A couple of alumni took a chance on a Hawai‘i coffee farm. Five years later, they are winning awards and giving back to the coffee community.
One night in Spring 2010, Brandon von Damitz ’04 found a real estate posting that would forever change life for him and his partner, Kelleigh Stewart ’04.
They were looking to purchase a home in Portland, and Brandon’s 3 a.m. search turned up what he described as “a glowing open sign.” The ad, inserted among postings for Portland bungalows, was for an owner-financed coffee farm in Hawai‘i.
He was sure it was a scam.
It was quite a leap but, as Brandon put it, “There were no signs telling us not to do this.”
After nearly five years of hard work and experimenting, the farm is producing award-winning coffee and helping making a positive contribution to the coffee community in Hawai‘i.
Visiting the three-acre farm in the Puna region of the Big Island is a total sensory experience. Among the usual chatter of birds and the rustle of the tropical breeze are vocal chickens and roosters, as well as the occasional bleating sheep. Kelleigh and Brandon encourage smelling, tasting and feeling the coffee beans as they make their journey from shrub to cup.
By late January, most of the coffee bushes are “pau,” or finished, for the season, but a few still bear coffee cherries. Kelleigh and Brandon offer a sample of the edible cherry peel, which is surprisingly sweet. Inside, the bean is coated with a sticky layer of mucilage, also sweet.
Brandon and Kelleigh employ a crew of harvesters who hand pick the berries from September to January. The Big Island is the only island in Hawai’i where coffee is harvested by hand. The rough volcanic terrain and small scale of farms makes it unsuitable for the machinery used to harvest coffee elsewhere.
The terrain also makes organic farming nearly impossible, as fertilizer is essential to ensure the soil can support the bushes. Brandon and Kelleigh use other natural practices, avoiding pesticide spray and keeping a team of 12 sheep who “mow” the orchard, provide some fertilizer, and guard against wild boar who like to eat the coffee bushes.
Brandon does the bulk of the outdoor work, including supervising the crew. Days begin at 5:30 a.m. and end around 7 p.m. Brandon, who grew up in the Portland suburbs, learned to farm through an apprenticeship with a small farm in Portland after he graduated from Pacific University with a degree in philosophy.
Kelleigh encouraged his interest in farming.
“Basically, I wanted him to learn how to grow plants so we could eat them,” she said. “I wanted him to go to farm college.”
“That was where I cut my teeth on farming,” Brandon said. “I loved the community aspect, and we ate really well.”
Eventually Brandon found he needed to increase his income, so he turned to serving food instead of growing it.
“At the time, the local food movement was just starting to gain traction, and I got to see the other end of the system.”
Kelleigh’s path to farming also took her through many years in food service as a cook and as a server. When she arrived at Pacific University from Salt Lake City in Fall 2000, she aspired to go into medicine. After a break spent as a chef in Alaska, Kelleigh transferred to Portland State University, partly for financial reasons.
“I transferred to PSU because I had to, but I wish I hadn’t had to,” she said.
While at PSU, Kelleigh began managing a vegan café. It was “a really big job,” she said, but it was where she learned how to run a business. After college, Kelleigh continued to work toward a career in the medical field with a position in a lab at the Red Cross. The hours were demanding, though: “I never saw the sun.”
“There is nowhere else in the developed world where a coffee harvester can make a living and support the family picking coffee.”
Eventually, she returned to a career in food as a server in multiple restaurants, learned how to hunt for mushrooms, and learned the finer details of beer and wine from a sommelier.
Now Kelleigh uses her diverse collection of skills to perform the indoor work of storing, sorting, roasting and packaging the coffee beans after Brandon and the crew have picked the cherries, removed the skin and mucilage, then dried the beans in a greenhouse.
Some of the beans still boast the sticky mucilage — these are undergoing a method called “honey process,” which removes the skin but nothing else. Brandon explains they spent some time experimenting with this process and it “cupped well.” They found a way to roast the coffee to preserve the sweet flavors and balance the acidity — an experiment that paid off in 2013 with the grand prize at the Hawai‘i State Cupping Competition.
Every step of the process is precise and finely honed, but the sorting stage proves to be a vital step in the creation of a specialty coffee. The beans are run through a grader, which sorts them by size and quality.
The grader is a critical component in the quest to improve the lives of coffee farmers. Kelleigh successfully wrote her first grant application to fund the machine.
“We were teaching farmers why it’s good to sort the coffee. It removes the defects, adds value to high grades, and makes the lower grades more affordable for price sensitive locals.”
The challenge in Hawai’i is that the very act of producing the coffee is more expensive than elsewhere.
“There is nowhere else in the developed world where a coffee harvester can make a living and support the family picking coffee,” Brandon said.
Hawaiian coffee reflects the true cost of coffee but, according to Brandon, “Quality has to reflect consumer expectations of value based on the cost.”
That is where the grant-funded grader comes into play.
“The specialty coffee industry does not revere Hawaiian coffee,” Kelleigh said. “We intended to learn as much as we could to make a specialty grade.”
They have done so under the Big Island Coffee Roasters label, but their mission is to expand that level of quality throughout the region.
They know it is a lofty goal: “We understand the economics. It’s very hard to make money. If we didn’t have other resources, it would be hard to sustain ourselves.”
Those diverse resources include processing coffee for their neighbors and building websites for others in the coffee industry.
“There are no guarantees in life. All we have is our own self-assurance and internal navigation system.”
Kelleigh and Brandon talk about the coffee industry with an intense passion. They are ferocious in their desire to help local farmers. To that end, they recently joined the Hawaiian Coffee Association board and hope to find ways to use their positions to continue helping other farmers.
With their keen focus on the business of coffee, it’s easy to see how the couple has transformed the farm from the neglected site they acquired five years ago into a productive business that shipped out 10,000 pounds of coffee last year.
Their September arrival coincided with harvest, which launched them straight into the work.
The previous owner remained nearby for the first month to show them the farm operations and make introductions. Then they dove in.
“We didn’t know anything about coffee,” they said. Brandon didn’t even regularly drink coffee. The first two years were spent learning. There was little opportunity for a social life, so they spent their days experimenting and studying.
They credit their time at Pacific with giving them some of the skills they needed to succeed.
“I don’t recollect any professor who didn’t seem genuinely invested in my well-being. They helped cultivate in me a love of learning because they demonstrated it,” Brandon said. “I was learning how to learn for a lifetime, and because of that I left college feeling like I could do anything.”
Kelleigh also gives significant credit to her Pacific years, particularly her relationships with faculty.
“It is more valuable to have a close connection with a mentor than it is to learn. You can learn anywhere. That’s the easy part. But when you have a mentor, you grow,” she said. “At Pacific, you learn how to develop your personality.”
As they look toward the future, Kelleigh and Brandon apply the same focused energy and willingness to try anything that they have used in their work revitalizing Big Island Coffee Roasters.
“There are no guarantees in life,” Brandon said. “All we have is our own self-assurance and internal navigation system.”