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Jul '10

From Cane to Coffee: Hawaiian cash crops


Everybody associates sugarcane with Hawaiian agriculture, but there has been a huge shift in recent decades. Kona coffee and other coffee crops are surging in Hawaii while sugarcane has all but died out. Sugarcane was part of the Hawaiian landscape early (approximately 600 A.D.) and it became a cash crop gradually. Sugar plantations played a key role in all the islands’ economy and much of the labor force was imported from other countries, including China, Japan, Philippines, and Korea. Sugar mills became large employers, including the first, the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa (today, the building is a National Historic Landmark) and Waialua Sugar Company. Today, Waialua Sugar Mill is home to shops, eateries, a bandstand and farmers’ marke

Hawaiian cash crops go hand in hand, so alongside sugarcane was pineapple. Some notable names of individuals furthering pineapples as a major cash crop include Francisco de Paula Marin, who advised King Kamehameha, James Drummond Dole (certainly the last name is familiar to everyone) and Captain John Kidwell who tested an array of pineapple before selecting Smooth Cayenne. Additional Hawaiian cash crops include macadamia nuts, papayas, bananas, ginger root and taro.


While the vigor of most Hawaiian cash crops has waned, an increasingly robust one is coffee. From Brazil to the Manoa Valley of Oahu, coffee found its way to Kona, via American missionary Reverend Samuel Ruggles. After a rich history of triumphs and setbacks of weather, financial and ownership issues, Kona coffee has found a new and stronger foothold today.

More than 500 estate and commercial Kona coffee farms continue to produce the annual crop, with many of them from two to three acres in a Kona Coffee Belt, an expanse of 30 miles. Interestingly, many of the Kona coffee farmers are fifth generation descendants of Kona coffee farmers. Notably, Hawaii is the nation’s only producer of commercially-grown coffee.

Arabica is the most prevalent grown throughout the Kona region. The climate, low elevations and period of growth for the coffee cherry are some factors that make these gourmet coffee beans supreme. Coffee drinkers will appreciate the elements that combine to give premium Kona coffee its unique flavor—aroma, body, acidity and bitterness (balance based on the roast) and finish and aftertaste.

Depending on level and interest, both locals and visitors can explore a multitude of Kona coffee farms and coffeehouses, even a bed & breakfast inn. The range of Hawaii tours available is diverse, from tastings and tours of award-winning Kona coffee farms (for both the coffee and the cupping) to a great place for a hearty breakfast on the way to see the volcano to sustainable farms producing additional crops such as macadamia nuts, lilikoi, bananas, mango, papaya, coconut, passion fruit, dragon fruit, white pineapple, avocado and much more. Similar to visiting vineyards, guests of Kona coffee farms will enjoy tours and tastings; plus, it’s an excellent opportunity to buy the coffee on-site and have it shipped home. More information about tours can be found at Aloha Hawaii.

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