Ka'u coffee farmers fight to save budding industry after fire

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Jun 30 2012 06:43:35 AM HST
Updated On: Jun 30 2012 06:45:24 AM HST

Ka'u Coffee is shaking up Hawaii's coffee industry. KITV4 traveled to the Big Island where fire burned hundreds of coffee trees.

PAHALA, Big Island -

On the Big Island, fire burned hundreds of coffee trees for farmers in need of every bean to fulfill a growing demand.

"It's just like our coffees are our children," said Lorie Obra.

She and William Tabios manage coffee farms near the Pear Tree Orchard in Ka'u where fire turned coffee trees into skeletons.

"How long do you have to wait?" asked KITV reporter Lara Yamada.

"Another three years," said Tabios.

Obra and her husband had planned to move to Hawaii to retire, but fell in love with those red berries and rich results.  So, this hurts.

"You know, it's a family. We put in so much care, and you see the devastation that happened it's disheartening," she said.

Before the fire reached the coffee farms, it blazed through the eucalyptus trees.

Cattle also used to roam through the area. Now the fences are gone, and so are the cattle.

"Farmers, ranchers, macadamia, orchards, it went across the whole spectrum of agriculture in Ka'u," said John Cross of the Ka'u Coffee Mill and Edmund C. Olson Trust.

Despite this recent hit, he said it's an area building quite a name for itself.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world's largest coffee trade association, has named brews from ten companies "Coffees of the Year."

Three are from the U.S. and all from Ka'u -- two being Tabios and Obra.

Cross' employer has invested millions in Ka'u, buying and maintaining thousands of acres of agriculture land, opening a coffee mill - the first in the area - and taking on the monumental task of rebuilding miles of old plantation irrigation from tunnels high on the Big Island to farmers short on water down below.

"Up in pear tree there is no irrigation!  Last week, they could have put those fires out or they could have controlled some of those fires, instead, the fire ran through the orchards and the windbreaks," Cross said.

The biggest problem now is time, but people we talked to in Ka'u say this setback is not nearly enough to stop them.

"The people are incredible. We all work together," said Obra. 

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