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Big Island Small Farm, Slow Kona

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

The sacred virtue of Ulu Kona coffee and life on the small farm

Man and small boy haul coffee in sacs and wheel barrel
Photographer Ashton Miyako's son, London, with Phil Hodson. 2020

"Eating is an agricultural act because if you don't use it, we're going to lose it." Referenced long time Chicago executive chef and slow food delegate, John Bubala. We spoke about Wendell Berry and his famous quote from The pleasures of eating. We agreed that finding admiration for nuance in agricultural delicacies is something that takes one outside of their comfort zone.

"Passing it on and paying it forward. That's what slow food is." He continues during our Monday afternoon call. One that effortlessly lasts an hour, exploring everything from Kona coffee to the modern renaissance or "the paradigm shift," as he calls it. Expressing that staying home and slowing down has opened new eyes. Allowing people to become more aware and open-minded. It's a response that reveals a community's natural desire to come together and protect an agricultural heritage.

"If you know your farmer, you know that's how he makes a living," John explains.

"And that's no different than what is happening on the volcano."

Responsible, Clean, and Fair

There's an irrefutable presence that blankets the air on Hawaii's Big Island. It's like a mellow vibration you can feel in your bones. It stems from the Island's invaluable ecosystems and, assuredly, the guardian spirits that once preserved it. The presence in the air is rich, inspirational, and absolute. Creating a force boundless to reverberate. It's with this vibrant energy, Ulu came to cultivate their first Kona coffee seedlings.

The Slow Food philosophy is, at its core, the true value of Ulu and every ounce of life that encounters the farm otherwise. It's doing a job for the neighbor. If only in exchange for a bucket of honey. It's working with their hands to better feel the tenacity and true grit of mother nature. And doing so with the same care and respect they bestow upon their own. Their own children and neighbors, their employees, and their children. They're all Ohana. It's paying fair wages for honest, deliberate, and laborious work. Doing what you can to support the families that help take care of your family. It's deep-rooted regard for culture, community, the Island's ecological biodiversity, and the power that mother nature holds in the bounty of her nourishments. In its most simple description, it's a profound respect for life itself. And in the words of Ulu founder Phil Hodson, "It's just what we do."

farmer picking coffee cherries in Kona Hawaii
Local farmer picks summer harvest at Ulu coffee farm. 2020

The small farm dates back to 1980 with the Hodson family, when Phil's mother, Carol, purchased the land in Holualoa, Hawaii. The volcanic soils nestle in elevation along the pacific's western-facing edge. Morning sun and the right amount of rain gift this small estate sustenance in profusion. Presenting an organic cornucopia of verdurous groves that swell with citrus and cinnamon trees. Early sunrises are bright with cerulean, and the essence of gardenia seems to follow you through the orchards as it pours from branches, avocado, kukui, and macadamia.

But it would be some time before Phil knew to plant coffee.

"I was always looking to grow something." He said as if it had been a journey. "I didn't know what it was."

It was easily eight years ago that Phil recalls walking the property with his son Jack. Under the tucker of cloud cover, they witnessed cherries growing from the volcanic rock wall.

"That's when we started picking them." He explained.

"At the time, we picked them and pulped them by hand. We didn't hull them cause we just didn't know and then just at home, roasted them in the oven." Phil admits.

Kona typica, the coffee cherries discovered, are the rare and protected varietal of coffee that only grows here, in the meager stretch along the Kona coast of Hawaii's Hualalai volcano. The finding of these heirloom Arabica trees was an experience that would ignite the original sourcing and planting of Ulu. It would be a couple of years and a few neighborly lessons from Mrs. Komo down the street at the K. Komo store and others about processing before it became time to cultivate.

Kona typica at Ulu coffee farm in Holualoa Hawaii
Majestic Hualalai volcano behind a Kona typica coffee tree at Ulu coffee farm. 2020

When we discussed the initial planting of the trees, it was hard not to imagine. To see and smell the earth that had gone untouched for so many years, Phil was distinct as he reminisced.

"One of the things to remember is that over 300 hundred years ago, at some point in time, there was a volcano flow here. It covered up the dirt." He said with conviction.

"When we planted, we had to get through the lava rock to reach the soil. It had not seen the sun or the light of day for 300 years. And what has stuck in my head all this time--is this one moment with Jordan, when he said to me, Phil, 'smell this dirt.'"

Ulu's planting was an undertaking that would only be done under a sacred value, to take care of the land. And there was one local farmer that Phil and Co-founder Jordan Warners inherently knew to call on first.

"Really, everything goes back to Wayne," Jordan says over the phone. He paused. But you could hear his smile through the line as he continued. "Without Wayne, Ulu would just not exist."

For twenty-five years, Wayne has known the Hodson family. Offering an active hand in overall management on the small farm since 1995. Jordan describes him as having an "intuition with plants." Noting that his life's experience on the Island has created something of a "sixth sense" for the trees. Wayne shares with fixed intent the established practices of coffee farming that have long been a part of Kona's rich history. And when asked if he remembered his first memory of coffee, he didn't hesitate to respond, "With my dad after school, in elementary."

"We would pick." He clarified.

When Wayne shares information, he does it in a way one might say talkin' story. It's second nature, comfortable and casual conversation. It's because of people like Wayne and Mrs. Komo down the street, and their family histories that have allowed agricultural identities, like Kona typica, to persevere. It's a way of life that Phil and Jordan continue to honor with Ulu. Being good stewards to the land to pass on nourishment and the history and preservation behind it to our future generations.

And while John Bubala's son plans for an independent coffee study on the farm, Phil explains that his time with his son and the kids is about more than just cultivation. It's about teaching the value of what is right. Respecting everything from the peuo out back to the land it protects. It's sharing knowledge of the land's history and culture, living in balance and righteousness with all things, then sharing it with the world around you. It's an integral part of slow food, or as John Bubala would phrase it, "It's bridging the gap."

hand holding red coffee cherry that is split in two with a green coffee bean
Kona coffee cherry, halved, and green coffee bean. 2020

Ulu coffee is directly sourced from Holualoa-Kona, HI, and roasted fresh in small-batch in Chicago, IL. To learn more about Wayne and other Kona coffee stories on the Big Island, be sure to follow us on Instagram at @ulukonacoffee

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