Kona coffee farmer balances busy dual life

  • Kim’s Left Coast coffee is bagged in Hawaiian fabric bags that Kim makes at home. (Kim Johnson via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Retrievers Mai Tai and Jeanie along with Spaniel Bindi love to hang out at Kim’s coffee mill while she works. (Kim Johnson via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Kim’s Left Coast Coffee cherries await pulping at the end of a long day of picking. (Kim Johnson via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Picking coffee is definitely one of Kim’s favorite activities on the farm. (Barry Williamson via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Kim Johnson always wanted to own a small farm, even though she knew it might have to be a part-time venture.

Twenty-five years ago, when her husband, Lewis, was going to a conference on Oahu, she accompanied him and afterward they came to the Big Island for a few days of scuba diving. Driving around South Kona, Kim fell in love with the greenery and the mild weather. She also realized she might be able to buy a lease for a 3-acre coffee farm without breaking the bank.

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That was 1996. She bought the farm on Rabbit Hill Road the following year and she’s still juggling her Los Angeles life and her life in Kona rather successfully.

Kim’s maternal grandmother had a small farm in central Texas that Kim loved to visit. She spent many youthful summers learning about farm life there. She continued to keep that fond memory alive.

Though animal husbandry was not part of her early farming experiences, training and showing dogs became a teenage passion of hers. She has continued raising golden retrievers and cavalier King Charles spaniels into her adult life. Along with her mother-in-law, she has owned and shown some of the top winning golden retrievers in the country. Today, her canine progeny live throughout Hawaii and the world.

The breeding, raising, training, showing and selling of dogs is still a big part of Kim’s life and she has figured out how to do that here in Kona as well as in Los Angeles. Her farm always has a few show dogs in residence and often has a litter of puppies bouncing around.

Most of Kim’s time in Kona is dedicated to being a coffee farmer, however. She manages around 1,800 mature coffee trees on her three acres and does a lot of the work herself. Pruning, fertilizing and pest control are done throughout the year while picking and processing are concentrated in the late summer and fall months. All are part of the life of a Kona coffee farmer.

”Believe it or not, I love picking coffee. Being outside with the trees and the birds with a fantastic ocean view, is my idea of a good day,” she said.

This year, the season started early and Kim has already picked nearly 1,500 pounds of coffee cherry. Of course, that is only the beginning of the effort to produce high quality coffee.

After picking, she’ll process her coffee in the old mill that was on the farm when she bought it. Her pulper is an antique Marcus Mason &Company “Oaxaca” brand that was made in New York over 100 years ago.

Luckily Kim’s 86-year-old dad, Gene, is an experienced mechanic and has come to her rescue many times repairing old equipment and vehicles on the farm. He has upgraded the pulper significantly over the years so its operation is now much quieter and smoother thanks to his efforts.

“My dad is known as ‘MacGyver’ ‘cause he can fix or build anything with a piece of string and a stick,” Kim said.

He and her brother, Eugene, come from California several times a year to help out on the farm in various ways. Her husband, Lewis, is also a frequent visitor. Kim’s original plan was to go back and forth several times a year between her farming life in Kona and her dog-raising life at her home in Venice, California. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited her ability to travel, however, requiring that she manage all parts of her busy life from Kona. She and her dad have now been here for months and most helpful visitors other than Lewis have opted not to come and hunker down for a two-week quarantine.

Once Kim has pulped her coffee, she lets it sit in a 24-hour water soak that ferments the gel around the beans and sends damaged beans floating to the top. Next, she spreads the beans out on her drying rack for expose to the limited sun that hits her “holler.”

Since the beginning of May, Kim reports she’s seen only two days with no rain on her farm. This makes navigating the steep slopes very challenging and drying the coffee on the deck to the required 12% nearly impossible. To finish drying her beans, she now relies on a drying box outfitted with an air blower and dehumidifier. This is thanks to the ingenuity of her dad and her resourceful neighbor, Barry.

Although Kim sends her beans to Greenwell Farms to roast, she does the packaging herself. All of the coffee she sells is grown on her Left Coast Farm and carries the Long Mountain Kona or Left Coast Farm label on sealed foil bags. The Left Coast Farm coffee is additionally packaged in gift bags she makes from Hawaiian print fabric. She even adds her home-grown vanilla beans to her “Estate Coffee” by request.

Her lengthy and careful process has resulted in multiple prize-winning coffees for Kim. Once this year’s harvest is in and packaged, you can find more information about her and her coffee at www.leftcoastfarm.com.

When I asked how her farm came to be called Left Coast Farm, Kim was quick to point out that she grew up in California on the original left coast and felt like she was extending her left coast ties to Hawaii. That and the surfer dude on her logo make the name an understandable choice.

Though she is now retired from nursing, when she first bought the farm she was traveling to Los Angeles frequently to put in time at her research and infection control job. Now she has limited herself to dog raising and farming. These are each a full-time job, but Kim has the energy to continue keeping both afloat, even as she experiences the limits we all discover as we age.

She now hires some pickers and occasionally gets help pruning, but she carries on her “one woman show” with panache. She also keeps adding plants that interest her to her farm. About 15 years ago, she started growing vanilla orchids and now can add natural vanilla flavor to her coffee and sell some whole vanilla beans.

For personal use, she has several citrus trees, a rambutan, jaboticaba, mango, and a few papayas and bananas, lilikoi vines grow in her large avocado tree and she has vegetables growing near her house.

This is a busy farm gal!

Kim says finding reliable help is one of her biggest challenges. She reports the standards are a bit low here when folks describe a good worker as one who shows up. Despite 24 years of hiring experience, she says she does try to hold higher expectations than that.

Coffee farming today is rife with troublesome issues including new pests like the coffee berry borer and the little fire ant, as well as older pests like feral pigs. Kim has experienced all of these and more. She points out that farmers are also at the mercy of the weather and environmental disasters. Droughts, floods, choking vog, as well as the usual nematodes and twig borers have plagued her farm and she’s still at it.

Regarding advice for new coffee farmers, she strongly recommends getting connected to local agricultural organizations like the UH-CTAHR Cooperative Extension Service in Kainaliu, and becoming involved with the local Kona Coffee Farmers Association. She also made it clear that physical strength is essential for farmers since coffee is generally transported in 100-pound bags. She additionally hinted that having another job or alternate income stream could be very helpful.

“To make a small fortune farming, you need to start with a large fortune,” she said.

Not the most cheerful news, but for someone who loves the work and the lifestyle, part-time coffee farming has provided an excellent balance to Kim’s busy life.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.

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Gardening Events

Every Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Come with a mask and be prepared to practice social distancing. Volunteers can help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets – check websites for new hours and online markets

Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” at Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market,” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center. More info: www.keauhoufarmersmarket.com/onlinemarket

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market,” 7:30 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market,” 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Waimea middle and elementary school playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

“Hamakua Harvest,” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa

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