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Second harvest underway at Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate

By Staff | Apr 25, 2019

Full-time West Maui resident and retired biotechnology entrepreneur Gunars Valkirs leads Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Inc. He started the cacao farm with the goal of making great chocolate. As the operation grew, he wanted to tie it into the philanthropy that is so central to life for him and his wife, JoRene. PHOTO BY NAINOA MOORE.

LAHAINA – Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate Inc. (MKEC) harvested its first specialty crop of cacao in 2018 – the first of its kind on Maui’s West Side – and the second harvest is underway.

The Maui company is scheduled to open its chocolate factory in Lahaina later this year, crafting the island’s only farm-to-bar chocolate.

Full-time West Maui resident and CEO Gunars Valkirs recently introduced Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao, registered as J&G Inc., a Maui commercial farm operation.

Work began in 2013 on Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao, the Lahaina farm that exclusively supplies cacao beans to MKEC.

Valkirs, a former biotechnology entrepreneur, started the farm to combine his family history of farming with his obsession for outstanding chocolate.

Farm Manager David McPherson (right) and Palani Wright harvest pods on April 10, 2019. PHOTO BY NAINOA MOORE.

His goal is to grow and make some of the world’s finest chocolate right here on Maui, then return 100 percent of net profits to Maui charities and the nonprofit community in cooperation with wholesale corporate partners.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao is located on the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains in the Ahupua’a of Ku’ia, covering 50 acres of former sugarcane land leased from Kamehameha Schools.

This arid environment is very different from the lush jungle where cacao is normally grown. Theobroma cacao (literally “food of the gods”) normally thrives with annual rainfall of 100 inches or more – and with a jungle canopy that protects it from the wind.

By comparison, Lahaina’s average annual rainfall is about 15 inches per year.

Although the mountains mostly block the trade winds, the Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao team knew they would have a lot of work to do to help the cacao flourish and produce its colorful pods that contain the seeds from which chocolate is made.

In addition to Valkirs, the MKEC Inc. team includes Krishna Narayan (vice president and general manager) and Daniel O’Doherty, vice president of chocolate operations.

The farm employs four full-time and several part-time people working directly on the farm, including Farm Manager David McPherson and three cacao farmers: Andy Baltonado, Joseph Ward and Palani Wright.

Early days on the farm saw the team clearing the land and adding irrigation and a system of windbreak and shade trees to create the necessary tropical environment.

The farm area in Ku’ia had been cultivated in sugarcane for 140 years, so all of the vegetation had been cleared. With little but weeds and grasses covering the land, a jungle had to be created to protect the large leaves of the cacao tree.

Fast-growing trees such as neem and panax were planted to provide windbreaks on the perimeter of the fields and both wind protection and sun protection within the fields.

Ten acres at a time, the hillside began to transform into a luxuriant green, helped greatly by water that flows from the West Maui Mountains.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao began with the first planting on Dec. 21, 2013, the winter solstice. With the windbreaks and shade trees established, most of the cacao trees in the first ten acres were planted in 2015 and 2016.

In 2017, another ten acres of cacao trees were planted. All trees are irrigated using highly efficient drip irrigation – under a strict practice of water conservation – so that they can thrive in Lahaina’s dry environment.Except for the summer months, cacao produces fruit throughout the year, with the main harvest times being in the fall and spring.

Ripe pods are cut off the tree by hand pruners. The pods are cracked open, and the seeds and fruit pulp are removed and batched together in wooden boxes.

The boxes are covered with banana leaves and left to ferment over the course of a week, with regular turning of the fermenting mass to keep the process going.

Once the ferment is complete, the beans are dried on racks to less than seven percent moisture content for long-term storage.

Cocoa beans are the starting material for making chocolate, so the flavor development that occurs during fermentation and drying on the farm is critical to the quality of the cocoa beans and finished chocolate.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao is proud to have regenerated the land in recent years, tending to sustainable cacao from seedling to harvest-ready pod. The trees were harvested for the very first time in April 2018.

The venture now has approximately 6,000 to 7,000 cacao trees set across 20 acres, expanding to 50 acres in the near future.

Production of Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao will scale up over ten years. MKEC Inc. will initially rely upon cacao grown on farms in Ecuador and in the rainforests of Amazonian Brazil.

The quality of the beans from these foreign sources is controlled by O’Doherty, who has a hand in the control of post-harvest operations at each source.

The chocolate products will be designated as “Made in Maui” and sold as Ku’ia Estate Chocolate.

All chocolate made from cacao grown on the Maui Ku’ia Estate Cacao farm will be designated as “Grown and Made in Maui” and sold as Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate.