Diversified Agriculture

“Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world.”

That’s the first sentence of a wonderful book I’ve been reading called Weeds by Richard Mabey. In the early establishment of a cocoa orchard, before the trees mature enough to interleave their canopies and shade out competitors, there is a simply tremendous amount of weeding to be done. Although it’s trailing off a bit in the more mature area of the farm, I have spent a shocking amount of time pulling out grasses and other weeds over the past couple of years, all the while cursing their very existence, and probably wishing that they would simply disappear.

Still–every single one of those plants is actually delivering infomation. Information about soil health, water flow patterns, wind, sun exposure, you name it. And if I can take a step back from hating them so much, the observation of these plants in the wrong place (to paraphrase Emerson’s definition of a weed) can deliver a wealth of data about the farm that are otherwise mostly less than obvious.

So, chalk another one up for nature. She has a way of educating, even if we sometimes don’t want to listen.

Having relocated myself and my family several thousand miles to the middle of the Pacific to grow cacao, all just to make a truly local chocolate, I sometimes have to ask myself: why? Turns out there are a few issues that drive me, so just a quick end-of-year summary here, if only to remind myself:

1) Transparency
The chocolate industry is famously opaque, and that’s just the way the big boys want it. If you check under the hood of any major chocolate manufacturer, the sad fact is that you’re going to find a large amount of pretty ugly information in there, ranging from the relatively moderate (trade imbalances, tariff issues, commodity power plays) to the truly hideous (forced labor, exploitative pricing, insecticide exposures). Even some small craft manufacturers can get a little tetchy when you dig into their supply chain. Our efforts here in Hawaii are aimed at creating in miniature an alternate model–a genuinely 100% transparent process, where visitors and customers examine the inner workings for themselves, without relying on third parties.

2) Environment
The bulk of commodity cocoa relies on freebies from nature to stay cheap. Naturally, these freebies aren’t actually free, but come at a significant long-term cost, usually in the form of deforestation. We’re repurposing heavily abused ex-sugar land, and attempting to bring it into a new and genuinely viable balance. One way we’re working on this approach is through agriforestry–planting Mahogany and Koa as our windrows. Both of these attractive hardwoods deliver excellent carbon sequestration and the Koa has the added benefit of fixing nitrogen, helping to build long-term soil health and nutrition for our cacao.

3) Lifestyle
This is probably true just about anywhere, but especially here in Hawaii rural families have mostly come to consider farming something you do when you have no other options. You may be stuck with it, but you raise the next generation to get the hell out. It’s very important to me personally that we begin to reverse that notion, and so my own decision to become a farmer is strongly driven by my desire to raise my daughter with the thought that working with the land is a noble endeavor. It may be hard and very risky work, but I hope that she’ll always look on farming (in whatever form) as a legitimate and valued choice.

4) Quality
I’m obsessive enough to want control over processes that as a chocolate maker you rarely really have. Verticalizing this particular food is extraordinarily challenging, given the breadth of knowledge required just to get results up to a minimum standard, but there is no substitute for enjoying a truly local and delicious chocolate that you know you grew, fermented, dried, roasted, ground, conched, tempered and molded yourself. We’re finally reaching that point now, and I can’t wait to share the results with you all soon!

Hau’oli Makahiki Hou, everyone, and all the best for 2012!

A mainland friend recently sent me a link intriguingly titled “Terraforming Maui–The Hawaiian Sugar Industry’s Technological Revolution”. It’s well worth a read, and brought to mind a whole host of issues surrounding our current project to effectively terraform our small site for the benefit and comfort of a new guest: cacao.

At first glance, it might sound like an extraordinary use of the term, but since the arrival of human beings some 1,200-1,700 years ago, the ecosystem of the Hawaiian islands has been so radically altered and manipulated that I don’t actually think it’s much of a stretch.

When we began farming on Opaeula ridge, the site had been fallow from sugar farming for 15 years, and had been colonized by two invasive exotics: Haole Koa (Leucaena leucocephala) and Guinea Grass (Urochloa maxima). Although this pair represent two of our most persistent and omnipresent pest species, the area had settled into a routine of sorts, achieving a new balance after a century of intensive monocrop farming.

So, along we come, with a new use in mind for the site and another major disruption. The first things we did were to clear, rip and disc the entire orchard site, throwing our little 14-acre ecosystem into chaos. Although we’ve still got a ways to go, the orchard is taking shape in a new configuration that will hopefully last many decades. We try to be extensive rather than intensive farmers, but it’s always wise to be aware of our impacts, and this perspective is certainly an interesting one…


Thanks to everyone who came out to the Haleiwa Cacao Festival…It was great to see the island chocolate community, and here’s hoping there will be many more local chocolatiers and chocolate makers in the years to come!

Now that we’ve begun to get some decent rainfall, one of our consistent foes is starting to tassle: Guinea Grass, or Urochloa Maxima, is an invasive bunch grass that’s basically impossible to defeat, but still important to combat. Without the use of herbicides, it’s simply a matter of interdicting the grass before it really gets established, and for us that basically means hand weeding in tight quarters, or discing in more open areas.

Like so many stories of weed pests in Hawaii, this one starts with the importation of Guinea Grass as putative erosion control and cattle graze in the late 1800s. Naturally, it proved good for neither, but boy did it grow well.

In addition to simply managing the cultivated landscape, it’s crucial to keep a handle on our local Guinea Grass, as it contributes to major wildfire risks. Left uncontrolled it grows into thick mats, often overwhelming other local and native foliage and leaving a nice dry bunch of biomass just waiting for lightning, a cigarette, or a local offroader to provide the spark.

There are moments when I think even if I spent the rest of my life simply removing plastic (t-tape, weed barriers, plastic bags, etc.) from our Opaeula orchard, I would expire before succeeding. The use and abuse of plastic in the agricultural environment around here is profligate in the extreme, and depressing at times. Without naming names, we have actually seen certain farmers disc drip tape right into their fields, rather than commit the labor to remove and properly dispose of it. Yikes.

Not that we’re immune to plastic ourselves at all–we do use drip tape for seasonal irrigation, but we try to use such materials responsibly, and make them last. Being orchardists by nature, all our focus is on the medium to long term, rather than on row crops that may be turned as many as four times a year here in our subtropical environment.

In some theoretical future, when the archaeologists are digging up our site, we’d like the orchard to look like an exception to the generalized layer of plastic coating the Earth from this period of time. Biodegradability is a must…

Wind is a substantial challenge for cacao here in Hawaii. Having evolved as an understory rainforest tree, Cacao has a large foliar mass (aka big leaves to catch sunlight), and those same nice fat leaves just happen to catch wind pretty well also. Our day-to-day tradewinds don’t seem to be much of an issue, but there’s always the odd intense wind event, and when that comes in the form of a Kona or Kauai wind, it can really cause some damage.

Our solution for the youngsters just entering the orchard is to use tree tubes for protection through their first winter (see the little white boxes making their way down the hill in the picture), and this approach turns out to have a couple unexpected benefits:

1) The trees seem to really thrive in these little houses, and the overall protection from direct sun and wind are proving to be a good transitional tool to prevent the shock of transfer from nice safe cozy greenhouse to big bad world.

2) Most interesting of all, these physical barriers are a great deterrent to rose beetles, which otherwise love to snack on cacao leaves. It turns out that rose beetles are not very clever flyers–they simply can’t figure out how to fly up and over the wall to get to their target, so the tree tubes are acting as great defacto pest control, avoiding either some degree of mortality from just letting the bugs have their food, or the use of a chemical control (probably Carboryl or something similar), which we certainly want to avoid.

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