The Project Notebook

Projects to Watch: Steel Grass Farm

It been 10 years since I last visited Kauai, but I recently had an opportunity to spend two days in Honolulu and a week in Princeville. In many ways, nothing changed in the last 10 years. Hanalei Bay still has its one lane bridge which blocks construction equipment from entering, along with progress. Except for more resorts at Poi’pu and a small road widening project between the Lihue Airport and Kapa’a, everything still had a very familiar look.

Coming out of the airport, I passed by the racks with tourist attractions and one word caught my eye — Chocolate Farm! This was something new! A follow up call led me to a brief phone conversation with Tony Lydgate, the owner of Steel Grass Farm in Kapa’a. I arranged to take a three hour “branch to bar” tour of the farm a couple days later. Little did I know this would become a highlight of my trip, not to mention a “diamond in the rough” project waiting to happen.

One of the issues of isolated island life is all the food and goods have to be imported, even though a large percentage of the island is devoted to agriculture. Another issue is employment — many kama’aina (locals) hold two or even three jobs to support their families. Tony has a vision to change this.

Chocolate (cacao) trees are known as 20-60 trees. They grow in climates within 20 degrees of the equator and where the temperature doesn’t go below 60-degrees F. This makes Hawaii the only location in the US which can support large scale chocolate tree growing. Tony and his family envision a day when Kauai will sustain a chocolate cooperative.

As he plants more trees, Tony encourages others to plant on their properties. Each tree only produces a small number of pods (perhaps 30 or 40 for more mature trees), each holding perhaps 3-4 dozen beans which when peeled, become the chocolate nibs. It takes about 500 beans to make one pound of chocolate (all hand processed). A chocolate cooperative would provide sustainable agriculture and renewable revenue for the tree growers. Rather than produce the actual chocolate, the cooperative might go so far as to prepare the nibs and sell them to off island companies to manufacture into chocolate.

The last hour of the tour is devoted to a blind chocolate tasting. Our guides also provided us with some politically correct places from which to buy chocolate. These countries provide a living and fair wage for the workers who process the beans. Rather than by a regular chocolate bar which might contain chocolate from many sources, we were advised to look for single source products such as might come from South or Central America. The most expensive chocolate we tasted was a Dole® Waialua Estate™ Cacao, a rare bean which grows in the volcanic soil of the north shore of Oahu.

As sustainable and cooperative agriculture grows on Kauai, I see many possible projects which will require careful management to optimize business results. Check out Steel Grass Farm on the web for further information. I’ll probably be banned from these future projects, however, as its likely I’d devour all the product!

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Category: Projects to Watch


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