With the sound of the horn Sunday morning, Kalani Aquino, a 9-year-old boy wearing a Superman T-shirt and a basket around his waist, ran to the nearest coffee tree.
Attempting to be faster than a speeding bullet, he began picking the plump cherries. Head down, and sometimes buried in the leaves, his fingers moved up the branches, plucking only the deep red. He looked comfortable and confident during the three frenzied minutes of the annual Kona Coffee Picking Contest.
With every thunk in basket, Kalani smiled. Meanwhile, his 19-year-old sister, Lexi Aquino, cheered proudly and photographed him from the sidelines at the picturesque Ueshima Coffee Co. estate in Holualoa.
For these siblings, coffee picking is a tradition that brings the family together and celebrates their farming roots.
“We live in Holualoa, and growing up here, coffee is very much a part of our life and the community,” Lexi said. “I grew up selling coffee to raise money for different things at school. We pick an acre of coffee at home and help dad graft the best trees. Kalani loves it. He’s always out in the coffee, wanting to help or learn. This season, he even earned spending money for our Disneyland trip in December.”
Whether he’s harvesting, planting or just exploring, Kalani enjoys romping around the coffee trees with his two pigs, Chocolate Brown and Sweet Sugar, because “it’s fun.” A homeschooler, Kalani said he often chooses to do his homework outside so he can help keep track of the red on the trees. His keen eye and skill helped him capture third place Sunday in the Keiki Division.
The competition is part of the 42nd annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, which is offering numerous events now until Nov. 11 that preserve and promote Kona’s more than 180-year-old coffee heritage. This particular event gives people the opportunity to experience the time-honored tradition of hand picking coffee and to talk story with those whose livelihood depends or once relied on this product. It also showcases the unique techniques of the experts and beginners, and continues to be a favorite for the young and old, leaving a lasting impression, said Minoru Tashima, the contest’s co-chairman.
To goal is to pick the most ripest, cleanest cherries. Leaves, debris and coloring can resulted in point deductions. Winners in each division earned prizes and bragging rights.
Becky Leinonen and her family recently moved from Minnesota to Captain Cook. They have about an acre of coffee and came to Sunday’s contest to see exactly how coffee picking is done. While her 6-year-old son, Dylan, picked for the first time and won second in the Pee-Wee Division, Leinonen and her 4-year-old daughter, Kaija, offered plenty of enthusiastic encouragement. Kaija said she was excited to pick next in the Akachan Division. Besides only picking the red ones, she was going to use “Ninja hands.”
This year, Tashima said there was a big push to emphasize the amateur division and recruit newbie pickers. Besides giving these newcomers to Kona Coffee a fun and memorable experience, contest organizers hoped they took away a greater interest and insight into the hard work that has to be done to produce this product.
Tashima spoke about how the industry has grown and changed over the years, as well as the challenges, such as price fluctuations, drought and pests, endured. He said a melting pot of cultures helped Kona coffee get a good reputation by the turn of the century and a real commercial industry started to take shape. By the 1930s, Kona coffee was one of the most prosperous products in Hawaii and entire families’ livelihoods depended on it. It was not unusual for men, women and children to help during the harvest or school schedules to be centered around the seasons, he added. Recalling his own youth, he said preschool for him basically consisted of walking around his parent’s 6-acre coffee farm in Kahaluu mauka, collecting cherry in an old soup can.
While the cultivating of Kona coffee is a courageous way of life, with lots of peaks and valleys, for many generations of families here, it’s also become a side business for several people, and owners don’t necessarily pick with their families, he said.
For more information about the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, visit konacoffeefest.com.
KONA COFFEE PICKING CONTEST WINNERS
- Senior Division: 1st, Joyce Nozaki; 2nd, Misako Canby; 3rd, Ellen Kato
- Junior Boys & Girls Division: 1st, Claudia Vazquez; 2nd, Ale Cisneros; 3rd, Makayla DeBarge
- Keiki Division: 1st, Dayhtan Barawis; 2nd, Gene Bushau; 3rd, Kalani Aquino
- Open Division: 1st, Eric Nienolez; 2nd, Guadalupe Nunez; 3rd, Wailen Kidder-Lyman
- Pee-Wee Division: 1st, David Vazquez; 2nd, Dylan Leinonen; 3rd, Eli Wicklander
- Akachan Division: 1st, Francisco Vazquez; 2nd, Stephen Marquard; 3rd, Azure Tatzmann
- Amateur Division: 1st, Catalina Ekesler; 2nd, Naomi Bishop; 3rd, Masayuki Honma
- Corporate Challenge: 1st, Bank of Hawaii Team 1; 2nd, Bank of Hawaii Team 2