I recently sent out a newsletter on how to grow coffee, including some notes on how I grow coffee in Florida. It was by no means a treatise and I also speculated that a dedicated gardener could grow coffee almost anywhere since it was a shade-grown plant that can tolerate indoor growing conditions.
A few days later, a reader told me he’d passed my newsletter on to a friend of his who was a Kona coffee farmer in Hawaii, and that this friend had written a blog post inspired by my article.
I read the post and saw that the farmer, a man by the name of Gary Strawn, had called me out on a few of my assumptions about coffee growing… so I decided to write him and see if he’d be game to talk about growing coffee.
I’m very glad I did.
I’ve talked to Gary a few times now and am very impressed with his practical thinking, his knowledge and his entrepreneurship. The guy is a total pro – and he knows his coffee.
Since I had an expert available and since I’ve been told many times to start a podcast, I decided to make my interview with Gary into the very first episode of The Survival Gardener Podcast.
So, without further delay, here’s how to grow coffee with Gary Strawn:
I asked Gary to provide a little background on himself for my readers and he was kind enough to write up some thoughts for me as well.
Gary Strawn’s Background
Hello, my name is Gary Strawn and I’m a Kona coffee farmer. I wasn’t always a farmer, I used to be a computer game programmer. One day I found myself staring out the window at work and watching a construction crew pouring concrete. I decided that I would rather be out there with them, all dirty, sweaty and tired, instead of sitting in my cube, staring at my computer screen. So I walked over to HR and said I quit. They said they needed it in writing so I grabbed a post-it note and wrote “I quit”.
One thing led to another and eventually I found myself on a farm in Hawaii, growing coffee for a living. Growing coffee is my only job, it’s how I keep my family fed, pay my mortgage and, hopefully, send my kids to college. As a full-time farmer, I am focused on producing a commercial level crop. Our farm has a large garden, fruit trees, chickens, etc. but our primary focus is producing coffee. That means we might do things differently than someone with only a few trees in their backyard.
Our kids have grown up on the farm but now they’re moving out of the house and starting their own lives. This has prompted our decision to sell the farm and move on to our next adventure, whatever that might be. The reason I mention this is because we have a “Farm For Sale” web page with great pictures and a brief overview of the farm. It’s a great way to learn what our farm is like, even for those with no interest in owning their own farm. Here’s the direct link:
In addition to that overview, our website has a ton of blog posts. They show our lives on the farm, from the day we started all the way to the most recent post about some Survival Gardener guy trying to grow his own coffee.
When asked about growing coffee as a hobby, my answer is “Go for it! Just don’t expect to grow enough to replace Starbucks.” Why? Because it’s not just the growing that’s difficult, it’s all the processing. Here’s an example:
That’s a “music video” I made with time-lapse footage of the drying process. It shows the drying process that happens after the beans are milled. The coffee needs to be raked constantly as it dries. This video shows one day out of many, many days of raking during the harvest season. This is also just one step of the process, it does not include any of the work involved with growing, picking, pulping, hulling, roasting packaging or selling the coffee.
The video shows about 700 pounds of coffee being dried. That sounds like a whole lot of coffee, and for an individual it would be, but it’s still considered a smaller amount. A lot of the coffee shown in the video belongs to neighboring farms. While still professional farms, many of them don’t have the proper milling equipment and facilities to process their own coffee. Instead they bring it to someone like me who processes their coffee for them then hands it back to them for a small fee.
Someone growing trees in their backyard could, in theory, do all this work without the fancy equipment. If everything went well, and the coffee trees produced a great crop, then expecting one pound of roasted coffee per tree is about right. Just don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
I looked through my old blog posts but realized there’s actually very little there about how to grow coffee. I feel like that’s all I ever talk about, I’ve just never really explained any of it in a how-to style. On the bright side, that means you can be the first!
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Finally, Gary makes high-end coffee which you can find here. I’ve bought some myself and will let you know how awesome it is once it arrives.
As for the new podcast, I’m quite happy with the way this interview turned out. I’ve shared a bit on coffee before but now I have a better grasp on how to grow coffee commercially, including how much work it takes. I’ll be recording new episodes with other experts in the future, along with some off-the-cuff conversations with gardeners and homesteaders doing cool things you’ll find interesting.
Let me know what you think of Episode 1 in the comments. I set up my SoundCloud settings so you can download or stream it for free – enjoy.