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Here's how Hawaiian farmers are dealing with a volcanic eruption

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PUNA/KA'U, Hawaii (Circa)--Lou Daniele holds an eight ounce plastic cup in one of his hands, but it's not filled with what you think.

Removing the lid, he puts his finger in the silky, sand-like powder--encouraging me to do so as well.

Lou explains that the gray material is actually volcanic ash collected from the property here at Ka'u Coffee Mill on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"We're approximately 30 miles from the volcano summit of Kilauea. That's why we see increased SO2 levels down here and ash on just about everything."
Lou Daniele, manager at Ka'u Coffee Mill

Following the eruption of one of the world's most active in early May, trade winds have continuously forced volcanic ash and other noxious gasses in the direction of this 125-acre coffee farm. Despite the heavy rain, a gray film covers the tree leaves.

"In the long term, this ash is going to be beneficial," Lou explained. "These trees are grown in ash-based soil. That definitely has a lot to do with how our coffee tastes. So, this ash is a complete benefit to any agricultural activities that happen down here."

This coffee thrives in volcano zones
In a way, volcanic ash has become the secret ingredient to great-tasting coffee by adding unique minerals to the soil. Without its strategic proximity to the volcano, Ka'u coffee wouldn't be any different than, say, the coffee produced on the other side of the island in Kona.

"The evolution of coffee has been with volcanoes," Lou said. "It makes coffee, coffee. If we didn't have volcanoes, I don't think we would have coffee."

The coffee bean has multiple layers, or skins, that act an a protective agent against any outside, and potentially, harmful contaminants. So even if volcanic ash were to glue itself to the outside layer of the cherry fruit, it would likely be filtered out during the extensive production process.

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Fortunately, the Kilauea volcano didn't erupt during coffee's harvesting season, which, Lou admits, would have complicated the process, particularly when the bean is airing out on what's called the "drying deck." During this step, the concrete deck holds approximately 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of cherry until its flashed dried.

"As you can see over here, we have a substantial amount of ash that has accumulated here," Lou said, pointing to the ash-covered concrete floor. "Certainly, if this continues into harvest, then we're going to have to do some work in here. We're going to have to block up all of these openings to mitigate the amount of ash coming into this particular area in the processing facility."

But the human component also has to be taken into account
While certain precautions can be made to protect the final coffee product from ash, Lou says there are other factors that are completely out of his hands, like concerned employees and a loss in overall revenue from a decline in tourist visits.

"There's definitely an elevated level of anxiety at this point in time. But we just try to quell that and try to put that positive spin on things."
Lou Daniele

Since the eruption, many on the Big Island have resorted to a new normal either. Thousands remain displaced as lava continues to threaten homes in Leilani Estates and the surrounding areas. Some found refuge in American Cross shelters, while others have elected to stay with extended family or friends in other parts of the island.

"We're impacted personally at our homes," Lou said. "I've expressed to my crew that if they feel in any way physically or emotionally distressed that they have every right to go home and deal with it. Most folks have families and they have kids. So there's all those other things that come into factor besides managing the trees and the processing, and things like that."

Another key component of business operations at Ka'u Coffee Mill is tourism, which Lou explained, generate about half of the company's revenue. Tourists visit the farm to learn more about the seed-to-cup coffee process.

"Pre eruption, our numbers were 200 plus folks every single day coming up here and visiting us," he continued. "Over the weekend, the counts were in the 60s. Sunday was about 49 people."

Kilauea's ongoing eruption on the Big Island is disrupting the tourism industry
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Other local farmers make do with the situation
Stephen Yundt divides his time as a chef at Pele's Kitchen, a popular breakfast restaurant in Pahoa, and tending to his three-acre farm. Many of the ingredients on the menu at Pele's Kitchen come from Stephen's farm in Leilani Estates, which features everything from exotic fruits to Hawaiian chili peppers.

Unlike coffee, however, some of his crops aren't doing so well with the increased sulfur dioxide levels and acid rain.

"When the acid rain comes and it affects the flowers, like they don't open up all the way or the buds fall off, it's making less for the bees to harvest," Stephen said. "They're running around through this whole farm looking for flowering plants, collecting the honey, and bringing it back to their factory when they're making us honey. We might not be able to supply everybody with our own honey, which is how we've been doing it for years."

Pieces of volcanic debris that land on Stephen's property are causing harm in ways never previously seen.

"This is a typical pond here in Hawaii," he added. "It's filled with tilapia and has lotuses in it. When the tephra, which is Pele's tears, volcanic rock, come and land in the pond, they all float. The color of the water is changing. The chemical nature [of the volcanic rock] soaking in the water is causing an imbalance, and we're finding dead fish now."

And when it comes to Stephen's fan-favorite "peppa sauce" used at the restaurant, things aren't looking so hot either.

"This is a Hawaiian pepper tree," he said. "Normally it's covered with green leaves. It lost every single leaf, which is totally going to affect its photosynthesis. So it's got to hugely send out new leaves or it's going to die. All the peppers lost their leaves. It was totally affected because they're base-loving plants compared to some that it acted like a fertilizer for them."

But even though there's no end in sight to Kilauea's continuous eruption, Stephen's not all that concerned about the restaurant's future.

"This is Hawaii, there are no worries," he added. "It seems like a big crisis to us, but really it's just a constantly occurring phenomena that this section of the island has."

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Check out Circa's coverage of Kilauea's eruption:
Most people run away from lava. This man makes a living by chasing it.
This man isn't letting an active volcano stop him from building his dream home
His home was lost to Kilauea’s eruption but the Aloha Spirit is helping him rebuild

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