A 2008 glance at Kona coffee retail prices shows options from $7 to 45 per pound. Contrary to the headline this actually sounds like a rather wide range where every market segment should be able to get their respective luxury-gourmet-coffee experience.
Yet if one subtracts all the products coat-tailing on the Kona name (e.g. ‘Kona Blend, ‘Kona Style’, ‘Kona Roast’) the range is getting much narrower. Nothing below $ 19.99 per pound, which appears somewhat genuine is to be found. If any other specifics like ‘Organic’ or ‘Extra Fancy’ are being added the prices are going quickly towards the $30 mark and above. Yet in supermarkets one can get for five bucks a wide variety of ordinary coffees and sale signs galore in the respective aisles. So who is getting rich here? And where is the discount stuff?
Let’s take a closer look of what Kona coffee actually is. The fabled Kona coffee belt stretches for 20 miles with only 2 miles width through the districts of North and South Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, USA. Ideal coffee growing conditions produce a very unique, highly aromatic, mellow, yet limited annual crop Kona Coffee Bean the fabled ‘kona typica’ beans. Mostly small family farms line the two roads winding along the fertile slopes of the active volcanoes Hualalai and Mauna Kea. The verdant green scenery with the blue hues of the Pacific below is occasionally interrupted by the signs of coffee processors trying to entice the local farmers to sell them their freshly picked coffee cherries: ‘$1.60 CASH!’ or ‘WEEKLY: $1.55’ or ‘BUYING CHERRY-Always Highest Prices!’. (1 lb roasted coffee needs a 7.4 lbs of coffee cherry). Also, once the harvest comes to an end, ‘BUYING PARCHMENT’ banners will flap in the gentle ocean breeze. What’s called ‘parchment’ is the now pulped and dried coffee, still in a thin membrane covering the green bean, which will fetch a price in the range of $7.50 – $8.50 per pound.
And that’s the key to understanding the 100% Kona coffee’s economics: Every local Kona coffee farmer has the chance to sell their crop! No additional work as pulping, drying, storing, milling, sorting, roasting, packaging, labeling, marketing goes into it. Many choose to do so, as labor costs in Hawaii are at a premium and housing for low wage workers is nearly impossible to find on the island. The actual Kona Coffee Belt land is too steep and rocky to navigate with machinery and hard human labor is needed to plant, grow and harvest.
Most farm parcels are only of 3 – 5 acres average size and are capable of producing 20 – 40,000 pound of coffee cherry. Once picking costs are subtracted (50 cent per pound) the annual monies earned can be considered only an additional income. So farmers have their unpaid families and friends pitching in during picking season and then the numbers look somewhat better. Yet so far no one got rich farming Kona coffee – it still is a labor of passion similar to an old fashioned vintners’ backbreaking daily chores. And passion it is when a few of these traditional family farmers in the age of the internet are able to bring their product direct to the customers: No middlemen, no processors, no pooling of various farms, no store chains or roasters between the consumer and them. Even that for the farmers to process, package, ship, advertise, et al raises will their profits only marginal, it guarantees them independence. It’s added value for both parties, as customers know exactly where the beans come from and the farmer is able to care and quality-control the coffee from seed to cup.