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Farmers prepare for harvest at Maui Ku‘ia Estate cacao farm

By Staff | Apr 30, 2021

Farmer Palani Wright harvests cacao at Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate’s 20-acre farm in Lahaina. PHOTO BY BRAD PAULSON.

LAHAINA — Things are hopping at Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s 20-acre cacao farm in Lahaina. Not only is the farm now open for public tours, but spring harvest for the 5,000-plus cacao trees is underway.

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

“Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that can grow production cacao,” McPherson said. “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 Hawaii grow a high-quality cacao bean!”

Since MKEC’s visionary 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 in high demand for its excellence.

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,” McPherson said. “Gunars and Dan have created a community-based project here in West Maui that will continue for many, many decades and hopefully beyond.”

Before he came to MKEC, McPherson worked as a field crew leader for Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project on Lanai. He also led a crew with the State of Hawaii Maui Natural Area Reserve and oversaw weed management on Lanai for the 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,” Wright said. “There is so much to learn about this ancient crop.”

Born and raised on Maui, Wright knows and appreciates the island from the mountains to the sea.

After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, he earned an Associate’s Degree from the University of Hawaii 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 said, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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,” McPherson said. “We have been down but have come out triumphant.”

Wright emphasizes that being a good farmer takes dedication to quality.

“Weed-whacking, 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.”

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, organized by a program managed by Maui Economic Development Board, will also pitch in with the harvest. Certain guidelines apply; contact McPherson at david@mauichocolate.com for more information.

Residents and visitors are invited to take a Cacao Farm Tour, which offers a firsthand look at how cacao is grown and harvested, then wraps up with a delicious nine-piece tasting among the trees. The 90-minute guided walking tour/tasting (operated by Maui Chocolate Tour/mauichocolatetours.com) is offered Monday through Friday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

The cost is $75 for adults (13 and up) and $55 for children ages 3-12; children under three are not permitted. Group size is limited, and all participants must sign a waiver and wear a mask and closed-toed shoes. Kama’aina receive a 20 percent discount.

The tour begins and ends at Ku’ia’s retail store, where visitors can pick up chocolate drinks and treats in addition to a variety of chocolate gift boxes.

From the factory’s rooftop Ku’ia Pavilion, guests can also enjoy a look back up the foothills of the West Maui Mountains to the cacao farm where they just were!

Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate is located at 78 Ulupono St. in Lahaina. Hours are seven days a week, Monday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

For more information, visit mauichocolate.com.