Maui Business

Cacao Farmers Gear Up for Harvest at Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao Farm, Public Tours Open

April 20, 2021, 10:07 AM HST
* Updated April 20, 6:54 PM
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  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Brad Paulson.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Brad Paulson.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Hawai‘i Media Collective.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Hawai‘i Media Collective.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Hawai‘i Media Collective.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Hawai‘i Media Collective.
  • Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. Photo Credit: Hawai‘i Media Collective.

Spring harvest is underway for cacao farmers David McPherson and Palani Wright at the Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate’s 20-acre cacao farm with over 5,000 cacao trees to be harvested. The Lahaina farm also opened for public tours from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., seven days a week.

For cacao farmers, the hands-on process of cultivating, harvesting and fermenting cacao is an experience to be savored.

“Hawai‘i is the only state in the US that can grow production cacao,” said McPherson. “That being said, it is new to us as farmers. It’s exciting to be part of a new cacao origin that produces high quality cacao beans; not only on our farm at MKEC—we want to see all of Hawai‘i grow a high-quality cacao bean.”

Since MKEC’s leader Dr. Gunars Valkirs established the farm in 2013, the farmers have reaped 63 harvests. Each harvest has produced a higher yield and higher quality product due to factors mainly greatly improved soil health. Both at MKEC’s Lahaina retail store and online, the Maui-grown chocolate is desired for its excellence.

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McPherson attributes a huge percentage of that success to the guidance of MKEC’s vice president of farm and factory operations, Daniel O’Doherty. “We are lucky that we are able to work with Dan, a cacao expert who has amassed an amazing amount of experience in the world of cacao,” said McPherson. “Gunars and Dan have created community-based project here in West Maui that will continue for many, many decades and hopefully beyond.”

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Before he came to MKEC, McPherson worked as a field crew leader for Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project on Lana‘i. He also led a crew with the State of Hawai‘i Maui Natural Area Reserve and oversaw weed management on Lana‘i for Maui Invasive Species Committee. Now at MKEC, he does everything from maintain water flow from the mountains, prep and maintain fields, plant and prune trees, install irrigation and more.

For Wright, who is now in his fifth year with MKEC, one of his favorite parts of cacao farming has been grafting cacao trees and perfecting his skill at hand-pollinating. “Overall, just learning about variety selection and tree care has been fascinating,” said Wright. “There is so much to learn about this ancient crop.”

Born and raised on Maui, Wright knows and appreciates the island from mountains to sea. After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, he earned an associate’s degree from University of Hawai‘i – Maui College. With a strong interest in forestry, he went to work for West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership as a field crew leader. Cacao farming takes “humility and hard work,” he says, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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During the farm’s formative years, the crew faced major challenges from large irrigation mains breaking to windstorms to brush fires. McPherson and Wright credit the work ethic of MKEC’s founder as having a great influence. “Gunars always has the determination to just keep your head down and keep working,” said McPherson. “We have been down but have come out triumphant.”

Wright emphasizes that being a good farmer takes dedication to quality. “Weedwhacking, cutting/pruning, dragging tree branches and chipping aren’t always fun, but are huge components in keeping a clean farm,” he said. “Start it clean; keep it clean. Farming is hard work. But the reward—to reap the harvest—is so satisfying and our end product is sweet! Not only do we grow some of the world’s best cacao, but our chocolate is superb.”

Add to the incredible chocolate the fact that MKEC returns 100 percent net profit to community nonprofit organizations, and the farmers say the hot days working under the Lahaina sun are all worthwhile.

Student interns are organized by StemWorkerʻs internship program, managed by Maui Economic Development Board, will also pitch in with the harvest.

For a more relaxing experience, residents and visitors are invited to take a Cacao Farm Tour, which offers a first-hand look at how cacao is grown and harvested, then wraps up with a nine-piece tasting among the trees. The 90-minute guided walking tour/tasting – operated by Maui Chocolate Tour – is offered Monday through Friday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The cost is $75 for adults (13+); $55 for children (3-12); children under 3 not permitted. Group size is limited, and all participants must sign a waiver and wear a mask and closed-toed shoes. Kama‘āina receive a 20 percent discount (“kam”).

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate is located at 78 Ulupono St. in Lahaina.

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