Ever since junior high school, Gary Strawn had known that he wanted to be a computer programmer. Specifically, he wanted to be a computer gaming programmer. His first job was lined up even before he graduated from college. Gary loved his job and advanced rapidly. For many years, he never considered doing anything else… especially not becoming a coffee farmer on the tropic slopes of the Hualalai volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“The early years were a lot of fun. I worked my way up from entry level through lead programmer, shipping many different titles in the process. It's thrilling to go to the store and see something you made on the shelves. People were envious of my job on more than one occasion. As an experienced software engineer, I was in big demand. If my bosses ever pestered me I used to tell them I'd quit and find a better job on the way home. This was in the late 90's and back then there was a severe shortage of qualified programmers.”
The grueling hours, change in the development process, and the endless deadlines in the software gaming industry began taking their toll on Gary. At the top of his field, working on titles like Lord of the Rings, Gary was as unhappy in his work as he had ever been.
Unfortunately, the last few years of his career, Gary found himself spending much more time being frustrated with the job and saying things such as, "I don't care; I get paid the same either way." He knew he had a bad attitude but he just couldn't shake it. Gary switched companies a couple times, thinking that might solve the problem, but it didn't help. Even when he was on a good project with good people, he still wasn't happy.
Gary thought about quitting but it's difficult to walk away from a good career when there aren't any solid alternatives. This all changed when he took a vacation with some friends. That was when Gary decided that he didn't want to spend any more time being miserable in a job he hated just because the paycheck was good. He quit. At the time he had no idea that Kona coffee farming was in his future. He states emphatically, “All I knew is that I didn't want to work at my job any more.”
The grueling hours, change in the development process, and the endless deadlines in the software gaming industry began taking their toll. At the top of his field, working on titles like Lord of the Rings, Gary was as unhappy in his work as he had ever been.
Gary discussed the change with his wife and family. "My wife admitted that she didn't want me to quit such a good job but she also knew that I wasn't happy there any more and an unhappy father and husband makes an unhappy family. So my new job was to figure out a way to be happy again.”
When Gary first considered coffee farming he didn't take the idea very seriously, but the idea stuck with him until he eventually found himself selling the family home in Los Angeles and moving the family to Hawaii.
Gary had actually been looking at another Kona coffee farm first. The farm was nice but Gary said it just didn't feel quite right so he wasn't ready to buy. The owner mentioned that another, similar Kona coffee farm was going to be put on the market soon for a much higher price.
The next morning Gary stopped by the new farm to check it out and immediately knew it was the perfect farm for him. On the spot a purchase agreement was negotiated with the owner. It all happened so fast that on the way back to the realtor's office to sign the paperwork, the realtor leaned over to Gary and asked "So what price did you agree on?"
There weren't many farms on the market at the time and this farm was in better shape than most. It had been neglected for some time so it needed a fair amount of work. Gary brought the existing trees back to health, planted several acres of new trees, built a new barn with his own two hands, and generally spent all day, every day working as hard as he could.
Their children were too young to understand Gary’s choice to walk away. His oldest daughter had a difficult time leaving her best friend who lived across the street. Switching to a life in a rural community was also difficult after living in the suburbs for so long. On the Kona Earth coffee farm there aren't any other neighborhood kids, only a few local restaurants and no night-life or other amenities that are abundant in the city.
The question everyone asks, and Gary never seems to have a good answer for is: why coffee?
“It just kind of happened, I guess. I had quit my computer programming job and was purposely spending a few months unemployed while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had always wanted to move out of the city and live in the country. The problem with the country is that there are very few employment opportunities. Most modern farming is done by larger farms that are owned by corporations. Kona is one of the few places where a small family farm can actually manage to make a living. It's not easy, but it is possible.”
Sarah (14) and Emily (10) have adjusted well to the coffee farming environment. When given the choice, their oldest daughter will often choose house chores over farm chores but she still spends plenty of time outdoors with her pet chickens. Their other daughter Emily is, according to Gary, a master at getting out of any chores but she enjoys driving the mower or helping him fix the tractor when he asks. It took a while, but eventually the kids learned how to entertain themselves playing on the farm. Today they have pet rabbits, a flock of chickens and previously they even had a few goats.
Emily is a student at a public charter school. Sarah is attending a distance learning school where she does all her schoolwork from home and talks to her teachers over the Internet. Although Gary is out on the farm many hours a day he still spend far more time with his family now than he did when he was working as a programmer.
The contrasts between Gary’s two careers are as vast as the ocean separating Kona from Los Angeles.
“As a computer programmer, I spent almost all day, every day, sitting behind a computer in a climate controlled office with windows that didn't even open. To counter all that time sitting behind a desk, I exercised regularly. I ran a couple miles and hit the gym almost every day. I was in pretty good shape but once I moved to the farm and started doing farm work I lost about ten pounds. Every day is different on the farm. Some days I spend the entire day workout outside in the fields, other days I'm running around town doing errands and some days I still find myself sitting behind the computer.”
Gary has found it difficult to sell his coffee in the local stores because the market isn't very large and it is already saturated with Kona coffee. Instead, he concentrates primarily on website sales. “Coffee ships well and it only costs $10 to ship an entire box so the Internet is a great way to get fresh 100% Kona coffee directly to my customers. Leveraging off my prior experience as a computer programmer, I've spent a lot of time developing my website. By custom coding everything, I've made a website that is fast efficient and secure. I also keep an extensive blog with pictures, stories and updates about Kona coffee and life on the farm.”
At the end of the day Gary has no regrets about his life change. “Even if the gaming industry really has turned into a 40 hour per week job I'm still much happier as a Kona Coffee Farmer. Sure, the pay's not as good and I have an overwhelming amount of hard manual labor that needs to be done every day and when I am done with the day's work I have a long list of paperwork and website work to do at night, but I actually get to see my wife and kids now. If I get a strong urge to go jump in the ocean in the middle of the afternoon all I have to do is clear it with the boss: me! Seeing a game I made on the shelves was thrilling, but hearing people rave about coffee I grew is even more thrilling. (Recently) I was having some of our coffee milled and the miller, who sees lots and lots of coffee, kept telling me how good our beans are. That's a much better compliment than I ever got from company management.”
Thank you Gary, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Julianne Barclay and Story of My Life