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Mulch on a Kona coffee farm
6 August 2009


Gardeners love mulch.  Kona coffee farmers do too.  A good layer of mulch can help keep in moisture, keep out the weeds, prevent erosion and create a healthy biomass.  When it decomposes, the mulch composts into a nutrient rich top soil.  As a Kona coffee farmer, I use lots and lots of mulch.

The local dump, like many cities, has huge piles of mulch that are free for the taking.  Here in Hawaii things grow so fast, creating so much yard waste, that Kona has a hard time getting rid of all the mulch that is generated.  The mulch piles at the dump can get so large and so hot that they catch on fire.  To prevent this, the city once offered free trucking to anybody that would take the mulch.

Shovel With the city offering to pay for trucking, I was eager to take all the mulch they'd give me.  Unfortunately, so was every other farmer so the offer only lasted a millisecond or two.  I wasn't the first in line so I didn't get any free mulch.

I have a trailer and I've hauled in my own mulch before but even a trailer full of mulch doesn't go very far.  For the farm, I'd need several dump truck loads which can cost a couple hundred dollars just for hauling.  Instead, I make most of our mulch right here on the farm.

The main sources of mulch on the farm comes from the coffee trees themselves.  Processing the coffee generates a lot of pulp which I spread right back on the farmPruning the coffee trees every year also generates a lot of mulch.  That would be a huge loss of nutrients if I burned or removed the pruned coffee branches from the farm.  Chipping the branches into mulch is a lot of work but it helps put the nutrients back into the ground which means less fertilizer is needed.  That saves me money and is easier on the planet, win/win.

Pile I also get a lot of mulch when removing the old macadamia nut trees.  A macadamia nut tree generates a surprising amount of mulch and removing an entire orchard makes several giant piles.  It's great mulch except for one problem:  the pigs love it.  That means I can't put it anywhere near young coffee trees or else the pigs will dig up the trees while rooting through the stinky, moldy, rotting, bug ridden mulch that the pigs find so delicious.

The mulch doesn't go to waste though, there are always places on the farm that need some extra mulch.  I have a couple steep sections and applying a little extra mulch helps prevent erosion during our torrential tropical downpours.  This is good because not only do I want to keep the top soil on my farm, I also don't want to flood out the neighbors below me.  Good mulching helps the rain soak in rather than run off.

The island is a giant volcano so our ground is amazingly rocky and porous.  I am constantly dealing with cave-ins and sink holes but top soil is far too precious to use for things like filling holes.  Instead, I'll fill the hole with a bunch of rocks.  The mower doesn't like rocks so I'll cover them with a layer of mulch.  Within a few months the mulch is covered with a thick layer of weeds and grass and their roots hold everything in place.  Sometimes the hole will cave in again but usually, if I filled it correctly, it's as if it was never there.

Chipping branches and moving the mulch around is a lot of work.  I generally hire help for the bigger jobs which means it's not free.  Still, the gains in nutrient management, erosion prevention and just having a nicer farm are well worth the effort.


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