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…

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…


Crabs in a bucket: You hear this phrase a lot in Hawaii agriculture. It’s a shorthand for the generalized idea that all diversified ag projects (cacao, or almost anything else) are mired in the same zero-sum mentality that seems to naturally emerge from a community that’s been abused by extractive, off-island big agriculture for a couple hundred years.

We at Kokoleka O’Ka Aina are convinced that cacao has a compelling role in re-envisioning agriculture’s role in a revitalized local Hawaii food system. High value-added products like cacao and chocolate (provided the value-add happens locally!) can serve as an important leading wedge to help consumers and producers realize that local agriculture can indeed do well by doing good.

Additionally, cacao remains stubbornly resistant to monocropping, and thrives in biodiverse plantings, which always encourages us to keep stretching our imaginations for new co-crops. (Our first planting uses an agriforestry approach, but many many alternatives are equally attractive.) After a century or more of exhausting extractive work, much of the land around us is in dire need of diverse plantings and organic practices.

The transition back to a local and viable Hawaiian food system will take decades to achieve, but as far as we’re concerned that future will have a healthy helping of cacao and chocolate–crabs in a bucket notwithstanding.