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Friday, December 9, 2011

Jungle Coffee


If you've ever seen a coffee plantation (previous to our arrival here I didn't even know what a coffee plant looked like, but we drove past several plantations in the hills above Kona last weekend), you no doubt have a serene image in mind.  Neatly planted rows of smallish trees bejeweled with ruby-red "cherry" (ripe coffee berries containing 2 beans each) marching in straight lines, underplanted with a lush green matt of grass. The whole things looks like a city park full of baby trees.

In this park-like scene, there are quiet workers moving from tree to tree picking cherry into their woven grass baskets, brandishing a picking hook made out of a hardened piece of coffee limb. There is probably Musak playing in the background in your mind's scene.  There are no insects, no downpours, no sweltering sun, no cherry borer beetles, and definitely no swarms of ants.

That's plantation coffee, the cultivated, college-educated, white-collar suburban version the guide books offer you, no doubt wanting you to envision this peaceful scene every time you lift a cup of java to your parched lips.

And then there's Jungle Coffee.

When the owners of this farm bought this piece of farmland seven years ago, it had once been a coffee farm, but had been left wild for quite a few years.  They said it truly was a jungle when they bought it - entering their property was only possible if yielding a machete to hack your way in. Every square inch of space had been overgrown by something wild and weedy (and possibly, wooly). The vines were so huge the owners could swing from tree to tree like Tarzan.

In seven years, they have done a tremendous job of reclaiming the farm, eliminating much of the jungle, removing most of the old tangle of coffee trees and even planting some well-behaved new ones in those attractive, straight rows.  They've even underplanted much of the farm with grass, available only in 2" plugs, planted by hand.

But there is an area of the farm where the original Jungle Coffee still grows.  And this is where we began our coffee picking lesson today.

The tools for picking are very simple. A plastic picking bucket with harness, a burlap bag and 5-gallon bucket to pour the picked cherry into, and a hooked stick with a rope on the end to pull down the taller branches (once a branch is hooked, you step on the rope to keep the branch at the right height).

We started with a benign looking back corner of the property, a few lone coffee shrubs setting apart from the rest, which we easily stripped of their ripe berries.  Pick only the ones that are at least 3/4 red.  Leave the green ones. The old shriveled up ones, called raisins, are sorted into a separate cup. Easy peasy.

And then our kind host showed us to our opposing corners along the fenceline, where we would be picking our way towards each other, to meet in the middle.  My corner began in the remaining jungle, where the limbs were so overgrown and tangled, just getting a limb down into my picking zone was a challenge.

And then the last remaining vestige of that pleasant coffee-park-plantation scene in my mind was shattered by the harsh realities of real-life coffee picking: the coffee borer beetle, whose larvae eat and poo inside the coffee bean, ruining it; the scale insect and its accompanying band of ants (who herd and manage the scale insect, which produce a honeydew substance the ants harvest) and white halo virus (which attacks and kills scale), all of which you pick anyway - ants, scale, virus and all. 

But it was really the ants that were the bane of my existence. 

{I'm not sure why we don't use prisoners to harvest jungle coffee... it would be fitting punishment for many crimes}.

It's not that the ants were terribly large (they were tiny) and they were not a biting variety. It's not that it was too hot (we were picking in the jungle, plenty shady).

Their sheer numbers were what caused the majority of my problems. Grabbing a cluster of cherry berries would cause a few dozen (or hundreds) of ants to swarm angrily out of the center of the cluster where they had, moments before this human earthquake, just been happily tending their herd of scale and gorging on honeydew.

Hundreds of ants swarming over your gloves and up your arms (and occassionally on your neck and shoulders) is just not a pleasant experience in my book.  I had to stop constantly to flick them off (I really can't stand the feeling of things crawling on me, biting or not) and it just sort of grossed me out and gave me the heebie-jeebies.

It made me wish I had a bathtub, or even black plastic bucket like Zena, to soak all the sweat and ant bodies off afterwards. But alas, a black bag of water heated by the sun and operated with drip nozzle were all my rewards for a hard days' work.

I harvested 19 pounds of coffee cherry in 3.5 hours. Only 81 pounds short of a good coffee picker's daily haul. 

Then again, a good coffee cherry picker {probably} does not have to harvest jungle coffee. Of that I am {almost} certain.


luckybunny said...

This was so interesting, I had no idea. Seems like a ton of hard work. What an adventure!

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you! I will post more about the coffee-making process in future posts. There's a lot more to it after the picking!

Jess said...

This is fascinating! 81 pounds, yeah I'd imagine that wasn't "jungle coffee" either? Wow. I made my husband read this, since he's the coffee drinker here. Seriously, so excited to see/hear all the other stories you're going to have to tell while you're there on the island.

Victoria Strauser said...

I got to pick in "nice rows" yesterday and picked over 40#! So in an 8-hour day I could have probably picked 80#. Luckily I only work 5 hours!

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