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Fred Cowell is the General Manager of  Kauai Coffee Company in Hawaii.

First Person: Innovation brewing at Hawaii coffee farm

ILO Photo/John Isaac
Fred Cowell is the General Manager of Kauai Coffee Company in Hawaii.

First Person: Innovation brewing at Hawaii coffee farm

Economic Development

Innovation and experimentation are helping a coffee farm in the US state of Hawaii to prosper in a competitive market, an approach which has helped the company to get through the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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Fred Cowell is the General Manager of Kauai Coffee Company on the island of Kauai in the Pacific Ocean Hawaiian archipelago, which has the largest coffee farm in the United States accounting for 25 to 30 per cent of US production in any given year. He spoke to UN News about sustainability and innovation as part of an International Labour Organization photography project called “Dignity at Work: The American Experience” which is documenting the working life of people across the United States.

“Technology is certainly helping us to do a better job. At Kauai Coffee Company, the technology we are looking at includes sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Sensors will potentially give us real-time feedback on conditions on the farm, which I like to call the “internet of farm.” AI has the potential to improve data analysis using those sensors. In fact, our team won an AgTech “Hackathon” (finding technological innovations in agriculture) in 2019 for demonstrating an AI-assisted camera that could learn to recognize ripe coffee. The concept would be used on our harvesters to give the human operators direct feedback on ground speed and shaker intensity to optimize volume and ripeness as they harvest the coffee. We have not yet put this into use, but it definitely has potential. 

More intelligent farming with better sensors and data processing is applicable to nearly all farming operations anywhere in the world, especially large farms. Robotics could minimize labour costs on repetitive tasks such as mowing and weed control. We deploy a drone to survey the land and to make aerial maps which can be shared digitally. A photograph or a 360-degree video provides a different perspective and allows me to communicate more effectively with colleagues about managing the farm. 

The impact of COVID-19

We have also used the drone to make an interactive virtual reality film of the estate, which shows all parts of our operation to our visitors.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we  received more than 800 visitors a day and we, obviously, can’t let those people walk into the coffee growing areas, so the presentation with a virtual reality head-set is an excellent way to give them a literal overview of the farm and what goes on here.

Farm and maintenance operations have continued during the COVID-19 outbreak, but with social distancing. The team has done a great job and we’ve even seen a decrease in safety incidents due to the increased awareness across the team. 
We’ve lost almost all our sales to tourists within the state following the closure of our visitor center but we’ve recently reopened with a much smaller footprint. Our mainly local sales are less than 10 per cent of pre-crisis volumes, but online sales have almost doubled and we’re now trying to understand the phenomenon clearly so that we can continue the momentum. 

Sustainability, biochar and micro-herds

The visitor's centre at Kauai Coffee Company in Hawaii was forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic.
The visitor's centre at Kauai Coffee Company in Hawaii was forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic., by UN News/Daniel Dickinson

Technology goes hand in hand with sustainability which we are moving towards on the farm. We are very focused on soil nutrition. There are more microorganisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on Earth and there are a lot of tablespoons of soil here. 

Rather than injecting nutrients into the trees, which is like keeping an athlete alive on an IV, we're now recognizing that the health of the tree and the quality of that fruit depends on the health of the billions and trillions of microorganisms, what we sometimes call the micro-herd, that actually enable the plant to survive. Without the healthy vibrant microcosm of life in the soil, it's just dirt. 

Our main emphasis is on increasing the health of the soil and biochar (a charcoal-like substance that's made by burning organic material which can boost soil health and sequester carbon from the atmosphere) is one of the potential tools for that. Composting and using cover crops to improve the soil are our primary focus but inserting biochar into our composting material would be a great way to introduce it to our fields. 

I’ve been forcing myself and asking my team to do our best with the current situation but look beyond the shutdown and aftermath to those things that will make us more resilient three to five years from now. As an example, we just submitted a grant proposal to US Department of Agriculture to host an on-farm soil health demonstration centered on measurable economic impacts of composting and cover crops. 

Chocolate, coffee and culture

Now that we have an established coffee plantation, we are looking at what can grown within the coffee. We’re considering pongamia trees to produce fuel oil or bio-diesel that could be used to power tractors.   We’re looking at maybe reintroducing macadamia nut trees as windbreaks. It’s not a great commodity crop, however, we could package it here and sell directly to our visitors which would be profitable. We could even grow cacao and produce chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and chocolate covered coffee for sale.

We are focused on benefitting from technology but we also want to learn as much as we can from indigenous Hawaiian culture, which is very rich closely tied to the land. We don't harm the land in any way, contributing to erosion or degradation; we actually want to grow coffee that borrows from and honours the Hawaiian traditions and in this way create a product that is truly meaningful.

I consider myself a steward for this land. It will be here forever, but I will not. In Hawaiian culture we have a word, kuleana, which means responsibility and stewardhsip. So, it is my duty to look after this land for those who will follow me whilst recognizing the contributions of those who came before me.

Post-pandemic, we know that Hawaii and Kauai will likely have fewer visitors which will force us to seek creative ways to communicate our message of aloha (Hawaiian word for welcome), sustainability, and community to our customer base. 

Industries, innovation and the UN

  • Inclusive, sustainable and innovative industries  are the central focus of SDG 9 one of 17 goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), like Kauai Coffee Company make up 90 per cent of business worldwide and account for between 50-60 per cent of employment.
  • SMEs are the most critical for the early stages of industrialization and are typically the largest job creators.
  • SDG 9 aims to enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries and encourage innovation, including increasing the number of research and development workers.