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.

Jorquette. Plagiotropic whorls. Basically, this is the stage in a cacao tree’s development when the foundations of its eventual canopy begin to radiate out from the central trunk. And now towards the end of summer we’re seeing an awful lot of this in our Opaeula orchard, which is exciting and really fun from a strictly cacao botany geek perspective. In most of our trees we’re seeing this first whorl around the 1m mark in height, although there’s definitely some strong variation there between differing genetic parentages.

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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…

Just a couple photos of North Shore development:

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.

Michael Niemann’s blog Bitter Chocolate has a great post today about cacao, forestry, and Francois Ruf’s concept of “Forest Rent”. It’s well worth checking out, and relevant for our purposes as it describes exactly what we’re trying to roll back (in our admittedly small way) here in Hawaii.

The idea of agriforestry is at the center of what we’re trying to achieve here at Ko’Ka. Working on the ex-sugar tablelands of the North Shore, the recreation of a biodiverse environment is an absolute necessity after so many years of extractive conventional agriculture, and the integration of cacao and tropical hardwoods has two major benefits:

1) Environmental. Cacao needs robust shelter from the wind and moderate shading at our orchard, and the use of both hardwoods and grasses (natives like Koa and Pili where possible, augmented with exotics like Teak and Mahogany) allows us to reinvigorate the soils and biodiversity of our farm at the same time as we create a high-value organic tree fruit crop.

2) Economic. Even in the coming age of carbon markets and cap-and-trade systems, it is difficult to find functional models that encourage the reforestration of the tropics. The integration of cacao into an agriforestry model takes some of the short-term sting out of the cost of planting these longer-term tree crops, offering at least a potential way forward toward the recreation of productive diversified ag and forestry systems.

It is crucial to us that Ko’Ka serve as at least one good model of a climate-positive future for cacao and chocolate, and we see an agriforestry approach as key to that central idea.

fermentboxIt probably speaks volumes to simply note that the text most cacao growers and chocolate makers rely on for up-to-date information on the incredibly complex field of cacao fermentation (Knapp’s Cocoa Fermentation) is almost 100 years old, and–naturally–out of print and not all that easy to find.

Something like 75-80% of a given cacao’s potential is either realized or distroyed during fermentation and drying, (which should really be considered as parts of the same overall curing process), and yet it’s probably the least understood–or most misunderstood–stage of chocolate’s lifecycle.

In Hawaii, we have some unique challenges for fermentation regimes. Being as far north as we are (21.6ºN at our farmsite), we experience much greater diurnal temperature shifts than a true tropical location. (Just as an example, a slower ramp-up in temperature will almost inevitably make for a longer ferment at lower overall heat, which provides opportunistic microorganisms a great shot to get involved…never a great thing for fine flavor outcomes.)

Given all these local issues and challenges, we understand very clearly that if we’re to deliver a truly unique and excellent chocolate here in Hawaii, we’ve all got to make substantial progress in the understanding of this very complex and intricate set of processes. To that end (even at this startup stage), we’re partnering with other growers and ag scientists to refine our ability to comprehend and measure the fermentation of our cacao. We hope that in the long run we can establish some metrics, devices and best practices that will help elevate the value of the crop locally, and bring Hawaiian cacao and chocolate into the forefront of post-harvest processing.


One of the great pleasures of working up on the Kawailoa and Opaeula tablelands is the amazing variety and changability of the view–from Ka’ala to Kaena, and Haleiwa to Waimea. I look forward to the day when Ko’Ka’s orchard (and hopefully many other flourishing diversified ag projects!) can, in a controlled way, help to expose this beautiful landscape to interested visitors. (As it is you can’t come up without a set of keys, and even then you’ll get some concerned stink eye until folks get to know you…)

For now, you’ll just have to take our word for it and enjoy the pictures 🙂

Let’s face it: Wahiawa isn’t exactly on most people’s heavy rotation for tourist sites on Oahu’s North Shore. But there are at least two reasons it should be part of your visit if you’re interested in botany and local food.

Wahiawa Botanical Gardens


Founded by the Hawaii Sugar Producers Association in the 1920s, the Wahiawa Botanical Garden has got a really interesting collection of Hawaiian native palms, as well as some beautiful older Ficus specimens, and a generally fun (and free!) walk through this sheltered canyon.

Peterson’s Upland Egg Farm


If you’re trying to eat locally here in Hawaii, then you know that eggs and dairy are some of the most challenging daily-use foods to source responsibly. Happily, Foodland is now carrying milk from the O’okala Dairy on the Big Island, and locally produced butter can be found at Haleiwa farmer’s market. For eggs, we highly recommend a trip to Peterson’s–one of the oldest egg producers in the islands. Delicious eggs, and cheaper by the flat than any dozen you’re likely to find on the supermarket shelves.

141 Dole Road, Wahiawa
(808) 621-6619

Wahiawa ditch line

One of the fortunate things at this moment in agriculture on the North Shore is that we still have an active (albeit admittedly decrepit) ditch water system, a legacy of the sugar barons that continues to deliver gravity-fed, partially treated water from Lake Wilson all along the Wahiawa ditch line, from Mokuleia to Kawailoa and Waimea.

The existence of this inexpensive water resource makes projects like ours more viable, and will continue to be a very important component of a viable diversified ag future locally. Unfortunately, issues of ‘deferred maintenance’, which began under sugar in the 1960s, have continued to plague the system, which is trapped in a bureaucratic morass between the state and several other for-profit and not-for-profit entities, not all of whom really care all that much about the system’s future. Just this past winter, the system’s capacity was reduced almost by half due to the loss of one of the mauka syphons. The replacement tactic was a short-term fix that shows no signs of being actually addressed anytime soon.

Back in the height of the sugar days, the bagasse-burning facility in Waialua actually generated so much excess power that they were able to pump water uphill to expand sugar further into central Oahu. The days of that type of environmental insanity are long gone, but the fact remains that anyone comitted to an agricultural future on the tablelands of north Oahu needs to keep a keen eye on the Lake Wilson ditch system–if it decays to a point where its failure becomes a reality, agriculture up here in the country will enter an even more troubled time.