Lorie Obra’s tale of dogged determination is almost lore in the Hawaii coffee community.
Aside from harvesting and pruning duties on her 12-acre Kau estate farm, she’s a one-woman operation. That means she processes, roasts and markets her Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee by herself. It’s a job that takes countless hours each day.
"Oh, my God, it’s unbelievable," she exclaims. "During the busy season, I start at 5:30 a.m. Sometimes I finish at 11 at night, sometimes later."
Obra’s hard work earned her an international honor last month: the 2010 Outstanding Producer Award for exceptional achievement in coffee farming, from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
Last year, Rusty’s Hawaiian received an "extraordinary" 95-point score from Coffee Review, a respected coffee publication.
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SCAE board member Colin Smith called Obra’s achievements "exemplary and an inspiration to the specialty coffee industry."
It’s inspiration that moves Obra herself.
She’s seeing through the dreams of her late husband, Rusty Obra, who died Aug. 1, 2006.
The Obras retired early in 1998 and visited the Big Island to decide on a small business to launch there. They were thinking bed-and-breakfast or a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise.
Then they visited a friend’s coffee farm.
"The cherries were so ripe and red. We just looked at each other without words — we just knew," Obra recalls. "We fell in love with what we saw."
All through 1999, Rusty cleared and prepared the land, and by November he had planted 7,000 keiki trees. In 2000 the couple moved to Kau, and by 2003 they had bought all the machinery needed to set up a small operation that would allow them to see production through from start to finish.
The Obras also formed the Ka’u Coffee Growers Cooperative.
"It was Rusty’s dream to make Kau coffee one of the elite coffees of the world," she says.
Since Rusty’s death, Obra has been driven to see his dream through. She’s relentless in improving their coffee, and in recent years she’s asked mainland expert Miguel Meza help her improve her product, continually sending him samples to assess.
Meza moved to Kona in 2008 and has since then been hired as a consultant for the entire co-op.
"I have to give credit where credit is due," Obra says. "He’s been instrumental to where I am now."
Today, Obra sells her coffee to Whole Foods Market, chef Alan Wong, at a Kau farmers market and online.
She won’t sell to supermarkets for fear the coffee will sit on shelves too long.
"The most important thing to me is the freshness," she says. "I want to keep it gourmet."
Obra says her coffee has long been known "all over Hawaii and beyond." But it’s official recognition she seeks.
"The biggest one came recently, and now I can say we’re international," she says. "Now I feel I have partly achieved my husband’s dream, but I’m just beginning. I don’t want his legacy to be forgotten."