Stepping onto the Big Island of Hawaii, I found myself transported into a fantasy world of lush tropical landscapes and endless waterfalls, surrounded by the beautiful blue water of the Pacific Ocean.
My mind slipped into a relaxed “island time” and I stopped worrying about my crops back home in the 100-degree heat. For a farmer from Chino, a suburb outside of Los Angeles, it seemed like a dream.
I was raised on a citrus ranch in Corona, CA and I knew from my first day in the groves, watching my father and grandfather turn land into food, that I would grow up to carry on the farming tradition.
A combination of luck, hard work, and a stubborn passion for farming has enabled me to turn 30 acres I leased right after college into over 1,800 acres that I farm today.
No Such Thing as An “Average Farmer”
I may wear Wrangler jeans and boots to work, but if I’m not in the field tending to pumpkins or crops for silage, you can find me in sandals, shorts, and a Quicksilver T-shirt, looking more like a surfer than farmer.
As a farmer from an urban environment, I’m interested in finding ways to use technology and a huge variety of perspectives to redefine the stereotypical farming experience. I’m always open to learning new techniques and I’m especially fascinated by how crops are grown in different regions.
This curiosity is what recently led me to explore the exotic island of Hawaii. Most people travel to Hawaii to experience its beautiful beaches and drink Mai Tais, but I went there with my wife and son this summer to learn about its agriculture.
While traveling around the island, dragging my family from farm to farm, I kept coming across a word I didn’t know how to pronounce: cacao (kuh-cow).
You could get it in smoothies and homemade chocolate bars and buy the plant at local farmers’ markets. Cacao quickly became our new delicious obsession, and I knew that I had discovered the purpose of my trip.
Could this mysterious cacao be my next new crop? Embarrassingly, this is one crop that I’ve never really thought of, even though it’s something I eat all the time. Despite its popularity, it seems to be more of a behind-the-scenes ingredient – but not in Hawaii.
To the Source!
I immediately scheduled a chocolate tour at a local small farm. We set out, expecting to find a lavish estate where the smell of warm chocolate would lead us to an immaculate farm run by a well-dressed, Hawaiian Willy Wonka.
Instead, our GPS guided us to an old, cozy sugar plantation home nestled into a jungle backdrop. The backyard looked more like a farm, but it was nothing like the straight rows and organized land I was used to.
Among the workers stood an enthusiastic and friendly gentleman who fit the portrait of a surfer hippie with long, gray hair and an unbuttoned shirt. He was joking around, having way too much fun. This was Tom, the owner, and I could instantly tell that he shared my enthusiasm and passion for agriculture.
The Grand Tour
This “backyard” farm was small scale but productive, with cacao, vanilla, coffee, and random fruit intertwined about the property.
Tom showed us around, helpfully answering any questions I could think of. The first lesson I learned was that cacao is actually native to the Amazon. It needs a humid, tropical climate year round, with fertile, well-drained soil, just like in Hawaii. My whimsical dreams of growing my private, endless supply of chocolate back home in the arid fields of Chino were ruined.
As we walked through the orchards, I felt like I was in the middle of a rainforest, surrounded by swarms of relentless mosquitos.
Tom pointed out the cacao trees, which were stranger than anything I could have imagined. Tiny flowers starting at the base led up to large pods hanging randomly off the trunk. Inside these pods, the cacao seeds were encased in a wet, pulpy membrane. It was wildly fascinating, but so far there was nothing whatsoever resembling chocolate.
Our First Taste Test
The workers placed the wet, brain-like seeds into a large drain pan, where the juice dripped into a cup that Tom held beneath. We all took a sip and cried out in surprise. The juice was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before – a mix of mango, papaya, passion fruit and plumeria flowers all in one thick, rich, delicious juice. It was amazing… but still no chocolate!
I started to worry that they were playing a practical joke to fool “mainlanders” into thinking this is where chocolate comes from.
Once the juice had drained off, the crew placed the wet seeds into special wood boxes where an important fermentation process takes place, after which the beans are set out to dry in the sun.
But Where’s the Chocolate?
Much like coffee, the beans are then roasted before the outer husks are mechanically removed to expose the nibs, which are the key ingredient in chocolate. The nibs are high in oil, and they get milled into a dark, creamy spread that finally looks and smells like chocolate. At this point, the finished chocolate is made by adding ingredients like sugar, milk and vanilla to the 100 percent cacao.
Finally, Tom pulled out a bowl and spoon and told us to dip in.
After fighting for the bowl, I took a huge spoonful and immediately knew that all of the sweating and mosquito bites were worth it. The kitchen smelled just like the chocolate factory in my dreams, and my taste buds could at last confirm that this strange cacao bean does in fact produce chocolate. But not just any chocolate – Tom’s chocolate was sweet, bitter and creamy all at the same time. It was handmade with passion, love, and friends on the beautiful island of Hawaii.
Forget handing out flower leis when tourists arrive on the island. Hand out Hawaiian chocolate!
Take a Step Back
What surprised me most about the entire process from growing to processing was how little I actually knew about this everyday bean.
Unlike in my dreams, the orchards did not smell like the Hershey’s factory, nor were there little cacao fruits oozing with chocolate sauce to be picked fresh off of a tree. The process is much more complex, but also much more in tune with what I love most about farming.
I have a strong passion for agriculture and a love for learning new things, but I’d never imagined being able to combine the two on a beautiful island with amazing people. This trip was truly an inspiration and it triggered the wheels to start spinning in my head. Now I just need some more Hawaiian chocolate to keep them moving.
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Story originally published October 2, 2016