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How did this ornamental tree imported into Honolulu in about 1813 by Don Francisco de Paula y Marin (Kamehameha the Great’s Spanish interpreter and physician) become Kona’s economic mainstay?

First Coffee in Kona

The first coffee was planted in Kona by missionary Samuel Ruggles in 1828 or 1829. These first arabica trees were taken from cuttings planted on Oahu a few years earlier. Coffee and Kona were a perfect match – Kona with its rich volcanic soil, hardworking family farmers, and perfect climatic conditions. Taste Kona’s coffee and you’ll sense its strength, the hand-picked quality that sets it apart.

Kona: Perfect for Coffee Cultivation

The first written mention of coffee in Kona was noted in 1840. Coffee was planted in several locations around the Big Island but was best suited to the Kona district. A few coffee fields are now in production outside Kona, but the vast majority of coffee is grown right here.

Hand-Cultivated Quality

Working these tropical coffee fields has always been laborious because everything – from planting to picking – is done by hand. Native Hawaiians and Chinese laborers first worked the large coffee plantations owned by Caucasians in the mid- to late-1800s. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Japanese immigrants began their coffee legacy in these same Kona fields.

Turn-of-the-Century Shift in Coffee Production

When the world coffee market crashed in 1899, the large plantations shifted to small Japanese-owned family farms. As the plantations gave up, land was divided into small 3- to 5-acre parcels and leased to the laborers. The cost of these early leases were one-half the crop, and by 1910, only Japanese coffee farms survived. The first Filipinos arrived to work the coffee farms about 1920, picking coffee during the season and returning to the sugar fields in the spring.

Kona Coffee Legacy and Heritage

Today many Kona farmers can lay claim to being fifth generation coffee farmers. Coffee is an economic mainstay of Kona, where farmers continue the tradition and honor their heritage with every harvest.


It’s a rarely recognized fact, but one of the mainstays of the world famous Kona coffee industry is an institution that has never planted a coffee tree, never harvested a crop and never roasted a bean. And, likely, many coffee farmers hard at work in the field give little thought to the fact that the land from which they gather their harvest has a direct connection to King Kamehameha the Great, the warrior king who first united the Hawaiian Islands.

Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate Owns Most Farmland

Most of the coffee grown in North and South Kona is cultivated on land owned by Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate (KSBE). Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate leases tracts to more than 600 farmers in the Kona area who produce the majority of the region’s coffee, plus macadamia nuts, exotic flowers, avocados, vegetables and fruits. It is the Kona coffee, though, that reigns as monarch of Kona’s varied produce. Average size of the farms leased from KSBE is seven acres. In all, more than 1,200 acres of KSBE-owned land are now in Kona coffee production.

Farms Leased for Generations Through Land Trust

Some coffee farms leased from KSBE have been in the same family for four or five generations, since the Estate was created in 1884. The KSBE charitable land trust was created by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha the Great. The majority of the lands she inherited are on the Big Island of Hawaii. Pauahi’s husband, banker Charles Reed Bishop, enlarged the land trust when he purchased the West Hawaii ahupuaa of Kaahauloa and Honaunau. (An ahupuaa is the traditional Hawaiian land division, a wedge-shaped parcel stretching from a base along the seashore to a point on the mountain slopes.)

Leasehold System Supports Kamehameha Schools and Coffee Growers

In her Will Pauahi directed that her lands be used to generate income for the creation and operation of the Kamehameha Schools, and that the lands not be sold, so that the schools would be supported forever. In carrying out the terms of her Will, the trustees of the Princess’ estate were instrumental in creating the long-term agricultural leasehold system which continues to serve both the schools and Kona’s coffee growers today. Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate owns 295,000 acres of land on the island of Hawaii. Of that, nearly half has been in agricultural use for more than a century. KSBE serves 3,000 students at the main campus on Oahu, and now is in the process of building four new schools, one of which will be in West Hawaii. KSBE also operates a network of preschools throughout the islands, and supports a college scholarship program for Hawaiian students. And all of that is supported in part through the leasing of land to Kona’s coffee growers.

Just a little something to chat about over your next cup of fine Kona coffee.

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