Kona coffee picking by hand

Kona Coffee Farming: Embracing the Human Touch


Every day in the news there’s another story about artificial intelligence infiltrating virtually every industry in the world.  But Kona coffee farming is an outlier that still relies largely on the human touch.

Kona coffee is one of the most sought-after specialty coffees in the world. The unique combination of volcanic soil, ideal rainfall, and plenty of sunshine in the famed Kona coffee belt produces a bean with exceptional flavor and aroma. Besides the distinctive flavor, what sets Kona coffee apart from other coffee beans is the way it is cultivated.

Farmers and the Growing Season

Coffee trees require a lot of attention and care throughout their lifecycle. Farmers must regularly monitor their orchards. They rely on their knowledge and senses to determine optimal times for pruning & fertilizing. They watch for signs of pests & diseases. They track weather patterns and notice how seasonal fluctuations impact the growing season and harvest timing. Growing Kona coffee is not a standardized process. It varies year to year, farm to farm based on a myriad of factors including elevation, sunlight, rainfall, and soil quality. Farmers must use their experience and human instincts to guide their decision-making. The health of their trees and the success of their harvests depend upon it.

Kona coffee farmer Steve Wynn on the farm

Farmer Steve Wynn manages every aspect of coffee production at Kona Earth


Handcrafting the Process

Unlike large industrial farms, most Kona coffee farms are smaller, family-owned ventures.

During Kona coffee harvest season, ripe, red cherries are picked by hand. Though labor and cost intensive, this hand-picking process ensures that only the ripest fruit is harvested, leaving the rest on the tree for subsequent rounds of picking throughout the season. 

There is no AI automation in Kona coffee production. Granted, farmers use machinery to automate some farm management tasks, such as mowing and fertilizing. Machines such as pulpers and dryers are also used to process the coffee. The closest thing to AI in Kona coffee production is the use of optical sorters that use near-infrared (NIR) technology and cameras to determine bean size and quality. Still, a farmer is the ultimate driver in employing these tools and must continue to oversee every step in the process. A human still loads the hopper of the pulper and rakes the seeds drying on the deck. The farmer still monitors moisture content and bags the coffee up for storage. Like any artisanal product, Kona coffee is made by human hands.

hands in a bag of coffee cherry

Human hands touch every aspect of Kona coffee farming

Tending to Tradition

Kona coffee farming has a long history, dating back to the early 19th century when missionaries introduced coffee trees to the islands. Today, Kona coffee farming is still done in much the same way it was back then, with small-scale farmers manually tending to their coffee trees. The reason behind this is simple: AI cannot replace the human touch when it comes to coffee farming.

By embracing the human touch, Kona coffee farmers can produce a truly one-of-a-kind specialty coffee bean, with flavors and aromas that represent the unique terroir of the region and that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.

Furthermore, the use of AI in coffee farming goes against the essence of specialty coffee. Specialty coffee is all about highlighting the unique flavors and characteristics of the bean, which are a direct reflection of the terroir and the farming practices used. By relying on AI, farmers would be removing the very thing that makes Kona coffee special – the human touch.

Kona coffee farmers in the field

Kona coffee farmers use their senses to inform every farming decision

It All Comes Down to Common Sense(s)

While AI systems are undeniably sophisticated, they lack crucial elements essential for successful Kona coffee farming. The secret to a thriving coffee growing season lies in the senses that humans often take for granted: touch, sight, smell, and, ultimately, taste.

In contrast, AI's "senses" are described in this way by Enterprise CIO, "This concept of a portfolio of technologies working together can be illustrated further by what I refer to as the five senses of AI. They are: the abilities to communicate, monitor, (store and access) knowledge, analyze and act."

Despite their inherent flaws, humans remain indispensable when it comes to the exquisite and intricate art and science of Kona coffee farming.

Embracing the Human Touch

In a world where technology is rapidly transforming every aspect of our lives, there are still some things that are best left to the human touch. Kona coffee farming is one of them. The complex nature of coffee farming requires a level of attention to detail and expertise that only humans can provide. By embracing this tradition and continuing to farm Kona coffee the way it has been done for centuries, we can ensure that the world-renowned Hawaiian Kona coffee remains a true specialty coffee that reflects the unique characteristics of both the land - and the farmer that grows it.

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