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Pruning Coffee Trees
by “Papa” Gary
6 April 2009

Blooms

Mid-March is a great time to visit Kona Earth coffee farm!  It is near the end of the dry season, so although there are still almost daily, light rains on the farm, the ground isn't soggy and there is plenty of sunshine.  It is also after the busy coffee harvest time.  Kona Earth is higher than most of the other farms so they can still get one late picking in March, but the frenetic pace (Hawaiian style), of the main harvest is over.  We were lucky, too!  As Grandma Laqueta and I drove Mauka (up the mountain), we could see and smell thousands of coffee trees covered with white blooms.  At 2,000 feet, Kona Earth's coffee trees were just beginning to bloom, but during our 5 day visit almost all of the 4,000 trees came into glorious full bloom.  The scent is similar to jasmine, but is not as overwhelming.

The downside of a March visit to Kona Earth is that it is the beginning of pruning season.  That is not problematic to casual visitors, but Farmer Gary likes to put his old Dad to work (pay back??).  As many of you know, “Farmer” Gary is fundamentally a scientist.  He has researched and studied all aspects of pruning coffee trees to the point that he now teaches pruning seminars to many of the other Kona Coffee farmers.  Some of Kona Earth's front fields are pruned in the labor saving Beaumont-Fukunaga method, but the larger, upper fields are pruned in the traditional Kona fashion.  “Dad” got to help with the more labor intensive traditional method (Surprise, surprise).

Farmer Gary approached each tree carefully sizing up the overall size and shape, the relative strength of the newer branches and any diseased or damaged areas of the tree trunk.  Then he used his chain saw to surgically remove the old and damaged branches.  His friend Matt and “old Dad” clipped off all of the small branches below “belly button height” and removed any suckers from the upper branches.  The result is a tree less than half the size of the original.  Ideally each tree will have three or four vertical branches above the two foot high trunk.  Some of the remaining branches are two years old, others just one.

Pruning is hard, hot, and dirty labor.  We had a nice cool morning and still worked up a sweat.  It is the kind of work many Kona Coffee farmers hire out to the local immigrant work force.  But that is expensive and Farmer Gary is very picky about how it is done.  You can see why!  Many of the mature branches that are removed are chock full of green coffee cherry, potentially worth thousands of dollars.  Removing those branches and “wasting” their coffee cherries is necessary to ensure the optimum production of only the highest quality coffee!  But, removing the wrong branches or damaging the strong new branches is costly.  Although he is scientific in his approach, it appears like he has a conversation with each tree, noting its relationship to its neighbors, the sun and the jagged lava just under the thin layer of top soil.  Obviously, there is also some art to this pruning business!

After pruning I helped prepare the big red tractor with its PTO chipper for the hard labor of grinding up thousands of pruned branches, and turning them into organic mulch fertilizer for the newly pruned trees.  The process of grinding the braches and spreading the mulch will take several weeks.  Then Farmer Gary gets to start all over on the front fields.  Meanwhile, Grandma Laqueta and I get to return to our volunteer projects and our retired lifestyle in sunny Santee, CA.

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