By Duane Shimogawa
WAIALUA (HawaiiNewsNow) – As the state’s agriculture industry goes through some sour times, a relatively new crop is hoping to sweeten things up. Sugar and pineapple were once the staple crops of Hawaii’s plantation era, but with these industries practically extinct, Hawaii’s ag lands are now returning to a new era of small farms.
An exciting new crop may be the sweet savior to Hawaii’s lagging ag industry. State ag leaders say they aren’t just looking to one crop to replace both sugar and pineapple.
Instead, they’re hoping a variety of crops, including another sweet tasting one will take the lead and help the state’s ag industry grow to new heights.
Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where chocolate can grow. That’s because it only flourishes in areas close to the equator. So it made sense for Dole Foods to try it out.
With the closure of the Waialua Sugar Company in 1996, they set out to find other crops to keep the land prosperous and utilize their workforce.
"People said we couldn’t grow it here, you can’t grow it in Hawaii, it’s more of a tropical plant, we decided to put it in anyway and we’ve been very successful with our 20-acre planting so far," Dole Food Company agriculture manager Michael Conway said.
From Waialua Estate, the cacao beans are shipped off to the West Coast, where they’re processed into chocolate. It’s then shipped back to the state and sold to restaurants and shops, like Malie Kai Chocolates.
"It’s unlike anywhere else in the world and something we can be very proud of," Malie Kai Chocolates owner Nathan Sato said.
Sato’s company is one of around 10 that formed the Waialua Chocolate Partners. They help market and sell the chocolate that’s grown here.
"This is a developing industry, still in its infancy, but the excitement is really high, I don’t believe at this time we actually have any figures of what the value of the industry is, but everybody is aware of the potential," Waialua Estate sales manager Derek Lanter said.
State Board of Agriculture chairwoman Sandra Lee Kunimoto says Hawaii’s ag industry is in a crucial transitional period, with both pineapple and sugar downsizing.
"As a new crop it generates a lot of interest, there’s a lot of roles for our researchers and our industries in moving this crop along, but it looks very promising at this point," she said.
With 200 acres of cacao grown across the state and the potential for 3,000 more, keeping the entire process here remains a big challenge for this industry.
"It doesn’t make sense to send it all to the Mainland, we’ve got to do it all here," Sato said. "I think we’re headed in the right direction and I think the potential is enormous, not just for us, but for the state."
Many in the cacao industry here say chocolate could also spur tourism. They say people will likely be interested in visiting Hawaii to see how chocolate is grown.