Diary of a Coffee Picker
by Carole Prism
Up at 4:30 am, stumbling around my house, aware that folks living nearby are fast asleep. What am I doing up at this hour? This goes against the body's biological rhythms.
I am picking coffee, my first day this season. A bumper crop, so I hear. I can see the cherry on the trees around Kona, wondering who is going to pick all this stuff. I guess I am one of the army of people who will.
At the pickup point at 6 am, I meet the crew I will be working with. I am surrounded by the melody of a foreign language. As we drive to the first farm, I see other groups of people standing on the highway, waiting for their pickup. Different nationalities. Kona has become a melting pot, a global meeting spot…for coffee pickers who can make terrific money during the season.
Have trouble communicating with the crew lead as to where I will pick and the rules of the game. But I begin. And what a beginning it is…
I am picking cherry at record speeds (for me), getting lost in the color, the sound of the coffee popping off the branches, the smells of being outdoors. The farm we are on is organic, replete with fruit trees, ginger, all the wonderful flora and fauna that mauka Kona is known for. The beauty inspires me. The food on the ground could feed many families. Abundance in nature thrills me.
My coffee bucket fills and I begin dumping the cherry into the 100 pound bag. Looks like a huge bag to me, wonder if I can fill it today.
The crew is all men, they are picking at light speed, filling those bags up and I feel like I am in slow motion. But I continue, not focusing on the competition, but on the plump cherry. How I love being in nature, working with food, flowers, coffee. There is something very gripping to me about the coffee tree, the shapes of the tree, the flowers, the fruit of the tree (the cherry). I am mesmerized. Time passes. I am in the zone.
It is a short day. We stop for a break and the crew manages to communicate to me that we work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. I am stunned.
This day, we work 5 hours. Back at the pickup point where we weigh the coffee, I applaud myself when my coffee is weighed. I have picked 120 pounds. It usually takes me all day to pick close to 100 pounds. The guys' coffee weighs in at over twice what I have picked. I am a wimp.
Somewhere in Time
Today, we are on another farm. The terrain is completely different. The crop and its attractions remain the same. It has been a few days since I began picking coffee. I am weary. The 10 hour days are taking their toll on me. I seem to be getting slower. Or it could be that I am comparing myself negatively to the speed and efficiency of the men, who are picking sometimes over 400 or even 500 pounds a day. Though I was thrilled to be picking 200 pounds on a long day, the charge dissipates as I see what these men can do.
The farm we are on has animals. I noticed the goats and horses right away, then forgot about them. The coffee is entwined with vines, so much vegetation that I wish I had a machete to whack my way through the coffee stand and free up the trees. I am contemplating the tremendous farming/gardening tasks of coffee farming, lost in the color of the cherry, when I become aware of a sound near me. I think I am hallucinating. Someone calling my name, softly? Crying? I look up and immediately make eye contact with a beautiful horse who is grazing nearby. It is checking me out. We look at each other a few minutes. Then I am back to the picking. Moments later, I hear the horse cantering near me. It is running in an almost perfect circle around the area I am in. I am awed.
Lucky I live in Hawaii, in Kona. I can spend the day in the great outdoors, surrounded by this amazing land and animals and make money while being enthralled with Mother Nature. The horse continues its run then the sound fades. I am back totally with the tree.
At night, I lie down to sleep. Bones are weary. Shoulders and neck ache. I close my eyes. I still see the cherry. Perfect images of a strand of the deep red cherry on a branch. I fall asleep with the image burned into my brain.
I am losing track of time while picking, losing track of days. Everything is running together in my mind. How many days have I been picking?
I feel as if I am living in another dimension, not the usual time/space dimension of a 9 to 5 or any other kind of work schedule I have had. It is eerie, yet pleasant.
Along with the time/space warp I am in, I find myself disoriented in the stand of trees I am picking. Can't hear the rest of the crew. We are on 40 acres of coffee. It is a forest. I get lost trying to find the 100 pound bag to dump the coffee in. I know I am at the end of my coffee picking adventure. I hear the words of a song in my head "does anyone know what time it is?". Chicago I think. My mind wanders. My fingers move without my violiton. The tree and I are one.
I tell the crew chief that the next day will be my last. He doesn't seem to notice what I have said. Or maybe I have spaced out anything after that.
There has been confusion about my pay. This I do not need. I have picked more coffee than I dreamed I could. Yet, it is clear that I am not a champion picker. Though my contribution to bringing in the Kona coffee crop this year has been my personal best, if this had been the Honolulu Marathon, I would be at the end of the pack.
Finally, we straighten out the payroll snafu and I walk away from the crew chief. I am thankful for the money, for the opportunity to have been on various farms, for the time outdoors.
I wonder how many pickers will work the season, how much coffee is picked, what are the numbers? It is a tremendous season.
This weary coffee picker warrior heads home.
Long time Kona resident
Organic gardener, counselor, writer
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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.