Maui Business

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Harvests Cacao Crop

April 16, 2019, 11:08 AM HST
* Updated April 16, 12:14 PM
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Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate Inc. (MKEC Inc.), a Lāhainā-based company that will soon be Maui’s only farm-to-bar chocolate factory, is currently harvesting its second specialty crop of cacao.  Construction is underway at the chocolate factory, scheduled to open in Lāhainā later this year.

In 2013, former biotech engineer Gunars Valkirs began Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao, the Lāhainā farm that exclusively supplies cacao beans to MKEC Inc., to combine his family history of farming with his obsession for outstanding chocolate. His goal was to grow and make some of the world’s finest chocolate right here on Maui, and then return 100% of net profits, in cooperation with its wholesale corporate partners, to Maui charities and the nonprofit community.

The commercial farm operation is located on the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains in the ahupuaʻa of Kuʻia, covering 50 acres of former sugarcane land leased from Kamehameha Schools.  Since the farm area in Kuʻia had been cultivated in sugarcane for 140 years, all the vegetation had been cleared. With little but weeds and grasses covering the land, a jungle had to be created to protect the large leaves of the cacao tree. Fast-growing trees such as neem and panax were planted to provide windbreaks on the perimeter of the fields and both wind protection and sun protection within the fields. Ten acres at a time, the hillside began to transform into a luxuriant green—helped greatly by the water that flows from the wao akua of Mauna Kahālāwai (West Maui Mountains), where the gods reside, to the wao kanaka, the realm of people where cacao is grown and crafted into chocolate.

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Harvest time at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao Farm in Lāhainā, with company founder and CEO Gunars Valkirs. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Cacao pods are ready for their second harvest at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Cacao pod harvest at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Farmer Palani Wright harvests cacao trees at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm on the West side. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm manager David McPherson harvests the pods. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm manager David McPherson and
farmer Palani Wright in the midst of their second cacao harvest. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate Inc. founder and CEO Gunars Valkirs harvests cacao at the farm. Photo by Nainoa Moore.

Lāhainā’s arid environment is very different from the lush jungle where cacao is typically grown. Theobroma cacao (translated as “food of the gods”) normally thrives with annual rainfall of 100 inches or more, and with a jungle canopy that protects it from the wind. By comparison, Lāhainā’s average annual rainfall is about 15 inches per year. Although the mountains mostly block the trade winds, the Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao team knew they would have a lot of work to do to help the cacao flourish and produce its colorful pods, which contain the seeds from which chocolate is made.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao began with the first planting on December 21, 2013, the winter solstice.  Most of the cacao trees in the first ten acres were planted in 2015 and 2016, with another ten acres of cacao trees planted in 2017. All trees are irrigated using highly efficient drip irrigation, under a strict practice of water conservation so that they can thrive in Lāhainā’s dry environment.

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The company’s first harvest happened in Spring of 2018 at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao.  Except for the summer months, cacao produces fruit throughout the year, with the main harvest times being in the fall and spring. Ripe pods are cut off the tree by hand pruners. The pods are cracked open, and the seeds and fruit pulp removed and batched together in wooden boxes. The boxes are covered with banana leaves and left to ferment over the course of a week with regular turning of the fermenting mass to keep the process going. Once the ferment is complete, the beans are dried on racks to less than 7% moisture content for long-term storage.

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Cocoa beans are the starting material for making chocolate, so the flavor development that occurs during fermentation and drying on the farm is critical to the quality of the cocoa beans and finished chocolate.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao is proud to have regenerated the land in recent years, tending to sustainable cacao from seedling to harvest-ready pod and harvested for the very first time in April 2018. They now have approximately 6,000 to 7,000 cacao trees set across 20 acres, growing to 50 acres in the near future.

Production of Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao will scale up over ten years. MKEC Inc. will initially rely upon cacao grown on farms in Ecuador and in the rainforests of Amazonian Brazil. The quality of the beans from these foreign sources is controlled by cacao expert and operational leader Dan O’Doherty, who has a hand in the control of post-harvest operations at each source. The chocolate products will be designated as “Made in Maui” and sold as Kuʻia Estate® Chocolate. All chocolate made from cacao grown on the Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao farm will be designated at “Grown and Made in Maui” will be sold as Maui Kuʻia Estate® Chocolate.

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In addition to Valkirs, the MKEC Inc. team includes Mr. Krishna Narayan, Vice President & General Manager, and Mr. Daniel O’Doherty, Vice President of Chocolate Operations. The farm employs four full-time and several part-time people working directly on the farm, including David McPherson, farm manager; and three cacao farmers: Andy Baltonado, Joseph Ward, and Palani Wright.  Here is more information on the team:

Chief dreamer and visionary Dr. Gunars Valkirs heads up the company. A full-time West Maui resident and retired biotech entrepreneur, Gunars started a cacao farm with the goal of making great chocolate. As the operation grew, he knew he wanted to tie it into the philanthropy that is so central to life for him and his wife JoRene. Plans for the farm, the factory and the company evolved—and MKEC’s Chocolate Kuleana took shape right along with it, creating a remarkable and admirable business model. As CEO, Gunars is responsible for overall leadership, strategic vision and financial vitality of MKEC.

As Vice President & General Manager, Krishna Narayan keeps business streamlined and working efficiently. Krishna is an entrepreneur—CEO and founder of Island Innovation LLC—an engineer, and a highly successful executive who served in business, consulting, and military leadership roles throughout his 35-year career. A former Air Force officer who has served at the Pentagon, he’s the kind of guy you want on your team! At MKEC, Krishna is responsible for overall business planning and execution, sales, marketing, fulfillment, finance, human resources, compliance and external services.

Daniel O’Doherty is Mr. Chocolate, period. The owner and president of Cacao Services, Inc., Dan has worked in 23 different countries around the globe, providing consulting services to farmers and producers of high quality cacao. As MKEC’s Vice President of Chocolate Operations, Dan is responsible for managing operations at Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao, the farm producing Maui cocoa beans for exclusive sale to MKEC, Inc. Dan is responsible for cacao sourcing, farm oversight, production planning, and the most delicious job of all: chocolate recipe R&D.

David McPherson is Cacao Farm Manager, Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao. David previously worked as a field crew leader for Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project on Lana‘i. He also led a crew with the State of Hawai‘i Maui Natural Area Reserve and oversaw weed management on Lana‘i for Maui Invasive Species Committee. Whatever Mother Nature brings, from wind to wildfire, David and his team is well-equipped to handle it, and Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao is thriving under their expert care.

Andy Baltonado, Cacao Farmer, Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao: A former landscaper with his own landscaping business, Andy Baltonado is now thrilled to be learning the ropes of cacao farming. Originally from Oakland, Calif., where he studied at Cal State, he has been on Maui for the last 25 years. Andy enjoys working with the team and learning about the process of growing cacao, and he sees great potential in MKEC’s farm as a world study.

Joseph Ward, Cacao Farmer, Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao: For Joe Ward, it all starts with gratitude. He sees every moment of every day as a gift, a chance to be thankful and to give back. That’s why the mission of MKEC—to donate 100% net profits back to the community—really hits home with him. A former field tech for Pu‘u Kukui Watershed who has lived on Maui for the past 25 years, Joe is deeply invested in protecting Native Hawaiian plants and animals and caring for the ʻāina.

Palani Wright, Cacao Farmer, Maui Kuʻia Estate Cacao: Born and raised on Maui, Palani Wright knows and appreciates this island from mountains to sea. After graduating from Lāhainaluna High School, he earned an associate’s degree from UH Maui College. With a strong interest in forestry, he went to work for West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership as a field crew leader. He has now been working for Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate for four years, and he enjoys the interest and excitement of working with the MKEC team.

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