Marin Artukovich & Market for Kona crop growing
Demand keeps rising for coveted coffee bean
By Matt Sedensky
May 19, 2004
CAPTAIN COOK, Hawaii – It started as a backyard business for Marin Artukovich, a few acres of coffee planted high above the coastline here on the slopes of a volcano.
Today, just seven years later, his Koa Coffee Plantation on the Big Island's Kona coast, comprises 80 acres of coffee trees on seven parcels of land. It yielded about 700,000 pounds last year, and employs 45 people during the busiest part of the season. It's a far cry from Artukovich's first year in business, when 38,000 pounds of the shiny red cherries holding the beloved bean were picked by family and visiting friends. "The demand for Kona coffee's gotten better and better," said Artukovich, whose beans are considered among the best in Hawaii, the only U.S. state with commercial coffee production. "We didn't envision that." Coffee has been grown here for nearly two centuries, but demand for the pricey beans from Kona is swelling. In tourist shops, most Kona coffee is sold in blends containing just 10 percent of beans grown here. Bags of the pure stuff typically sell for $20 to $25 a pound here, and can go for $40 or more on the mainland. Never mind that Kona coffee is among the world's more expensive brews. Aficionados are driven to Kona coffee's unique taste, and with supply short, there's barely enough to go around. "It's like a well-aged bourbon or whiskey. It's different," said Tom Greenwell, owner of Greenwell Farms, which has 22 acres of coffee. "You can find other coffees similar, but they leave you hanging at the end of the cup."
Some 650 coffee farms occupy a 20-mile-long stretch along the Big Island's western coast, set amid fields of hardened lava with panoramic views of the Pacific. Tourists flock here for tours and to snatch up bags of beans. "We're becoming the Napa Valley of coffee," Artukovich said.
Kona coffee is strong yet smooth, a full-bodied brew, sometimes with a fruity hint. Coffee thrives here in Kona because the soil is perfect, as is the rainfall. Ample sunlight comes in the course of the day, but clouds manage to block out afternoon rays that are too strong.
Agriculture officials do not track changes in Kona's coffee crop specifically, but they do compile such information for the entire Big Island. Kona is home to an estimated 93 percent of the Big Island's total acreage of coffee crops, producing an estimated 96 percent of the island's coffee.
The total acreage of Big Island coffee fields rose from 2,800 in 1998 to 3,500 last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Industry sources say the number of plantings in Kona will continue to rise because all the coffee grown is being sold.
"Everyone who's in the market is selling all of their product," said Roger Dilts, president of the Kona Coffee Council and owner of the five-acre Aloha Farms.
Kona beans have found their way back onto the shelves of Starbucks – all of the nearly 4,200 company-owned stores in North America. It's the first time in seven years that the coffee giant has offered Hawaii's choicest brew, and its reappearance can mean only one thing, farmers here say – even more demand. Starbucks won't say how much 100 percent Kona coffee it bought to stock its stores with beans that went on sale this month in half-and full-pound bags priced at $19 and $35. For years, the chain said it had not been able to find an adequate supply even for a limited offering such as this one, but that changed. "Kona is such a limited crop to begin with that we're pretty particular about the coffee we offer. We always want to make sure the coffee truly exemplifies the true crop," said Andrew Linnemann, Starbucks' director of green coffee, as unroasted beans are called. Growers say Starbucks, in some ways, is responsible for Kona coffee's growth. Its track record of introducing coffee lovers to exclusive brews combined with its remarkable growth has fueled interest in specialty coffees. Still, farmers say they're not getting rich off their crops. Greenwell estimates that a five-acre farm here could yield about $50,000 annually before overhead. It would require the work of a five-person family and still necessitate hiring seasonal help, he said. The costs for labor and land alone in Kona are many times higher than those in a foreign coffee center such as Costa Rica. Artukovich says workers here make an average of $8 to $10 an hour, while a Central American or South American worker might go home with $1 or $2 for an entire day. "I'm basically doing it for free and I'm having a hard time," said Bob Nelson, who has increased the number of trees at his Lehuula Farms from 1,100 in 1989 to 4,000.