First Stop: the Planted Seed

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Staring out of my window on the gentle, short ride north out of Hilo, along the lush plantation land of the Hamakua Coast, the Hawai’i Cacao Express approaches its first destination: Tom Sharkey’s farm in Papaikou, also known as Hilo Shark’s Chocolate. This sloping, 1.8 acre farm with roughly 200 cacao trees currently, was my first introduction to cacao and making chocolate in Hawai’i. But, I’m far from alone in that aspect. Many can relate, as Tom has a bit of reputation as being a Johnny Appleseed of cacao on the island of Hawai’i, though his house and farm hold far more memories for me personally that extend beyond my love of cacao and chocolate.

Tom Sharkey’s property was the first place my family stayed after taking the plunge to move to the island of Hawai’i in the summer of 2004. Now, almost sixteen years later, most of my memories of that time are fuzzy, especially because it was seen through the filter of a girl on the edge of thirteen, who was still a little bit in shock that her family had actually managed to move an ocean away from where she grew up in the suburbs of central Florida.

Still, certain memories from that time shine through the haze of forgetfulness. That first summer is forever embodied in my mind by little moments: receiving Koa wood earrings on my birthday, driving through a massive swarm of termites to get to the Hilo County Fair; eating lillikoi cheesecake in the evening, while pale geckos hunted bugs along the walls of a plantation era house; busting open and eating a found coconut along the bright blue water at the first beach we visited, Carlsmith Beach Park (better known as Four Mile).

Most of those experiences were in part, if not largely, thanks to Tom. We’d never visited this island before we decided to move here, didn’t know where we were going next, or if we’d be able to fit in. Tom’s warm personality immediately put us at ease and made us feel welcome. During our time with him, he not only invited us to explore his beautiful property and farm, he gave us lesser known tips and tricks on how to make it on the island we intended to call home. It made all the difference. Even after our brief stay renting the room above his commercial kitchen, he remained a dependable family friend throughout the years.

As I parked across the street I found myself waxing reflective of time’s passage, almost as a montage of going to this property through the years. Walking past the paved driveway filled with cars, I passed evidence of Sharkey’s business’s own evolution, the tour van, the hand crafted coffee shop sign, not to mention the building additions. I couldn’t help but smile. “Still the same bones though.” I thought to myself, internally nodding to the versions of a younger me I could almost see moving about the property.

Walking past the green house to the processing shed, I was greeted by Tom sitting with a group of people helping him crack a massive pile of freshly picked cacao pods. They formed a makeshift assembly line, working efficiently, but with a relaxed, social air. My nose was filled with the smell of, almost starchy, cracked plant matter. As they passed around the bright red and yellow pods they made an industrial song. Plunck, a pod was dropped into a pile. Shhlack, a pod was rolled over a fixed machete blade, splitting it in half. Pluplop, wet exposed cacao beans were being removed from their core. Thunk, a pod shell was being chucked into the quickly filling bed of a truck. The sight and sound warmed my heart as I thought about how many people passing through had grown an appreciation for cacao sitting here.

This is not only due to the alluring nature of the cacao plant and chocolate. Quite naturally, when guiding others through his property on tours and classes, Tom creates a casual, friendly environment, and walks the delicate line of giving a frank opinion on the nitty gritty details of a process, while still communicating a thriving passion for the work and the end product. The result being that many leave his company instilled with a renewed respect for chocolate, some even obtaining confidence and curiosity in joining the cacao game, which is entirely intentional.

As he invited me to sit with him, he asked what I wanted to know for this interview. I told him I wanted chiefly to know how he got involved with cacao, how he got to where he is in the industry today. His first response was “You were here for it.” “Most of it”, he added.

With embarrassment I admitted that my memory wasn’t the sharpest, and asked if he could start from the beginning leading into his move to Hawai’i and growing cacao. Letting loose a mirthful sigh he began to delve into an overview of the long and winding road that led us to this moment, cracking a joke about maybe needing to censor some of the less kid-friendly aspects. He proceeded to detail his life while shucking cacao pods with an accuracy for time frames, dates, and names that made me more than a little envious of his memory. The following is my brief summary of it.

Growing up as the son of an insurance salesman in Minneapolis Minnesota, Tom had a passion for the outdoors, but not for farming or chocolate yet. His knowledge of both at the time extended to what he considered the lack luster endeavor of growing staple crops, and the grocery store chocolate most Americans are familiar with; Hershey bars or brightly colored, festive, foiled wrapped, confections distributed to children during holidays.

His interest in farming is what changed first. He moved to an old vineyard with some friends in Northern California in 1976. He began to see value in experimenting with growing crops they could produce at a low cost with a high selling point to fuel the “hippy lifestyle” they wanted. About three years later he joined a community supported agriculture program and was also trading crops with other farmer friends.

But luckily for myself and others, he didn’t stop there. He was driven to learn more than his current level of experience could offer. He pursued his first degree in higher education at Santa Rosa Junior College, and earned his viticulture degree in 1984. In 1993 he went another step further in his education and earned a degree in Biology.

And then, the islands called, and with it the heart of an educator. In November of 1995, he made the jump over the Pacific Ocean to Hawai’i, waited a few years to obtain residency, and then attended the University of Hawai’i at Hilo where he got his teaching degree in 1999. He was an active teacher in the community for the next seven years, which is how a large number of my friends first came to know him as Mr. Sharkey, one of their favorite teachers at Pahoa High School. Those friends would be the first to mention it’s probably one of the rowdiest schools on the island. Even Tom admitted in some ways a big part of the job was just helping kids get through school who were holding onto a lot of anger in their lives. Although teaching in schools isn’t a part of his life anymore, I often can’t help but recognize that heart of an educator in his demeanor to this day.

At the same time he was teaching, he was delving back into the world of agriculture. It was on his property in 2000 that he began planting sections of cacao trees inter-planted with coffee trees on the borders. He recalls that not too many people were growing cacao on Hawai’i island commercially then, only three companies came to mind: Original Hawaiian Chocolate, Dole (yes, the pineapple company), and Hawaiian Crown Chocolate.

From that point on, I was reminded that I mostly had a front seat to Tom Sharkey’s entry into the world of chocolate production. On average, cacao trees take about five years to start bearing fruit. My family met Tom when we moved here four years after he planted his trees, which is how my dad ended up helping him with his first Cacao harvest not too long after. Somewhere lost to the annals of time is a tragic picture from that day, beautifully illustrating that farming is nothing if not a learning process. It featured my dad grinning and throwing a triumphant shaka hand sign as he crouched over a large pile of freshly picked pods. The only problem, not a single pod was ripe; all were picked before their prime. Pods that should’ve turned bright yellow, were only starting to lose their green hue, pods that when mature would turn fiery red and orange, had yet to lighten their dark, deep red, almost purple, pigment. The mistake was a very potent lesson that ensured it would never be repeated.

Over the years I’ve witnessed how that same trial and error fine tuning process grew Tom Sharkey’s business and involvement in the local cacao industry; from making chocolate; to giving chocolate classes/tours of his property; to being able to buy cacao pods from other farms he’d helped inspire; to vending and educating at local chocolate festivals; to selling his chocolate at the Hilo Farmer’s Market; to having it sold in a local stores; to opening his own coffee shop (which features a take on a gourmet hot chocolate I’m particularly fond of). In recent years I’ve often heard Tom himself reflecting on how much his chocolate has improved; how when he first started he could barely palate the stuff, and how now he’s really created a chocolate bar he loves to eat and is proud of. Personally, I’ve loved Tom’s chocolate from my first bite. But having consumed and adjusted to all of its changes over the years, I can’t help but wonder how jarring the difference would be from his current chocolate bars if I could somehow go back in time to compare the two. Would I be akin to a musician who has a hard time being impressed with a simple song they liked before they knew how easy it is to play the notes?

Besides recounting his journey to this point, I asked him some questions about his farm and the chocolate industry today. Here’s what I learned:

  • The most surprising development he’s seen in the industry has been the explosion of small bean to bar chocolate makers in the US in recent years (Over 200, last he’d heard).
  • Despite the many forms his cacao is enjoyed in: chocolate bars, beans, nibs, tea, juice, steak rubs, cacao ceremonies; chocolate is still his favorite.
  • Of the different varieties of cacao trees on his farm, trinitario is his favorite.
  • Tom sees a lot of potential for the local cacao industry in the form of ecotourism. He’s been giving tours and teaching chocolate making classes on his property for years (Which I used to assist with. Still one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had.) And he’s starting to see many other cacao growers and chocolate makers following suit as they develop their business and perfect their processing.
  • Tom has lately been expanding the production of a new addition to his farm, that serves as a perfect compliment his chocolate production; vanilla. The orchids can now be found draped over many his cacao trees, which serve as a natural scaffolding for the vine. What started as just a few plants and a fun experiment has ramped up, he estimates durring the last bloom in 2019 they hand pollinated 7,000 flowers over a three and a half month period.
  • Although there has been international interest in his products, he’d much rather sell his cacao and chocolate products to locals and visitors. He likes to keep the profits in the local economy as much as possible.

I haven’t visited his farm much in recent years, and despite not knowing what was new here, I was very pleased to see what had stayed the same; that spirit of wanting to help build a local industry; planting more seeds, botanical and metaphorical alike; the desire to experiment and learn; and most of all, Tom’s inviting and lively personality. A personality, that often reminds me of a buzzing bee. One who flits about in a whirl of ideas and diligent work to be done, but takes the time to stop and smell the roses as he goes about pollinating, encouraging you to stop and smell them too.

As I got ready to leave after our interview ended, it took a great amount of will power to fight the invitation and deep-seated urge to stay longer. If I’d arranged a longer stretch of child care for my son at home, or brought my son with me, I would have in a heartbeat. This place had shaped me more than I’d realized. Even as a perpetually nervous person, there’s a rare level of comfort I feel on Tom Sharkey’s farm. Leaving felt akin to parting with a friend that you wanted to keep talking to, but it’s 2 A.M. and the security guard has kindly asked if you could leave the parking lot where you’ve been chatting for hours so they can close up.

Stepping back into my train car on the Hawai’i Cacao Express, I brought with me the treasure of a fresh cacao pod I’d been gifted from the farm. Later that evening I cracked it open and offered my son his first taste of cacao by letting him suck the sweet fruit off of a bean. I hope this is the start, the planted seed, of a shared love of cacao and chocolate. How fitting that it should come from Tom Sharkey’s farm.

If you’d like to find Tom’s products, they’re sold:

  • on his website: http://www.hilosharkschocolate.com/
  • At his coffee shop in the town of Honomu, Hilo Shark’s Coffee Shop
  • At these grocery stores on Hawai‘i Island: Abundant Life Natural Foods, Island Naturals

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