Burros and Beans

(A study of the economic effects of Equusasinus on the coffea arabica industry)

by Jim Lightner

Photo: Kona Historical Society

A well-conditioned, mature donkey can carry about a 125 pound load at the speed of a human’s stroll all day long. The donkeys were a key component in developing the Kona coffee industry on the steep slopes of Hualalai Volcano.

In 1825, coffee plants came to Oahu and during the same year four donkeys arrived aboard the ship Active. Sir Richard Charlton, the first British Counsel to the Kingdom of Kamehameha, imported the burros from Chile or England. The surefooted animals were sold at auction and became haulers of people and merchandise in Honolulu.

When coffee became a commercial crop on the rugged sides of Hualalai, donkeys were the backbone of the transportation system. Originating from the arid mountains of northern Africa, the donkeys, or burros as they are also called, were able to thrive in their new enviroment. Loaded with two bags of coffee, the donkeys would pick their way down the lava rock trails to the harbors of Kealakekua, Keauhou, and Kailua-Kona. On the trip back, the donkeys would carry merchandise and household goods. Without burros, the Kona coffee industry would have been limited to the lower altitudes. Only on the higher elevations does the unique combination of soils and temperatures exist that gives Kona coffee its signature flavor.

Donkey power provided inexpensive and reliable transportation to the coffee farmers. The advantages of using them were many. For example, no special breeding programs were necessary. Their hooves did not need shoes unless heavy hauling was being done. Food was available wherever there was greenery. Little supervision or shelter was required when the burros were not working. Donkeys watched out for themselves avoiding injuries, dehydration or heat exhaustion. Once trained, the animals were able to perform their duties until they were too old to bear a load. In addition, donkeys disliked coffee beans, bark and leaves, and their manure fertilized the fields. An added advantage to using donkeys was that their territorial feelings helped warn the farmers of approaching strangers and kept the coffee field clear of wild dogs and pigs. Trained with care and affection, they made family pets.

Most of the raw materials needed for the pack rig could be obtained locally and the coffee farmers built their own. A cross-tree saddle with a coffee sack stuffed with hair or grass as a pad was the standard rig. The pad quickly took the shape of the burro’s back providing customized protection from the load. Straps around the front and back of the animal kept the burden from shifting. A simple rope halter was used since pack donkeys were trained to follow the leader.

Saddling was a one person job with the cooperative donkey knowing that good conduct brings rewards such as piece of ti leaf or a scratch on the ears. Loading the saddle usually took two strong people – one to hold the coffee bag and the other to tie the lashings. A seasoned handler could load on his own using a T-shaped stand to support the single bag while he ran around to the other side to hoist the other. The load had to be balanced within a few pounds to prevent sliding to the side and also unbalancing the donkey. With a load of two coffee bags that weighed one hundred pounds each, the trip to the market was taken slowly with frequent stops to browse and drink water. For trail-side snacks, the donkey enjoyed leaves, twigs and a variety of vegetation.

Jim Lightner at home with his pet donkey

A Honaunau coffee farmer, who grew-up on his family’s small farm in the 1920’s and 1930’s, remembers donkey trains of neighboring farmers hauling their parchment coffee to the buyer at the market. The donkeys were just the right height to be comfortably handled by their owners. Only one of the much taller mules was used for packing in South Kona, and the farmer suspected that was mostly an ego-thing. Soyu (soy sauce) came in five gallon kegs and rice in 100 pound bags, so the common burden up the hill was a bag of rice on one side of the burro and kegs of soyu on the other. Nobody seemed to ride their donkeys except for keikis, probably due to the uncomfortable nature of the pack saddle, the expense of a riding saddle and the teardrop shape of a burro’s back. He recalls that each donkey had a distinctive call that could be identified from a distance.

After the coffee season, remaining on the ground was a huge pile of coffee hulls and pulp which had to be recycled to the fields. A wooden box was rigged on the pack saddle with coffee bags hanging on each side and the bottom of the bags had a draw-string opening. Then, up and down the rows of coffee trudged the farmer with the waste dribbling from the bags. The work was hard and life was enjoyable. Camping trips to the ocean were possible with the donkey hauling the gear to the beach, then bearing the additional load of fish back home. Firewood was hauled for cooking and heating the family futo, the traditional Japanese hot-tub. In those days, all the male donkeys were called “Charlie” and the females “Mele”, the senior farmer clearly recollected.

A full-grown standard donkey weighs 400 to 500 pounds and stands 48 to 52 inches high at the shoulder. Pound for pound the donkey is as strong as the horse or the mule. Its durability is amazing with natural good health and a sense of self-preservation that keeps it out of trouble. They don’t spook like a horse, instead when frightened, the “donk” will run a few yards then stop to ascertain exactly what the trouble might be. Combining the size and trainability of the horse with the agility and smarts of the donkey is the mule. A female horse, a mare, is bred to a male donkey, a jack, and the hybrid offspring is a mule. “Stubborn as a mule” is a familiar saying that has some merit. Poorly trained mules or donkeys feel no need to cooperate with their trainers and must be forced to do the master’s bidding. The forcing process is an unpleasant experience for both.

Thus, good training procedures were important. Plenty of human touch and talk as soon as they are born gives the proper start to the training of donkeys. The mother, called a jenny, will be naturally protective at first. If she trusts her handler, she will soon allow her foal to be patted. Once a rapport has been established with the young burro, training of basic commands such as walk, stop, right, left, back and over quickly follow. Actually the words are requests, since you can’t command a donkey. Burros respond to both sound and food rewards. Occasional physical punishment of a slap on the nose should be only administered for dangerous actions like biting, kicking and rearing. Remedial training for older animals is possible with generous amounts of patience and tender loving care. Responding to regular training of a few hours a week, donkeys can learn to spin around, push a ball, carry a pail, pick-up papers, jump over logs and stand on a platform as well as carry a pack. Training for riding or pulling a cart can start in their third year after the asinine equivalent of the terrible teens is over. Donkeys learn slower than horses; however, they remember their training longer. Their inquisitive nature and friendly personalities produce a unique relationship with their owners.

As pets, the jennys and neutered males make loyal friends of the family. Jacks with all their equipment have one-track minds and are difficult and sometimes dangerous to have around people. Jennys should be bred no sooner than their fourth birthday which is after their adult teeth come in and their joints mature. Every 28 days, the jenny is ready to mate and shows her willingness with a wide range of communications. The product of donkey bred to a donkey is a donkey. Gestation varies from 11 to 14 months. A donkey that has had good care could have a life span of 30 to 40 years.

From the 1820’s to just after World War II, the donkeys enabled the Kona coffee farmers to haul their crops to market over unimproved trails. When rough roads were built, mule-drawn wagons were used for the longer trip down to the harbors and donkeys were still the means to haul from the fields to the roads. In the late 1940’s, inexpensive US Army jeeps became available as war surplus and displaced the four-footed bean haulers. Many of the coffee donkeys were released into the kiawe shrub and formed the wild herds that still exist in the Kaupulehu area where the Hualalai Resort and Kona Village Resort are today. Long ears and longer noses provide an effective long distance communication system for the burros. They can generate sound from either the incoming or outgoing air, hence the “hee…..haw” multi-toned call. The brays of the Kona nightingales are still heard in the evenings as pet donkeys communicate with each other and their wild kin.

Presently on the Big Island, donkeys may be purchased from Maverick Kawamoto who is the agriculture department instructor at Konawaena High School, phone 323-4539, and Rachel Keolanui-Epperson owner of Donkey Tales, located in Mountainview, which gives trail rides and camping trips with donkeys at Kapapala Ranch, phone 968-6585, e-mail pre@bigisland.net. Donkey pack saddles may be purchased from Shane Balukan in Kealakekua, phone 322-2078. Helpful books on donkeys are Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, The Definitive Donkey by Paul and Betsey Hutchins, Packin’ In on Mules and Horses by Smoke Elser. The Brayer Magazine of the American Donkey and Mule Society is published every two months, Web site www.lovelongears.com . Another good donkey Web site is www.orednet.org/~jrachau/school.htm . Also, the writer of this article would be happy to talk donkeys with you at lightner@westhawaii.net

Thanks to the Bishop Museum, the Kona Historical Society, the Honaunau farmer, and photographer Alan Bram, for providing assistance, direction and background for this article.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.