Waialua Estate: Swapping Pineapple for Cacao and Coffee on the North Shore of Oahu
67-106 Kealohanui Street
Waialua, HI 96791
808 847 3224
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Date of Visit: October 3, 2011
We started our North Shore farm tour at Helemano Plantation, which was kind of like a pineapple theme park. Derek Lanter, manager of Waialua coffee and cacao, pointed out the Dole pineapple plant across the street, but we were there to learn about the company’s more recent crops. In the ’90s, sugar was dying down, so they experimented with new crops. Lanter said, “This was a project to see if coffee could grow in this area, and what that product would be like.” Farms around the state failed because the market wasn’t in place yet, but Dole’s finding some success.
Waialua Estate is the diversified agriculture program for Dole, complete with 150 acres of coffee that require 20-40 people per day to harvest. Dole established Waialua in 1996 and started by handpicking coffee, but they decided the labor costs were too high, so they moved to a modified, mechanical blueberry picker with fiberglass hands that knock loose coffee cherries off the plants.
With this mechanized method, they aren’t able to restrict harvesting to ripe cherries. Instead, they harvest 50% ripe cherries, 35% overripe “raisins” and 15% unripe beans. Waialua grows Arabica typica coffee beans on red dirt soil, with trees donated from Kona. From 2002-2005, they abandoned crops, since coffee prices were at an all-time low. Now the price is at an all time high. 2010 involved a drought, but 2011 was good leading up to our visit.
Waialua’s cacao grows year-round in an arid, windswept area near a river, which provides humidity. Initially they sent beans to Gary Guittard and his head of product development for analysis. After a month, the renowned San Francisco chocolatiers asked to see the farm in person. He apparently appreciated the high percentage of cocoa butter. Waialua’s located 10 degrees latitude out of the zone for normal cacao production, which causes the pods to pack on protection.
They bag dry pods and ship them to Guittard in San Francisco for exclusive production. Gary Guittard also sells cacao under the Guittard name. Lanter described Castle & Cooke owner David Murdock as Waialua’s “Padron.” His financial support for Dole gives them freedom (and time) to experiment. They currently have 20 acres of cacao, which yields 1000 pounds of production per acre, per year. Waialua grows 30 different varietals of cacao.
…along with a box of local chocolatier Philippe Padovani‘s chocolates: espresso, mango, lilikoi and “lava rock,” featuring crunchy caramelized macadamia clusters.
It was interesting to tour Waialua Estate and contrast the more commercialized experience with my earlier visit to Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee, a family-run, Big Island operation that doesn’t have nearly as many resources, but does everything by hand. Rusty’s offered a more inspiring, personal vision for coffee production, but there was still plenty of educational value in visiting Waialua Estate.
Note: Oahu Visitors Bureau organized a six-day island tour, and my hosted visit to Waialua Estate was part of the itinerary.