New Farmers Pursue a Coffee Career
From Crop to Cup: Beginning Farmers Own Kona Earth Coffee Business in Hawaii
OMAHA (DTN) -- Leaving a video production business at near retirement age to become farmers is no small feat. But for beginning farmers Joanie and Steve Wynn, now 57 and 61 years old, the reward in doing so has been greater than anticipated.
The couple lived in Seattle and owned a production company called Bayside Entertainment for about 25 years, but as the industry made changes due to COVID-19, it left the Wynns wondering what to do next.
After traveling to Hawaii to visit farms and properties, the couple eventually found their peace through Kona Earth Coffee, an existing small farm and business with potential growth.
Located at Kailua-Kona, the farm sits along the famed Kona Coffee Belt in Hawaii that stretches approximately 26 miles in length and 3 miles wide.
On his first mention to Joanie about becoming coffee farmers, Steve asked her, "Why don't we sell everything and become coffee farmers?"
Three years into the making, the Wynns are nurturing Kona Earth Coffee from crop to cup.
"We're standing on the shoulders of the brand, and we're trying to take it to the next level," Joanie said in an interview with DTN.
"The previous owner was great during the transition. He said there has to be some overlap that takes place because the farm doesn't stop. He orchestrated this overlap so we could start working while he was still there and while we were waiting for the deal to close. It was pretty seamless."
Through their coffee business, the couple also helps give back to saving essential ecosystems; in the future, they hope to help support at-risk combat veterans to work through post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
DIVING INTO FARMING
Once on the farm, located on the tropical slopes of the Hualalai Volcano, the couple dove headfirst into improving and increasing the value of the farm during the first years of the pandemic. But those years came with challenges.
"We bought a new tractor, improved the capacity of processing with a new mechanical dryer, in addition to a big drying deck, a water filtration system and water catchment. At the height of harvest, that deck fills in quickly," Joanie said.
Currently, the Wynns have 12 acres planted, but have 14 more acres to grow into as they adjust from their big screen era to a life fully engrossed in nature.
"Last year we produced 30,000 pounds of cherry which translates to 4,500 pounds of green coffee. From there, we have two revenue streams -- green wholesale and short supply," Steve said.
During the Wynns' first farm year, an infestation of coffee borer beetles and coffee leaf rust hit the Kona coffee farming community hard, resulting in lower yields and ultimately, less money. For Joanie and Steven, the infestation meant winning or losing, and since they didn't know a life of farming outside of the pests, they chose perseverance.
"We were new to the island, so the infestation was something we had to deal with headfirst. It was harder for longtime Kona coffee farmers to pivot, gear up and start dealing with the issues. Some of them sold off and didn't want to deal with it, but we had to deal with it," Steve said.
The beetle infestation and pest problem can start to spread rather quickly and if you're not on top of it, it can start taking over, Steve realized. He decided they needed to have a sprayer to apply fungicide on the trees so he calculated in the extra costs. "Without hesitation, we came in and did what we had to do. It became part of our costs," he said. "Some farmers sold off and said they didn't want to deal with the extra costs, some were hardcore organic, and some were completely decimated."
INTEGRATING THE FAMILY
When the Wynns moved to Hawaii, their son Ryan was 17 years old and finishing high school. Although not pushed to help on the farm, he has taken a keen eye on the physical aspect of farming and gratification that comes from the fruits of labor.
"Treat your kids like a grapevine. If you slowly bend and bend, they'll go in the direction that will be best for them," Steven said.
Ryan is now taking local college classes and enjoys working on the farm when he can.
The family can recently be seen roasting coffee on an episode of "The Piece Maker" that profiles Hawaii's Big Island, available on multiple streaming platforms.
During the harvest, the family hires a crew of workers for picking. "We have heard from other farmers that good workers can be difficult to find. However, we have used this same crew for two seasons in a row, so we have a good working relationship with them," Steve said.
"We are also fortunate because, since our farm is at a higher elevation, our harvest begins (and ends) later than lower elevation farms. So that may also make it easier to find good teams that will commit to picking our farm." He added that their farm is also relatively level and easy to pick versus steep and/or rocky terrain on many Hawaii coffee farms.
Most everything related to the new farm business was a learning curve for Steven and Joanie, but by doing research, and with the help of neighbors and other Kona coffee farmers, they've been able to create a support network.
From previous experience on his parent's vineyard, Steve knew how much work farming coffee would be. And learning the ropes of the coffee business -- finding avenue to sell the coffee with a hybrid of green and retail sales -- was also a challenge.
"He would tell other beginning farmers that it's a sustained effort, more a marathon than a sprint ... As partners we can divide and conquer," said Joanie.
A fifth-generation coffee farmer from Costa Rica has been "one of the mentors that has helped through with all the questions I have, which are many, and they continue to be so, and there's some other farmers, everyone is extremely open and helpful. It's a really cool community," Steve said.
"We're new to the community, but we've felt welcome and supported, especially with the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. They offer a tremendous wealth of information, and they advocate on behalf of Kona coffee farmers," Joanie said. There are more than 630 coffee farmers in the Kona Coffee Belt.
In video production, Joanie and Steven weren't involved in politics but now, as farmers, they are motivated politically to raise awareness on challenges that coffee growers are experiencing in Kona, such as the laws related to labeling Kona coffee and Kona "blends" that have confused and misled consumers.
Although not against blending, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association objects to labeling a 90% bag of foreign coffee as a Kona blend with so little Kona blended and different from "100% Kona Coffee."
House Bill 259 is currently moving through the Hawaii Legislature. If passed, the law would ban coffee distributors from labeling "Kona Coffee" unless more than half the beans came from the Kona region.
Giving back has been a major part of the Wynns' business plan since becoming farmers.
Through a partnership with the Kohala Center, a nonprofit community-based research, conservation and education center in Hawaii, a percentage of every Kona Earth Coffee purchase supports essential ecosystems on the island including reefs, cloud forests and farmlands.
Coming soon is another initiative the Wynns will take on: supporting at-risk combat veterans working through post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
"This entire experience was healing for us and we didn't even know we needed healing," Steve said. "We thought, how can our experience help others who know they need to heal?"
In a partnership with United Veterans Network, the Wynns will allow the nonprofit to house veterans in an extra farmhouse on the property, giving them an opportunity to farm and connect with other veterans while avoiding isolation and homelessness.
One of United Veterans Network founders, Jeffrey Smith, told DTN in an interview that he's looking forward to helping veterans minimize the symptoms of PTSD, expand their networks to avoid isolation and homelessness and overall, reduce the number of veteran suicides. PTSD isn't the only reason veterans will be accepted into the program; every application will be reviewed case by case.
Smith joined the Army in 2008 and served overseas in a Forward Surgical Team. He said he remembers being frustrated and angry trying to find purpose after coming home from Afghanistan in 2012.
"I felt disconnected in search of something, then ended up staying on a coffee farm in Hawaii, it was so peaceful and tranquil, and I just thought, I have to have this in my life," Smith said. "If something like that has an effect on me, it could have a greater effect on other combat veterans."
United Veterans Network was founded by Smith and two other veterans, Mike Lybarger and Dylan Nonaka. UVN was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in early April. Working with Joanie and Steve, Smith said the next step is for him to move from his home in Kearney, Nebraska, to Hawaii and start to develop the program with a potential target date of spring 2024 or 2025 to start housing 2-4 veterans.
"My goal is to add value to the life of the veterans," Smith said.
"There's space for the veterans to garden and grow their own vegetables. It's an onsite giveback opportunity versus donation and awareness. This is a calm environment, and we hope they find healing through the whole process of farming," Joanie said.
For more information on Kona Earth Coffee, visit https://konaearth.com/… and on United Veterans Network see https://unitedveteransnetwork.org/….
Susan Payne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @jpusan
(c) Copyright 2023 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.