HILO — Slicing through the lush, green slopes of Mauna Loa in Ka‘u, the old cane haul road connecting Pahala and Na‘alehu resembles a pockmarked scar of blacktop — a slowly fading reminder of Hawaii’s once all-powerful sugar industry.
In its heyday, the 80-foot-wide paved thoroughfare needed to accomodate continuous traffic, with one massive, fully-loaded sugar transport truck able to pass another of equal size as they trundled along, ferrying their precious cargo. Now, on most days only the occasional farmer or rancher passes along the road’s neglected surface, avoiding the potholes as they go.
But mauka of that remnant of a failed industry, about six-and-a-half miles southwest of Pahala, sits a small, family-owned ranch and farm where another piece of Ka‘u’s agricultural past is quickly becoming the district’s agricultural future.
There, husband-and-wife team Phil and Merle Becker of Aikane Plantation are helping to establish Ka‘u coffee as a brand which could one day rival the name recognition of Kona. And they’re doing it utilizing the same variety of coffee plants that Merle’s great-grandfather, “Papa” John C. Searles, used to introduce coffee growing to Ka‘u in 1894.
“It was an experiment,” Merle Becker, 69, explained as she stood Tuesday in the family room of the small, 1930s ranch house her family moved to the property in 1958 after cutting a deal for some land with the sugar giant C. Brewer & Co.
“He wanted to see how it (the coffee) would grow here. … He planted 8 acres, about 4,000 trees. It worked well, it tasted great. But, he couldn’t get any workers to work the fields, because they were all working the sugar.”
He may have been thinking too far ahead for his time, but Searles’ experiment is now starting to pay dividends, with farmers throughout the district beginning to earn high marks for their coffees.
In 1988, the Beckers, who were neophytes at the time, planted just a few coffee trees as an exploration. Then, in 2000, while exploring their retirement options, they decided they would jump into business using the same Guatemalan Typica plants that Mere’s great-grandfather introduced to the area from Kona. Since then, what began as a hobby has become a thriving business.
“We saw our sales in the (Kilauea Military Camp) commissary go up by 38 percent last year,” Phil Becker, 70, said. Formerly a businessman who dealt with sales, Phil said he has really enjoyed learning about and jumping into the high-pressure world of coffee marketing.
“The more you get into it and learn about it, the more fun it is,” he said.
Interestingly, Phil now has an encyclopedic knowledge of the coffee growing, roasting and marketing processes, but he’s not exactly a big coffee drinker.
“I don’t like coffee,” he said matter of factly. “I just don’t like to drink it. Now, give me some coffee ice cream, you better stand back.”
Despite his personal preferences, Phil said he has learned to appreciate his own coffee’s flavor.
“We roast ours to the medium-dark side, to get our flavor,” he said. “You can taste the earthtones, the sweetness. It’s a good cup of coffee.”
“People always say ‘It’s so smooth,’” Merle added.
The couple provides tastings and tours to the public of their coffee operation, which includes 13 acres of coffee trees, and a large greenhouse where the coffee cherry is processed and the stripped beans are dried in the sun, before being sent off to a roaster and then being packaged.
Additionally, they have embraced the agricultural tourism industry by providing a multitude of other trees and plants for visitors to see — and taste — including bananas, pineapples, protea, taro, avocado, and papaya. Then, there’s Merle’s other hobby.
“I like horses, and cattle,” she said. “That’s my end of things, that’s what I’m in charge of.”
The couple keep two herds of Black Angus cattle on the property to be sold for beef, totalling about 47 head total. Each year, they deliver the 6-month-old calves when they’re ready to be sent off island. What happens to them after that, the Beckers try not to think about.
“We’d rather not know,” Merle said with a laugh.
The farm also features a paddock filled with horses, two donkeys, and the Beckers even recently welcomed a family of Guinea hens, which help keep down the insect population.
On Friday, the pair will host from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. an open house and tour as part of the annual Ka‘u Coffee Festival. Coffee & Cattle Day will include an all-you-can-eat buffet for $25 a person, with a limit of 100 visitors. For more information or to RSVP, email email@example.com or call (808) 927-2252.