King of Da Kine

Stories by Catherine Kekoa Enomoto,

Terry Fitzgerald’s success amounts to a hill of beans

HONAUNAU, BIG ISLAND – If you are a Kona coffee berry right now, you’re very, very happy. Not only are you chic but also in great demand, desired, lusted after, wooed mightily.

And, if you are a Kona coffee berry from the 4-1/2 acre “estate” of coffee farmer Terry Fitzgerald, you are the most admired, esteemed coffee berry in the whole wide world of Kona coffee berries.

Terry Fitzgerald Estate coffee was chosen winner of this month’s 27th annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival’s “cupping” or tasting competition. It’s the biggest bean in the 2.3 million-pound, $10.8 million Big Island coffee industry.

But wait, there are berries and there are berries.

Pickers pick ripe, red “cherries.” A pulping machine pulps the cherries to produce beans, discarding red and green fleshy pulp. The beans are fermented, washed and sun-dried to produce “parchment.” A hulling machine removes the parchment to produce green beans. A coffee roaster roasts green beans until they are shiny deep-brown beans. Finally, a grinder grinds brown beans into Kona coffee – that fragrant, powdery “gold dust” of devotees around the globe.

Fitzgerald’s estate – sprawling down the slopes of Mauna Loa – teems with lustrous, emerald-green bushes burgeoning with red, yellow and green cherries.

“I just told them (pickers), ‘Hey, we won the cupping contest. We got the best coffee in town and the best pickers.’” laughed Fitzgerald, 58, a former geophysicist from Ontario, Canada.

He’s a wiry 6 feet 3 inches, 170 pounds, with Rip Van Winkle blue eyes and gray beard. The 25-year farmer goes barefoot and sports Arabic, Micronesian and Tibetan tattoos on hands and arms.

His farm encompasses a three-tiered, modular home/ceramics workshop, and 2,000 coffee trees planted by Korea farmers in the 1920s. Fitzgerald farms at an altitude of 1,500 feet on Bishop Estate leasehold land. His off-the-grid home uses catchment water, solar-batteried lighting and propane-powered refrigerator, stove and water heater. He fashioned his bedroom module completely of rough-milled koa planks.

“Awright, Terry,” gleefully repeated ceramic artist Ina Hoch, who’s lived with him for 10 years.

Fitzgerald sells under “Da Kine Bean” label. His estate lies almost at the top of a roughly paved “spike” road called Filipino Clubhouse Road. Across the way, a pair of grazing horses neighed.

There’s no phone, by choice – so he heard of his win via neighbors. Upon hearing the news, he proceeded to brew a cup of his prize-winning java. Its patented, roasty aroma was as inviting as the flavor – rich, robust, satiny smooth.

Kona coffee officials said the 1998 crop is witnessing record prices and demand. A number of farms and coops already have committed their entire crop to buyers around the world. Fitzgerald confirmed that Kona coffee is the priciest it’s “ever been, ever.” He blames “blenders” – retailers who mix Kona and non-Kona beans under the Kona flag.

“They only need one bean for every 10 of that the pure-Kona-coffee producer has,” he explained. “It was about $1.05 or $1.10 (a pound for red cherries) last year. It’s basically about $1.40 right now.

“This year is totally berserk. The price of cherries has been going up. So all of a sudden you gotta ask people for over $20 (a pound),” he said. “I sold it to my friends here for $12 last year and now I’m gonna have to say, ‘Well, these guys wanna buy my green beans so bad, I can hardly afford to sell you roasted coffee anymore.’ And it’s not right. I should be able to supply the neighbors if they want the coffee. It shouldn’t be that expensive.”

Fitzgerald said his secret is that he lives and works on the farm, uses organic mulches and fertilizers – including crushed macadamia shells to keep moisture in the a’a (volcanic rock) dirt – and has gleaned tricks from neighbors over the years. His “Da Kine” retails at the Trail Rides and Blue Ginger gift shops.

“This is a pretty good crop year,” he said, raking still-damp berries on the corrugated roof over the living room/ kitchen/workshop, beans crunching underfoot like toasted peanuts.

“I’ll put out a little over 300 bags of cherries. That’ll be about 5,000 or 6,000 pounds of roasted coffee. So it’s already exclusive – there’s a limit to what I can do with this.”

So what kind of living does he make? “I handle all my expenses and I make a little extra.” He paused. “But I can’t afford health insurance.”

However, Fitzgerald relaxes six months during off-season – reading, repairing and expanding buildings. His back-to-the-earth lifestyle seems streamlined, quiet, balanced. He saluted the perfect conditions of Honaunau’s prime altitude, volcanic soil, good drainage, the “right” rain and cloud cover during part of each day.

Jerry and Michiko Watai are his veteran, part-Hawaiian pickers. The couple earns top pay of 50 cents a pound of picked cherries, up to $700 a day together during the peak last two weeks of October. They took a break from picking, he smoking, she waving off incessant mosquitoes.

“I kinda knew we wuz gonna get it one year,” husband Jerry laughed, “because of the quality of his coffee. He takes good care of it. He doesn’t let the weeds grow. He fertilizes when it needs it. And if there’s little bugs, he takes care of ‘em; he limes the trees.

“Extra care – extra better,” said Watai, who said he drinks daily a pot of “Da Kine.” He’s a part-time carpenter and volunteer football coach who’s been picking coffee since age 3.

“Lotta love go in our work. We really enjoy picking coffee. I was brought up like that. From 3 years old to 5 years old, we was picking our bags already. We start by picking up the coffee on the ground; in those days we used ladders, and when we moved the branches a lot of ripe berries fall. The little kids were down on the ground.”

Wife Michiko – of the Akahoshi coffee-farming family of Ke’ei – ran her fingers surely along coffee branches. She left the green cherries, harvesting only the reds, which flew with a steady plop-plop-plop into a 2-1/2-foot-wide basket slung across her body.

“When he yelled, ‘We won,’ I told Jerry, ‘Oh, maybe we gotta raise’ – just kidding around with him.”

Jerry, glowing: “Feels great.”

Michiko: “More he like pick.”

Jerry: “More late we goin’ stay now.”

Michiko: “We goin’ pick till dark now.”