land and a sound sense of business. For food security, the economy, community, and the protection of precious cultural and natural resources, agriculture is a must.
Although macadamia nut trees have been in Hawai’i since 1879, introduced here from Australia by sugar plantation manager William H. Purvis of Honoka’a in Hāmākua, they remained an edible prized only by a few for decades. After all, sugar cane was Hawai’i’s stellar crop at the turn of the 19th century. The Hawaiian Agricultural Experimental Station made seedlings available to farmers in the early 1910s. Plantations were beginning to see the wisdom of crop diversification, and experimental plantings began in the 1920s, mostly on marginal sugar cane lands. A first harvest took place in 1926, in Honoka’a. In 1938, an isolated 60-acre North Kohala orchard, planted by the agriculturist Kenneth Bond, became the first to focus on a commercial crop. But the timing still wasn’t quite right. In 1948, orchards in Honoka’a offered Hawai’i’s first crops for sale. Planters at last acknowledged that macadamia nuts as a product could do exceptionally well in Hawai’i.
Crunchy, nutrient-rich and sweet, Hawai’i”s macadamia nuts trace their true flourishing as a premium island crop to the 1980s, when the market for regional specialty products began to accelerate. Macadamia nuts have since become an aloha signature crop. Containing 80 percent oil and 4 percent sugar, it’s indeed an irresistible nut. Today, cultivars developed in Hawai’i make up the majority of the trees in orchards throughout the world. Macadamia nut production statewide came to an estimated 49.0 million pounds for the 2011-2012 season, harvested from about 17,000 acres in crop and an estimated 1.2 million macadamia nut trees.
Surface feeders, dependent on healthy, balanced soils rich in organic matter, macadamia nut trees are thriving especially on the slopes of Mauna Loa, in Ka’ū these days. Only careful maintenance routines, regular mowing cycles, adequate water supplies, good mulching and fertilizing, great teamwork and integrated agricultural practices result in good yields and final macadamia nut products. From wet husk to dry crunch, macadamia nuts undergo many steps, which are guided by as many skillful hands.
The harvesting season for macadamia nuts runs from August through January. During Hawai’i’s cooling autumn months, mature macadamia nuts safely protected by sturdy shells and husks drop to the ground, and farmers turn busy with hand-gathering or mechanical harvesting. Under favorable conditions, a ten-year old tree can produce up to 150 pounds of in-husk nuts, but the salt-dusted, chocolate-dipped, or cookie-battered kernels that we love are merely an idea at that point. De-husking is the first step needed. Next, a drying process decreases nut moisture from about 25 percent to 1.5 percent. Equipment that can exert 300 pounds of pressure cracks the shells. The raw kernels that emerge are now ready for grading, roasting, final drying, and processing.
The Edmund C. Olson Trust’s Ka’ū Farms Management (KFM) farms more than 400 acres of mac nut orchards, with harvests topping 1.5 million pounds of nuts annually (wet-in-shell). It owns another 600 acres of macadamia nuts in Ka’ū that are leased to another grower. At KFM, mowed grasses and macadamia nut husks saved from previous harvests slowly decompose to replenish the soil. To supplement Ka’ū’s rainfall, KFM brings in water from an irrigation system that taps into the Trust ‘s mauka lands.
The Trust’s subsidiary OK Farms manages the 160-acre macadamia nut orchard property Hāmākua Orchards II LLC in North Hilo, above Kaiwiki, which was the first macadamia nut orchard on the Hilo-HāmākuaCoast planted by C. Brewer and Co. in efforts to diversify, in 1982. Macadamia nut tree orchards also cover half the acreage of OK Farms itself, on lands that have been in agriculture for over 100 years.
Ka’ū Farms Management and OK Farms work with Hāmākua Macadamia Nut Company. This Edmund C. Olson Trust subsidiary in Kawaihae near Pu’ukoholāHeiau in South Kohala grows, processes, and markets only 100 percent Hawai’i-grown macadamia nuts. Another Trust company, Island Nuts Trucking LLC, transports the nuts, while also completing a critical agricultural cycle by returning empty husks from the factory to Trust farm lands for compost and mulching. You can find KFM nuts under the Hāmākua Macadamia Nut label, OK nuts under the OK label. www.hawnnut.com and www.okfarmshawaii.com
In 1813, during the last years of the reign of Kamehameha I, the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin introduced coffee plants to his exuberant gardens on O’ahu. It wasn’t long before others started planting the pretty ornamental as well. In 1828, missionary Samuel Ruggles brought cuttings from O’ahu to his land in the Kona District south of Kailua, where he was stationed. Coffee prefers shade and dry, cool summers: It did well on Hawai’i Island’s southwestern volcanic slopes, where clouds sweep in during the afternoons, and ocean breezes temper the sun. Within a few years, coffee began its ascent as a commercial crop, grown for its brew, from Kona to Ka’ū and in Hāmākua as well. In 1892, coffee’s pioneers introduced a new variety of coffee bean from Guatemala, Typica. Belonging to the coffee arabica species, this cultivar showed enormous promise and is still used today.
In Kona, coffee followed a different path than elsewhere, where sugar was king. Few other crops besides coffee fared well in the area’s rocky soils, so Kona was far more determined to turn coffee into a healthy industry. Unfortunately, Hawaiian coffee was subject to global market fluctuations, causing a tumultuous legacy. World coffee prices frequently tumbled, and Kona’s small coffee farmers would largely pay the difference. They would run into major debts with the area’s two dominant mills. Efforts to stabilize sales and prices for Kona’s farmers in the late 1960s, by supplying beans for mainland “Kona Coffee” blends didn’t help much.
A change came in the 1980s, when consumers were ready to appreciate specialty coffees and locally grown products. Independence from the world market became possible. Just around that time, sugar cane, which had covered farm lands in Hāmākua and Ka’ū, began to phase out. The timing was perfect for coffee to bloom as a premium Hawai’i crop, not just in Kona but island-wide.
Ka’ū, for sure, was ready. Majestic Mauna Loa provides fertile soil and ideal cloud cover conditions around Pāhala. Many farmers had maintained their coffee trees from earlier days, knowing that they delivered superior quality. They began to focus on creating the world’s best roasts. Coffee invigorates a tradition of agriculture for Ka’ū into the future. In the early 2000s, Ka’ū coffee began proudly showing its strength in cupping sessions worldwide, and small farms in Ka’ū began garnering awards. The first Ka’ū Coffee Festival launched in 2009.
In Hawai’i, the coffee harvest takes place about eight months after flowering, beginning in late fall. A healthy tree can yield from ten to fifteen pounds of cherries. But the journey from cherry (coffee fruit) to brew is complex, requiring much more. Healthy soils, cooling winds sufficient water, sunshine, shade, and also human skill blend in each great cup. From seed to cup, processing coffee depends in part on what is desired. Cherries are usually washed before drying to remove fruit skins and pulp, which provides a clean flavor. A semi-wash keeps some pulp on the bean during drying. When both fruit and skin fully remain, a wilder, fruity flavor results, called natural or non-washed. Drying occurs on large, sunny platforms. Next, hulling removes the beans’ parchment-like paper (and any skin or fruit), rendering green beans ready for sorting. This is the time to separate prized peaberries, coffee beans that are round because only one seed, rather than the usual two, developed in the fruit. Beans may now be roasted to medium, medium dark, dark, and extra dark roasts.
Founded by Ed Olson, Ka’ū Coffee Mill in Pāhala currently tends to about 60 acres in coffee orchards. It is fortunate to be able to replenish the soil continuously with mulching and compost derived from macadamia nut husks produced by other Trust farms. Water supplementing Ka’ū’s rainfall comes from a restored plantation system. The Mill processes, roasts, and packages coffee beans grown on its own acreage and also makes these complete services, as well as irrigation water, available to to approximately 80 other growers in Ka’ū.
The locally grown, hand-selected coffees from the small farms in Ka’ū have garnered prestigious awards in the last couple of years.
Three Ka’ū Coffee growers, two of which use the services of Ka’ū Coffee Mill, were named in the top ten in the international competition for the 2012 Specialty Coffee Association of America Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year. They were selected from 250 applications worldwide that had made it to the internationals. Ka’ū Coffee Mill won the Hawai’i Coffee Association Certificate of Excellence in 2012 for its naturally processed coffee.
In Hāmākua, the Trust’s OK Farms also grows a premium coffee. It expresses Mauna Kea’s older volcanic terrain through rich, warm and velvety flavors and is available at Ka’ū Coffee Mill and OK Farms www.okfarmshawaii.com and www.kaucoffeemill.com.