Learning to Farm on the Side of a Volcano

Read about how one MOTHER EARTH NEWS editor ended up on an organic coffee farm in Hawaii.

| February/March 2007

  • Tabitha With Farmers
    Tabitha Alterman, former apprentice, with Bob and Beryl Foerster, who grow organic coffee at Dragon's Lair Kona Coffee Farm in Hawaii.
    Photo courtesy KRISTIN FRIEDLANDER

  • Tabitha With Farmers

Someday my partner, Bernard, and I hope to have a bit of land so we can grow our own food. We’ve always thought it would be wonderful to make money at it, too, but the prospect of becoming a farmer is downright scary. Like everyone else in their mid-20s who grew up in cities, we assumed it was really, really hard work. To find out if we have what it takes, we joined up with WWOOF-USA, the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program in the United States. Apprentice farmers, or “WWOOFers,” volunteer their time — and sweat and muscles — in exchange for food, lodging and an education in organic agriculture.

It was important to us to choose an organic, labor-intensive farm so we’d get the most bang for the buck. We also wanted to have a good time, so we looked for exciting places to farm and discovered a happy coincidence. Coffee, being a value-added crop, is extremely labor-intensive to produce, and the beautiful islands of Hawaii are filled with organic coffee farms. After much research and several phone interviews, we ended up at Dragon’s Lair Kona Coffee Farm on the Big Island.

From seed to cup, coffee goes through no fewer than 10 distinct stages, all of which present opportunities for learning — and for making mistakes! We tried our hands at everything, including planting trees in a’a (chunky lava) with O’o bars (Japanese digging tools), pruning according to two different ancient traditions, harvesting (which is harder than you might think if you have to climb the side of a volcano), processing (the dirty part), roasting (the fun part) and even Web sales and distribution.

We were lucky to find work with farmers who provided amazing accommodations (think fully stocked cabin in paradise). We were also lucky to end up with hosts who respect the ancient, slow, rhythmic traditions of the Japanese who began growing coffee in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. Weed-whacking wasn’t that much fun, but raking coffee into long rows on the hoshidana (drying deck) so it could be warmed by the tropical sun was positively meditative. And snorkeling after a long hot day was even better!

One of the greatest gifts our host farmers gave us was taking us regularly to farm council meetings and extension agency workshops. We were able to see firsthand how farm policy develops and how a community of would-be competitors can actually work together to keep farming practices sane. We even got involved in the struggle to get genetic engineering out of agriculture. We think that anyone who wants to farm should definitely spend some time at board meetings.

Eventually our savings ran out, but in the end we discovered that farming is, in fact, really, really hard. But it’s also super-satisfying. And, yes, we think we’ve got what it takes. So if you want to try “WWOOFing,” here’s our advice: Choose work that’s harder than what you ever hope to do and pick a place that’s more fun than you can imagine.

3/21/2007 4:22:12 PM

Oops, that's supposed to be "shared" not "shred" and "foot in mouth" not "shoe in mouth" (who says that?). Shows what I know about language! Also, apparently when you submit comments, the left single open quoatation mark is automatically changed to an apostrophe. The printed magazine, however, can print the okina correctly in future issues (there's a clue too, when in doubt, don't use anything).

3/21/2007 4:15:02 PM

The O‘o is a distinctly and genuinely Hawaiian farm implement which played a central role in ancient agriculture here. It is not Japanese. Further, the print version of this article incorrectly displays the ‘okina (glottal stop marker in the Hawaiian language) as an apostrophe rather than a left single open quotation mark (anything else is not an ‘okina or "close enough"). While these may seem trivial points to many, they actually illustrate just one layer of the social complexity surrounding modern agriculture and life in Hawaii. While I am entirely glad those in this article that can afford to purchase land on the Kona coast have kept it in agriculture (if you count cash crops for export as food) as opposed to developing it, I would hope they would also promote an accurate depiction of both Hawaiian and Japanese cultures to their visiting laborers. When I shred this article with my co-workers (raised here and of Japanese and Hawaiian descent), I expected a laugh such as my wife and I shared when we read it. They rather took it quite seriously and shook their heads. My intent in this comment is not to make anyone look bad for honest mistakes, but rather to illustrate the point that Hawaiian culture (define that as broadly as you wish) is often inaccurately depicted whether through intent, indifference, or inadvertance. I am sure those in this article fall under the last category. So for all those non-Hawaiians out there such as myself (who has put his shoe in his mouth more than once regarding Hawaiian culture and language), while the Japanese who came to Hawaii (such as my ancestors) may have used the O‘o extensively, it is Hawaiian. Further, Japanese does not use glottal stops and thus the ‘okina is not even part of that language.

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