Raising the Bar
Could cacao be Maui’s next signature crop? Gunars Valkirs thinks so. “There’s an opportunity to create a market that will rival the wine industry.” Given that Hawai‘i is the only state in the U.S. whose climate is suitable for growing cacao, it’s not far-fetched to think that commercial production on Maui could become a Napa Valley-like phenomenon.
Theobroma cacao (genus Theobroma translates as “food of the gods”) was introduced to Hawai‘i in the mid-nineteenth century. But unlike sugarcane and pineapple, it fizzled as an agricultural venture. Now cacao is making a comeback in the Aloha State. Native to South America, the plants thrive in hot, humid climates; the warmer temperatures also aid in the fermentation of harvested cocoa beans.
Gunars became a cacao farmer by accident. The retired biotech entrepreneur has had a long-standing interest in agriculture—and he’d always had a sweet tooth. “I love chocolate,” he laughs. “I eat it every day.” Nine years ago, after a chance conversation with a chef about cacao, Gunars decided to take a closer look at growing the plant.
He found a lone cacao tree growing on a private lot near the old Pioneer Mill in Lahaina.The owner gave him several pods to plant at his Kapalua home. His interest piqued, Gunars teamed up with cacao specialist Daniel O’Doherty to grow more trees as part of a field trial conducted by the University of Hawai‘i. “It started as a hobby, but it took on a life of its own,” Gunars laughs.
So much, in fact, that in 2013, he launched Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao, a fifty-acre farm in the Ku‘ia ahupua‘a (Hawaiian land division). He plants ten acres at a time, and today has more than 5,000 trees on twenty acres; the first ten acres were harvested in April.
Beginning in February 2019, you can purchase Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate online or at the Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Factory in the Lahaina Business Park. The facility will house an FDA-certified factory, commercial kitchen, retail store, and open-air pavilion. Maui Ku‘ia Estate’s dark-milk and dark chocolates are crafted from single-origin cacao from Costa Esmeraldas, Ecuador, but as his trees mature, Gunars says the chocolate will soon be made exclusively with Maui-grown and -harvested cacao. And the sweetest part? Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate will donate 100 percent of its net profits to Maui charities and nonprofit community organizations.