Happy Coffee Trees Have Good Haircuts


Tropical vegetation growth is steady year round – if one species has a dormant month, there’s another one ready to take its space immediately. For a tropical farmer it means a never-ending battle against nature taking control: cutting, weeding, whacking, clearing, ripping, mowing, pruning, breaking, picking. Vastly different than in the temperate climate zone where distinct seasons allow, even demand, more organized work.

What’s called ‘pruning season’ in Kona coffee land is actually a matter of life and death for the trees. A coffee tree can kill itself by overbearing, and our region is known for producing the highest amount per tree and the largest beans anywhere in the world. So in this very unique, more than ideal Kona coffee tree climate one doesn’t destroy, but creates by cutting things off.

The last beans are picked, pulped, dried and securely packed away in the storage rooms to age for a few months. The trees look literally wasted – many branches are stripped of leaves, sporting barren, broken twigs, a few forgotten coffee cherries dangling somewhere at the top, mostly dried up to what we call ‘raisins’. New green shots sprout on those old, bent over, spent arms. If left to themselves, cultivated kona typica trees will soon return to be tall, wild unsightly shrubs with lots of new wood, but little coffee to harvest from.

It’s the way a tree grows on its own and a coffee farmer tries to tame this very nature year round to make it behave ‘unnatural’; meaning giving more fruit than it would need to produce to help its species survival.

Not much different from a vintner or apple orchard owner: The plant should conclude that it’s best to produce as many fruits as possible. Every year. We farmers fool them into thinking that there is an abundance of fertile space, water and right amount of sun around, by carefully pruning, fertilizing, watering and adjusting shade trees. Keeping the right bugs around and the wrong ones away. Protecting the soil from erosion and the winds from breaking its branches. Bringing in beehives to pollinate or even observing moon phases to up the yields in spiritual ways, if one is so inclined. All comes down to that if the tree is happy, you’ll harvest some very, very happy beans from it.

When I walk out there to trim the old branches from our 2,500 trees it’s the dry season in Kona. Sunny days from dusk to dawn with barely a gentle breeze. None of the usual afternoon clouds rising from the ocean along the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. One wants to catch the first light at 6 AM till about 10 when it gets really hot. And after 4PM till 6 when it cools down again. Because it is hard work, and it needs careful, concentrated examination of each trees’ unique constellation of branches: Which ones to cut and which ones not to. Then a short burst of energy with a very sharp handsaw to cut the 3″ wide, about 5′ long old or withered branches off. Selecting one or two new shoots, which should not be damaged by the saw blade. The other ones are being broken off at the base, or ‘suckered’ as they call it here. Then it needs dragging the cutoff branches out to the nearest path, two or three at a time, mostly uphill over rocky terrain. Stumbling, cursing, getting scratched, a tad more cursing. Piling them up where the wood chipper can reach them easily.

After ten trees, twenty or so branches one is drenched in sweat. Then it gets nasty with the crab spiders, which love to spin their orbs in this season. And they cling to a sweaty neck or forehead when dragging the branches out. Short legged arachnids they are, their pea size bodies accumulate mostly underneath ones shirt collar. Where they decide to bite you. Somewhere in pain level between a mosquito and a bee; but no visible redness or swelling. Those come from the spider mites, which fall down from the top of the dried branches and itch for days after having burrowed into your skin.

In a while the tangled mess of the post harvest orchard opens up and one can see the spacing of the trees, the beautiful, shy kalij pheasants running around, find a forgotten wooden picking hook from the harvest season, an empty burlap bag which was never filled with coffee cherries, slowly deteriorating in the rains.

On a good day I prune and sucker about hundred trees. And drag, pile up the branches where the chipper can get to it. Then my concentration wanes and I make mistakes by cutting off a wrong branch, or missing a few. The beauty of farm life is that there’s always something else to be done, screaming for attention, a different muscle to use, a different way to focus, or something stupid or repetitive activity for a change. Should I deal with HTML code on our website or the jeeps transmission fluid problem? Mow the lawn or prep the soil analysis for the Agricultural Service lab?

A well-pruned coffee tree gives an optimum amount of coffee cherries. It utilizes the air and space surrounding the leaves and branches fully. Pruning is to understand the inherent architecture, the metabolism of the tree; foreseeing the next few month’s growth and the next 2 year’s direction a branch will take; helping bent over branches to steady themselves by weaving them into the adjacent twigs. The thick gnarly, many times altered stump of an old growth Kona coffee tree is a piece of art in itself. A tree cut back over 120 pruning seasons simply is a bonsai piece in its own way: Full of cuts, swellings, holes, stumps, twirls and turns – a symphony in wood. They say ‘form follows function’, here the function is shaped by forming, shaping the growth.

A coffee tree is pruned at knee height, from where the branches are easily bendable towards the pickers during harvest. The first generations of Japanese Kona coffee farmers preferred climbing on ladders and let the verticals grow up to 10, 15 meters. Accidents by toppling down with a thirty pound basket of coffee cherry strapped to the waste was common. It’s not a cushiony fall on Kona lava rocks and an hours worth of work is spilled between the dirt, stones and leaves. Those days on the ladder are gone thanks to more finessed pruning methods their children developed when they took over the farms. It still isn’t easy labor, but looking at a happy, smiling coffee tree sporting it’s new seasonal hair, err… ‘branch’ cut is very much so. moon rocks

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