Pray tomorrow brings me higher. — Queen and David Bowie “Under Pressure”
As I sat down to write this story, I wanted to think of a farm analogy for a good buddy who has done some serious cultivating of land on Kauai.
Two things immediately came to mind — a Led Zeppelin song and the movie “Easy Rider.“
Ho, ho, ho, how does this type of stuff happen to get put down on the blank page? The mind is a fascinating thing, especially when it wanders. So bear with me while I make a point as — hopefully — you sit back and enjoy this tale.
Well, Led Zeppelin first. The name of the song is “The Battle or Evermore.” It’s a beautifully melodic song, really. And the command in the lyrics is unmistakably environmental, even though it’s set in sort of a gothic time period.
“Bring the balance back!!!”
And another gem of writing from the band’s 1971 song from its untitled album (that most people know by “Led Zeppelin IV”):
“The apples of the valley hold,
The seas of happiness,
The ground is rich from tender care,
Repay, do not forget, no, no.”
Yes, indeed, folks, about a year and half after the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), the hard-rock band was already Green. Little known fact, eh?
For me, the song has always been about repairing the ravages of the Earth by man. The lesson: Take from the land, but REPAY. Bring the balance back.
And the “Easy Rider” reference? It’s when the protagonists/hippies from the 1969 movie show up at a farmhouse to fix a flat tire on one of their motorcycles and the Peter Fonda-played character says to a rancher: “It’s not every man who can live off the land, you know. Do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”
And so we turn to Mr. Les Drent, who has been doing his part by tilling the soil on the Garden Island of Kauai and making a living at it.
So if there’s a chance that no one has said it to him, I will: “Les, you should be proud.”
Ahh, but the buggah promised me a “care package” of some of his top-notch products. He likely (and temporarily) forgot about that. But I did hear that the U.S. mail is having trouble with its deliveries of late.
About a month ago, when we had a fine phone conversation/interview, he even requested that I wait until I get said package so I can sample the stuff — coffee, cigars and chocolate and, hopefully, whiskey (made from corn) — to help me be in the right spirit and frame of mind when I write this.
All in good fun that I gotta give him a hard time about it now, but before you know it, Christmas will be here and Santa is probably going to bring some goodies.
Originally from New Hampshire, Drent graduated in 1986 from St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, a prep school, where he played soccer, hockey and baseball. Incidentally, his son, Jorgen, plays the same three sports now.
Hockey in the early days of the inline version of the sport on Kauai (1990s) is how I got to know him. He’s sort of a speedy, shifty kind of guy on the rink with the ability to put the puck in the net.
After his schooling, Les went to Los Angeles, interested in either advertising or journalism, but he realized after a few months that the Big City was not for him.
He moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. He waited tables and worked in an advertising studio.
And then came his big break!!! He got fired, kind of. The boss at the the Aloha Theater Cafe asked Les what it truly was that he wanted to do. When Les replied that he wanted to start a magazine, the boss replied, “I’m going to let you do just that.” In other words, goodbye. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to him.
In March 1993, Les started the “Coffee Times” publication and a mail-order coffee-roasting business.
“I was one of the first ones to do that online,” Les said during that phone call. “I quit all my jobs. I didn’t have any money, but I somehow scratched together enough. I learned a lot about the history of coffee in Kona and one thing I was doing was dressing tourists up in Salvation Army muumuus and having them hold bananas and coffee-picking baskets and would take what looked like old-time photos. Then I’d enlarge the photos with old sepia tone images. The tourists could then come and pick up (and pay for) the (souvenir) photos.
“I patched together $15,000 to buy an Apple II computer to set up the magazine on, and the old Ho Chi Press was the first to print it. The real trick was signing up the advertisers on the Big Island, so I decided to give the first month free. I was so happy when 80 percent of those who got it free signed up and paid for the next month.”
By 1998, the coffee industry was “saturated” on Hawaii island, he said, and so he was looking for new ways to grow the business.
While visiting a friend — Marc-Andre Gagnon, another hockey buddy from those golden days on Kauai — in 1998, Les Drent made a life-changing discovery. On a hike above Wailua Rise Estates, he saw coffee growing in the wild and picked some.
“That’s what set my wheels in motion,” Les said. “I processed it and pulped it and dried it and did the whole process. Put it in the coffee roaster and it turned out to be incredible, That’s where I got the idea to find some farmland and grow a little bit of coffee.”
He got some guidance from Bill and Ginger (last names not available) of the Coconut Cafe on Kauai.
Les continued to sell mail-order Kona coffee after moving to Kauai and applied with the DLNR to lease some land. He waited years with no result and eventually decided to buy a little farm and become a land developer.
“I went hard-core into debt,” he said, “having a farm and a mortgage on my home.”
That piece of property, bought in 2001, is now called Blair Estate and the company is officially named LBD Coffee, LLC.
“The first coffee harvest was the 2003-2004 period,” he said.
Things happened fast. He married his wife, Gigi, and in 2004, his daughter Jessica was born.
Then came a point in which Les didn’t know if he could sustain the farm. He thought he might have to sell. But, he said, “He muscled through.”
Then, in 2004, he started growing tobacco and launched his cigar business in 2006.
“By 2008, we were in a ton of ABC stores and we were shipping to Nicaragua for the manufacturing process,” Les added. “That put us over into the black. I was able to hire employees. The coffee mail-order business began to take off and we started selling the cigars wholesale to retailers and mail order.”
One of those employees he hired, Tai Erum, was responsible for maximizing growth, according to Les.
And then another big idea formulated. Les thought about using triticale (a blend of wheat and rye), which he used as a cover crop (for tobacco in the offseason to enrich the soil), to make whiskey.
“But the birds ate it,” he said. “We never got to where we could harvest it.”
Undeterred, Les decided to grow corn to make bourbon whiskey. And that business launched in March, right around the time COVID-19 hit hard.
“It’s doing great,” he said. “We’re selling to Safeway and are getting phone calls from Maryland, California and New Jersey from people who want to buy our whiskey. But unlike cigars and coffee, liquor is highly regulated. We need to have a distributor in every state and we’re working on it.”
Chocolate from the cacao plant as well as honey from bees are other products being produced at Blair Estate.
Fortunately, the growth of the company (and the hiring of employees) has allowed Les to travel to New Hampshire for the last five winters. There, he gets to play ice hockey outdoors with his son.
“I think a lot of my love for hockey comes from the social end of the game,” he said. “The shared memories, great road trips, snow weather, different rinks,” he said. “As a kid, I was a rink rat watching all the Dartmouth Big Green games. That was a wonderful escape for a kid. And now, I can share that same experience with my kids. Watching BU, BC and Harvard come up to play, sit there behind the glass, eating the same foods I did when I was a kid. And then … playing pond hockey. It’s amazing — the youth hockey tradition passed to the next generation.
“We went to visit Lake Placid (N.Y.) after my son won the state title in New Hampshire and went on to the regionals. He’s a second-year Pee Wee and that’s usually the most memorable time — 12-year-old hockey — in your whole life. And seeing that memory right there in the (1980 USA Hockey team gold medalists’) museum was an unforgettable experience. Jorgen is 12, and I was 12 when they won the gold. Back then, I even got to see the Russian team (that the U.S. team went on to beat in the Lake Placid Olympics semifinals in the greatest upset in hockey history) when they came to play an exhibition against Dartmouth and dismantled them.”
The good ol’ country life of New Hampshire, Lake Placid and even places like Kona and Kauai are the right kind of scenery for Mr. Drent. He’s no city slicker.
But his family did make it to the big city for Boston Bruins games occasionally back in the day. “My biggest memory of going to a Bruins game was the night they broke the penalty minutes record (391) against the (Minnesota) North Stars (in 1981),” he said. “Our dad took me and my brother home, sick from all the fighting and cigar smoking up in the rafters (of the old Boston Garden). We went back up to New Hampshire with the country folk. My mom was so upset that she wrote a letter to (general manager) Harry Sinden saying how mad she was about the Bruins and all that fighting.”
Bruins fans nowadays, if they want, can order Les’ cigars, but they can’t smoke ’em in the rafters.
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