Welcome Back to the Club

The logo for East Hawaii Cacao Association

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Yesterday I stepped aboard the Hawaiʻi Cacao Express, found my seat, and discreetly made my way to the swanky lounge car. At least thatʻs what it felt like as I parked in downtown Hilo and made my way over to the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center.

On the second floor, up a beautiful wooden staircase, is the current home of the monthly meeting of the East Hawaii Cacao Association. For ten bucks a year, I can become a member and get a really good feel of what’s going on in the community.

It was with a steady burning excitement I took my seat amongst the other members making small talk about topics such as their favorite bands as they passed around the sign in sheet on a clipboard. Taking a moment to renew my annual membership fee, smiling familiar faces asked me how me and my family have been. It felt good to be back at the meetings for the new year.

Side Note One: You can check out the association’s website here: http://www.easthawaiicacao.org/

That being said, it was with some embarrassment at this meeting that I realized I don’t know quite as many names of the members as I should. It’s something I aim to improve upon, especially as I plan to approach some members going forward in hopes of interviewing them and seeing their farms.

Admittedly, it was a little to my relief, as well as my disappointment, that at the start of the meeting we did not go around the room and introduce ourselves, and say how many cacao trees we have currently and in what area, as was done in the past. Answers to that question, I recall, have ranged from a handful of trees from members who were just getting started planting, to hundreds of trees in several different orchards. And the locations of the orchards fittingly span the east side of Hawaiʻi Island, stretching from all over Puna to the Hamakua Coast. I was relieved to not have to once again admit that I’d let all but one of the twelve starter trees I had in pots at my house die of neglect before planting them.

I’m not sure if this skipping of introductions has become the new normal in my absence, or if it was an exception due to this meeting’s length from having, not only the normal scheduled speaker, but also nominations and an election of three new board members for the association. Next meeting will be telling on that note.

I do love hearing the speakers at these meetings. I’ve always been drawn to lectures, especially ones that span such diverse topics. At these meetings I’ve seen presentations on the obvious, such as one chocolate maker’s specific method of production, to unexpected topics, such as how drone mapping can help local farmers.

This month’s meeting largely focused all around the scourge that was just starting to bloom when I took my last break from the world of Hawaiʻi Cacao; the Queensland Long-Horned Beetle. Our Speaker, Rachel Roditti, is a local cacao farmer who East Hawaii Cacao Association’s President, Patrick Merritt, has credited with bringing the new pest to the public’s attention. She’s been dealing with the infestation on her farm for quite a while, and was there to present a message of hope: Despite what official reports state, there is an effective treatment for effected trees; you don’t have to cut down the tree to stop the damage.

She gave us tips and tricks for her low tech solution. Turns out there’s another good use for knitting needles! She showed us a short video of her extracting one of the larvae after finding one of the tell tale signs of infestation; clear gelatinous ooze. One member suggested that we take a field trip to her farm to see it first hand, and I thought “That’s a brilliant idea. If the association doesn’t want to, I’d like to contact her in the future and ask her permission to come on my own.” Either way, I hope to have more to write about this topic.

Her report was really uplifting in the face of this new threat to Hawaiʻi agriculture. Rachel is not the only member who’s cacao trees have been impacted by this beetle’s larvae. Some cacao growers have found that these ravenous wood munchers will turn a neglected tree into “swiss cheese” if let be. In an effort to try and treat their trees, some members have used a termite foam inserted into the portion of the tree larvae have carved out. While it appears to have saved the trees, the poison would most likely be absorbed into the fruit, making the crop non-viable for an unknown amount of time. In which case, why bother? As lovely as the cacao tree is to look at, a poisonous one is quite the waste.

By the end of Rachel’s presentation I felt a nervous energy building in the room; this beetle could have a far reaching impact, and not just for cacao farmers. The Queensland Long-Horned Beetle has quite the large palate it appears, attacking a variety of tropical trees, being particularly inclined to munch on the beloved and plentiful state tree, the Kukui nut tree. I’m no arborist or entomologist, but even I can make the educated guess that if a new pest has wide food supply and a sudden lack of their traditional natural predators, the population will explode and spread across the whole island in no time.

Side note 2: Here’s a link to a HawaiiNewsNow article about the beetle, from June 2019, which features Patrick Merritt. https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/2019/06/20/invasive-long-horned-beetle-australia-attacking-crops-puna/

There are rumors of some effort to rally the county into taking action on this issue, but given our state and county’s historically slow response time with other invasive pests, such as the little red fire ant, the coqui frog, the coffee berry borer beetle; the pessimist in me remains doubtful that any assistance will arrive quickly enough to be effective in stopping the spread.

But I really hope I’m wrong. Our cacao farmers are on the front lines, alone and looking for guidance. I would hate to see the Hawaiʻi Cacao industry collapse now over this, especially as it’s just starting to pick up steam.

Side note 3: If you’re on Hawai’i Island and suspect you’ve spotted this beetle, report it to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. https://www.biisc.org/qlb/

Putting those thoughts aside for the moment, I enjoyed the somewhat chaotic elections that followed the speaker’s presentation. The board was a little unprepared for the enthusiasm of its general members in electing new board members this year. People were invested, and like a substitute teacher pleasantly surprised when a class full of students they assumed would take the opportunity to slack off, instead demanded clarification and engagement with the course material; the current board members were scrambling to meet the demand of the voters and nominees with some embarrassment about their lack of preparation. Though awkward, there was a satisfying buzz in the air. I could feel the hunger in the room; hunger to keep the train rolling.

Everyone in that room was passionate about furthering the production, quality, and renown of Hawaii Chocolate. While individual members hold different opinions about the best way to achieve that, there is a collective spirit that pushes the association forward. Especially in the face of new threats and challenges, the cacao growers of the East Hawaii Cacao Association certainly seem to be thriving under the idea of mutually assured survival.

This thought is the soothing mixed libation that I toast to my fellow passengers, before exiting the lounge car and looking forward to where these train tracks will take me.

Lounge image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

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