The Continuing Adventure of Blair Estate

by Les Drent

After four years of farming coffee, I have realized one thing holds true about cultivating this magical shrub. I should have planted more lychee!

That would have been the easiest route, if not for my abiding passion for the enchanting quality of the coffee bean. At least I now have a much deeper appreciation for what goes into producing my morning cup of coffee.

Since 1993 I have been pulling the threads off sacks of green Kona coffee. At the time, I had little knowledge about the process that brought the coffee to the sack. After stumbling through numerous farming experiments that were well thought out, well intentioned, and well researched, I have found myself caught in a circle game with Mother Nature. At times when I was sure that I had the answer for streamlining my coffee farming operations, I would only come to realize I was no closer to that ultimate cup than when I first began.

When I arrived in Kauai in 1998 I picked coffee from the wild and cupped the finest coffee I have ever tasted. I have come close to duplicating that same tantalizing taste, but the toll it has taken on my nerves to successfully cultivate this coffee for a financial profit has been discouraging. Now approaching year number five, I have to look beyond the monetary rewards I thought we would be reaping and look closer at the values the farm brings that cannot be measured in dollars. This year, on the other hand, we did make five thousand dollars in one week selling lychee off the back of the truck!

Quiet mornings, chickens, the sheep grazing in the orchard, and key lime pie made from our own fruit are but a few of the rewards that cannot be measured in money. Homemade pesto made from the basil in the front yard and an endless supply of sunrise papayas might begin to make me forget about the unyielding scorch of the summer sun or the pounding rain and unrelenting winter winds that attack our coffee grove.

My intentions have now shifted one hundred and eighty degrees. As an organic farmer I have begun to realize that I wasn’t fully embracing Mother Nature and working with her. Instead, I was choosing to fight her with added fertilizer, water, and other symptomatic treatments. Part of this realization came from looking closer at the natural conditions around the coffee trees that introduced me to that perfect cup 7 years ago. They were overgrown and completely wild, flourishing within a jungle of diverse plant life. Out of the simplicity of nature came these near-perfect and very healthy coffee trees.

Once I realized this, we started to transform our own coffee orchard into a canopied jungle of gliricidia (mother of cacao), which is a popular nitrogen fixing over story tree used throughout South America to shade coffee and chocolate trees. While we have no definite idea what adding three hundred shade trees to our farm will mean as far as added maintenance, it will begin to re-create the natural habitat of coffee on a piece of land that was mostly an open and abandoned field when we arrived in 2001.

After this experience, I now tend to take a closer look at what makes coffee trees thrive in their natural environment. I have also realized what makes Kona, Hawaii such a perfect place for growing gourmet coffee. Constant shade (volcanic haze known as vog) sits over coffee country, nestled in the rainforest between the 800-2500 foot elevations. A southwesterly exposure at the foot of Mauna Loa (13,679 feet) and Hualalai (8,271 feet) mountains keeps the fabled coffee country protected from the howling winds of winter. Deep, rich, and porous soil with good rainfall are the ingredients that round off such an ideal combination of growing conditions.

While Blair Estate coffee farm in Kauai may not enjoy the same benefi- cial natural surroundings as Kona coffee, something extra shines through in the coffee that is produced. There is a sweetness of taste that one can only attribute to the will to survive in Kauai’s landscape. When I consider the island’s history with hurricanes, along with geography such as the deep cut valleys, towering swordlike cliffs, abundance of riverways, dense jungle foliage and countless waterfalls, I begin to believe it is the grand adventure of living in this incredible environment that produces such a great cup of coffee.

While we wait another couple of years for the gliricidia and Mother Nature to fully interact with our coffee farm, we will continue to enjoy what she does bring us for harvest in both coffee, fruit, or peaceful days on the farm; and we will continue to strive for that same elusive perfect cup that originally lured us here.

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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.