Hoping for a sweet harvest
by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i is far from attaining prominence as an origin of specialty chocolate the way Kona is known for coffee or Napa Valley is known for wine. But agriculture researchers are trying to give the fledgling local cacao industry a boost toward the lofty goal.
Researchers have identified 11 cacao trees they believe have optimal traits for chocolate production in Hawai'i, and intend to plant copies of the trees, which were replicated by grafting, at 10 to 15 test sites around the state.
The field testing planned for O'ahu, Maui, Moloka'i, Kaua'i and the Big Island is aimed at helping establish ideal trees that farmers can copy and plant in large numbers to maximize quality and volume of the fruit's seeds that are processed into chocolate.
"It's an exciting time," said H.C. "Skip" Bittenbender, a fruit specialist at the University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources who's leading the field trial work. "Once we find what we like, it won't be that hard to scale up."
A lack of quality plant stock is one of several major issues that has kept cacao farming far from fulfilling what many see as the potential to become one of Hawai'i's biggest crops, according to a recent report prepared for the Legislature by the state Department of Agriculture.
Despite Hawai'i being the only place in the United States with commercial cacao production, there are only a handful of cacao farmers with a combined 50 acres of trees, the report estimates. The largest grower, Dole Food Co., has about 13,000 trees on 20 acres in Waialua on O'ahu's North Shore.
Bittenbender estimates there are fewer than 30 farmers growing cacao in the state, and guesses there is closer to 100 acres of cacao planted.
The local field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which collects data on most crops grown in Hawai'i, doesn't track the cacao industry because it is so small.
The state Agriculture Department report, citing UH estimates, said there is potential for cacao farming to cover 315 acres to 3,000 acres.
ROOTS FROM 1850
Cacao, which is native to South America, was first planted in Hawai'i by German physician William Hillebrand in 1850, according to the state. Though long studied as a plantation crop, the big challenge has been making money from the plant, which is well suited to Hawai'i's climate but can be tricky to grow and requires expertise processing into chocolate.
Competing with low-cost producers in Africa, South America and other countries isn't possible because of Hawai'i's high land and labor costs. But chocolate from Hawai'i cacao has proven to be a gourmet product for which buyers pay premium prices. Added value also can be gained by local cacao farmers creating farm tours around the romanticized product.
Currently, local sales of dried cacao seeds — also called cocoa beans — are estimated at about $200,000 a year based on per-acre production estimates for 50 acres and a dry bean price of $2.47 a pound. Much higher sales are derived by farmers who process their seeds into chocolate for retail sale at prices at or above $40 a pound.
Bittenbender believes that seed yield could roughly double by growing high-yield trees. With higher yielding orchards covering 315 to 3,000 acres, Hawai'i cacao farming could be a $2 million to $34 million business annually.
At $34 million, cacao would have been the third-biggest crop in 2008 behind sugar cane at $44.2 million. As it was, macadamia nut was the third-biggest crop at $33.5 million followed by coffee at $29.6 million, according to the most recent National Agricultural Statistics Service data.
Bittenbender said cacao seed yield is important because cacao, like avocado, is an open-pollinated tree whereby new trees grown from seeds don't inherit exact traits of their parent.
All commercial cacao trees in Hawai'i were grown from seed, which Bittenbender said results in 80 percent of seeds for chocolate production coming from 20 percent of the trees in a typical orchard.
Initial test plantings of the selected trees are anticipated to begin at four or five sites on O'ahu in March, followed by plantings on other islands over two years. It will take four years for trees to mature and produce measurable results.
The Agriculture Department report discussed other impediments to robust industry growth, which include limited processing capacity and lack of an industry trade association.
A trade association would help share best practices and work on research, branding, quality standards, certification and other efforts. Cacao farmers in 2003 formed their own chapter within the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers association, but could benefit more if there were enough farms to support a separate trade group.
A major processing factory on O'ahu is viewed as another requirement for Isle cacao farming to flourish.
The only major processing plant in Hawai'i is The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the Big Island, which processes about 6,000 pounds of seeds a year.
Original Hawaiian Chocolate owners Bob and Pam Cooper got into the cacao business in 1997 when they bought a 6-acre cacao orchard with 1,350 trees in Keauhou. Since then, they have invested $1 million including loans and grants to establish the factory capable of processing 100,000 pounds of seeds a year.
The Agriculture Department said another factory on O'ahu would help foster industry growth. However, Dole has estimated that it would take at least 300 acres of cacao to justify construction of another factory.
There have been a couple of attempts to establish big cacao farms with a factory over the last couple of decades, but they have failed.
One effort was made by former Chicago advertising executive Jim Walsh, who obtained backing from Hershey Chocolate Co. and moved to Hawai'i in 1986 with a goal to establish the first commercial cacao farm in America.
But after years of work with varieties of cacao and initial success producing chocolate in 1994, crop losses led Walsh's Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Co. to substitute foreign-grown cocoa beans for Hawai'i-grown beans in the late 1990s.
A state Agriculture Department investigation led to the disclosure, which somewhat tarnished the image of Hawai'i chocolate. Walsh's factory plan was never realized.
In the absence of plantation-scale expansion, industry growth over the last several years has come from small farms, a few of which process their own cacao.
Bittenbender said advances over the last five years have made it economical to process cacao into chocolate on a small scale without specialized equipment, and fueled growth of Hawai'i cacao farming as a cottage industry.
Seneca Klassen, part-owner of a chain of chocolate cafes around San Francisco, earlier this month finished planting 14 acres of cacao seedlings in Waialua.
Klassen's plan when the trees mature in three to four years is to supply the cafes with chocolate and operate farm tours and retail sales under the name Kokoleka O Ka Aina.
"It's an exciting time to be involved with the crop, but there are a lot of challenges," Klassen said.
Kaua'i farmer Koa Kahili began planting cacao five years ago and harvesting his trees two years ago. Kahili's Garden Island Chocolate sells for $8 to $9 per 2-ounce bar. "They sell out faster than I can make them," he said.
Kahili said his problem has been finding land to lease for expanding his farm. He believes the availability of suitable land is a bigger obstacle to the industry than producing higher-yield plants.
To expand Garden Island Chocolate, Kahili encourages other farmers to grow cacao and will supply them seedlings. He offers to process cocoa beans from other farmers in trade for chocolate.
The Coopers on the Big Island do something similar, offering to supply cacao seedlings to anyone, with an agreement to buy the cocoa beans. The Coopers buy beans from about 15 growers.
Still, convincing people to grow cacao, expecially those without farm experience, is tough. "The idea of growing chocolate is romantic, but it's farming," said Pam Cooper. "Farming isn't easy."