Steelgrass Ranch, Kauai
 
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Kauai Chocolate Cooperative

Kauai Cacao: A Crop Whose Time Has Come

   

Kauai s climate makes it ideal for growing theobroma cacao, the cacao tree, whose fruit produces the beans from which chocolate is made. Existing mature plantings in different parts of our island, as well as on all the major Hawaiian Islands , are productive and disease-free. Many of these are decades old, so we have substantial evidence the plant is viable.

     

Cacao seems an especially good fit for Kauai, as we seek an economically workable means to hold on to our agricultural land. Small-scale production of cacao makes sense from both economic and sustainability viewpoints. With its minimal infrastructure requirements and low environmental impact, cacao cultivation is well suited to our rural agricultural environment. It is not capital-intensive, nor does it require large acreage. Profitable development of cacao agriculture on Kauai can be pursued without large-scale clearing and land preparation, use of heavy machinery for planting, maintenance or harvest, or significant demands for water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Once a sufficient quantity of trees are established, a processing facility can be created with the potential to develop into a self-sustaining and job-creating industry, as has been amply demonstrated on the Big Island by Bob and Pam Cooper s  Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.

     

Cacao is an excellent candidate for small-area plantings. As it is typically pruned in cultivation, the tree is relatively small, with a height of 20 , and useful numbers can be grown in remarkably small areas. When planted on 7 centers, for example, a quarter-acre of land can support two hundred trees, and there are densities of proven viability as high as 1,500 trees on a single acre. Further, cacao is an understory species that prefers the shade of larger trees, so it can be planted amid existing landscaping, thereby diversifying the botanical population already present on many properties, while avoiding problems associated with monocrop concentration. Indeed, such a polycultural or forest garden approach is the preferred cultivation method for cacao. Multiple small plantings of different cultivars from genetically varied stock offer the best resistance to the tree s two major risks: systemic fungal or viral disease, and wind damage from hurricanes.

     

Cacao horticulture is low in labor input. The trees thrive with adequate water and

nutrients, and benefit from minor pruning during the first three years of growth. Once

established, they require little more than periodic feeding, along with regular irrigation.

The principal cacao pest, a leaf-eating beetle, is a favorite food of feral chickens, and

where these are present, insect damage has been held to a minimum. Harvest involves

snipping off the mature seedpods, which sprout directly from the trunk and limbs, and

are accessible without specialized equipment.

     

Mature trees produce fruit year-round, with an annual per-tree output in the neighborhood of forty pods. It takes about a dozen pods to produce one pound of fermented, dried cacao beans, the commodity that marks the end stage of the growing process. This means that as a conservative estimate, a home orchard with as few as fifty trees can yield one hundred fifty pounds of dried beans in a year, enough to produce an equivalent weight of either raw cacao nibs or finished chocolate candy.

     

Unbranded cacao nibs, imported from Africa, South and Central America, currently sell at retail for $15 and up per pound. If properly managed, Kauai cacao can benefit from the marketing attributes of  organic and  grown and processed on Kauai , and be positioned at a premium level, justifying a higher retail price. Even at the lower price for nibs of $15 per pound, one home orchard s fifty trees could generate gross revenue in excess of $2,000, with little investment of capital or labor beyond initial planting costs. Although the trees typically do not bear fruit until the third year, once mature they are productive for fifty years.  

 

As is the case with wine grape vineyards on the U.S. Mainland, Australia , Europe and South America, small plantings, tended by part-time owner-growers and their families, can be used to supply a Kauai cooperative processor, where their crop is transformed into a high-quality value-added product that sells at the upper end of the market. Hence growing a cacao industry on Kauai begins with two key steps: developing a network of small-scale producers into an agricultural Cooperative, and establishing a chocolate processing facility. Such a facility is modeled not on the massive scale of industries such as sugar, pineapple or papaya, but rather on the artisanal, hand-made-by-people-who-care basis that has proven its marketability worldwide with other high-end agricultural products such as wine, cheese, specialty produce, or single-malt scotch.

     

The Kauai Cacao Cooperative

 

The Agricultural Coop is a well-established management model in wide use for crops grown by multiple smallholders, and as such is a model our fledgling industry may wish to adopt as we grow and develop. Under this model, individual growers become Coop shareholders, and the Coop itself takes responsibility for harvesting and processing the mature fruit. Members are paid for their crop in cash, shares, or value-added product.

     

In brief outline, the Coop s operating procedure begins with member-growers delivering their freshly picked fruit to the Coop processing facility. Because fermentation is such a critical step in the production of high-quality cacao, it is essential that it be done by the Coop, using personnel trained in the art of fermenting, drying and grading each batch of beans. Once these steps are complete, the beans have reached the end of the agricultural stage of their journey. Now, as a commodity  dried Kauai Cacao  the Coop places them in climate-controlled storage, where they can be kept for an indefinite period of time.

     

Kauai-grown beans are then processed, depending on their grade, into value-added products such as raw organic cacao nibs, dark or milk chocolate. In the unlikely event of a bean surplus, there is an active market among high-end mainland chocolate processors eager to purchase our beans so they can add a  Hawaii-grown product to their own line.

     

To the Coop also falls the responsibility for establishing and maintaining a processing facility, and creating the overall marketing for Kauai chocolate. Given the high level of interest expressed by both State and County governments in aiding agriculture, it may well be possible to secure their financial support in this venture.

     

From an entrepreneurial perspective, the ideal marketing scenario for the Coop is to have a high-visibility retail property location that incorporates on one site all the elements that appeal to customers: a chocolate tree orchard, even a small one; the chocolate processing factory itself; a Kauai cacao and related agricultural products gift shop; and an upscale restaurant, working title Café Xocolatl, that wins awards for its innovative uses of chocolate as a cooking ingredient. (With the exception of the orchard, this is what Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory does in Berkeley .)

     

The inclusion of a restaurant would involve a significantly higher capital investment, with associated risk. At the same time, the need for interesting places to eat on our island is a familiar refrain. Café Xocolatl could take advantage of the guaranteed visitor traffic resulting from chocolate factory tours, and could emphasize savory chocolate recipes, such as the traditional Mexican mole sauce, which use chocolate not as candy, but as a principal seasoning.

     

The Big Island chocolate operation derives a significant percentage of its annual revenue from agritourism, as visitors pay for the opportunity to see and learn about chocolate making. They will do the same on Kauai . Having the tour end in the gift shop ensures a steady stream of customers for our cacao products, both nibs and finished chocolate. In addition, other Kauai-made agricultural products could be introduced, in a refreshing change to the imported fare tourists are currently presented with.

     

If you are interested in being part of the Kauai Cacao Cooperative, or would like more information, please contact the Steelgrass Farm Manager at (808)821-1857, or email info@steelgrass.org.

 

 


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