A Family Brew – Celebrating Mother-Daughter Coffee Farmers on International Women’s Day

  |   Feature
A group of farmers stand and pose for a photo.
Lorie (far right in a dark-colored shirt) stands out as the only woman among a group of male farmers. “It validates the fact that I made it in agriculture.” – Lorie Obra.

When people think of farmers or ranchers in rural America, what image comes to mind? It probably isn’t a mother-daughter duo in Hawaii. Lorie and Joan Obra exhibit the essence of women in agriculture. Together, they are continuing the dream of Rusty Obra, the late founder of Rusty’s Hawaiian — a specialty coffee farm, mill, and roastery in the Ka'u District of Hawaii Island.

Their uniqueness in the world of American agriculture and exports is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service is happy to celebrate Lorie and Joan on this year’s International Women’s Day. Celebrated on March 8th, International Women’s Day is dedicated to celebrating women’s global achievements, impacts, and contributions. 

Women in agriculture is a mainstay as old as agriculture itself. “I’m proud to be a female farmer around men,” responds Lorie when Joan asks her mom about an old photo. “Mom, whenever people ask you what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture, you show them this photograph of you from 2010 — the only woman among men,” said Joan. And Lorie responds, “Well, it validates the fact that I made it in agriculture, and I get emotional.” 

Almost every day, 71-year-old Lorie has her hands in the dirt, is picking coffee cherries, or is experimenting with different fermentations. And her hard work is paying off. Lorie is the recipient of several world-wide awards with the Rusty’s Hawaiian brand. 

The success of Rusty’s Hawaiian has prompted more demand than the Obras’ farm can supply. As a result, the family partially owns a second coffee company, Isla Custom Coffees, that sells and exports unroasted Hawaiian coffee grown by other farmers.

Isla Custom Coffees is an overseas market success with thanks to FAS’s Market Access Program (MAP). Through MAP, FAS partners with U.S. agricultural trade associations, cooperatives, state regional trade groups, and small businesses to share the costs of overseas marketing and promotional activities that help build commercial export markets for U.S. agricultural products and commodities.

The Obras are dedicated to helping fellow farmers in several ways, including researching best ground-cover crops to support climate-smart agricultural practices. Their findings are linked to USDA research, as a part of the Specialty Crop Commodity Bloc Grant. Additionally, FAS is working to open foreign markets for specialty crop exporters via the Assisting Specialty Crop Exports (ASCE) initiative. 

Women play an essential role in agriculture. Recent agricultural studies have shown that areas with a greater number of female farmers tend to have a better community well-being. Some of the local benefits of more women in agriculture include reduced rural poverty, increased average life expectancy, and new businesses, according to analysis of data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service

Lorie and Joan prove that female agriculturalists improve communities. They work with several folks who had to pivot from working in sugar mills to farming coffee. To hear about their story in their own voices, check out the USDA Radio segment