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Can Chocolate Save Hawaii?

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On eighteen acres hugging Oahu's north shore -- a region best known for its incomparable surf -- a UC Berkeley graduate is doing his part to rescue Hawaiian agriculture.

"Sugar cane is all but dead, and pineapple is on its way out," says Nathan Sato, who after earning his zoology degree spent most of the next thirty years working in the university's molecular and cell biology department before decamping to Hawaii.

The state's old agricultural standbys are obsolescent "because labor costs and land costs are so much higher in Hawaii than in the Philippines or Central America," Sato says. "I talked with Hawaii's last remaining pineapple operator a few days ago. They're losing money on every case they ship." That's a death sentence in any industry.

And while coffee is currently Hawaii's most promising crop, Sato pins his hopes on cacao.

Notoriously fussy, the trees that produce the fruit that can be made into chocolate grow only along a very slender tropical strip ten to twenty latitudinal degrees north and south of the equator. Twelve years ago, seeking alternatives to its once-huge but inexorably dwindling pineapple empire, Dole planted cacao in what had formerly been sugar fields near the sleepy North Shore town of Waialua, just a few miles from Waimea and the Pipeline.

"They put in the cacao, but then lost interest in it," Sato says. "The orchards became overgrown with weeds." Yet when the weeds were cleared away four years ago, those trees were found to be flourishing in the rich volcanic soil and approaching full maturity. Today they produce the raw materials for a line of single-estate chocolates that Sato has named Malie Kai, meaning "tranquil sea." Grown pesticide-free, the fruit is extracted from its pods, fermented on-site in traditional wooden bins, then transformed one small batch at a time into milk- and dark-chocolate bars both with and without the antioxidant-rich cocoa-bean bits known as nibs.

Chocolate's flavor "is mainly made or lost during the fermentation process," Sato explains. "If it's not warm enough, you get mold and bacteria growing in there rather than yeast, and that destroys the flavor." It's a tricky business at latitude 20, which Sato calls "the North Pole for chocolate," but where small operations willing to commit to a specialty crop in a microclimate might succeed. He compares such operations, including his own, to fledgling vineyards:

"I think Hawaiian chocolate is where Napa Valley wine was forty years ago. Unfortunately, at this point very few people know that Hawaii is growing chocolate -- even Hawaii residents." While the fruit is grown and fermented in Hawaii, the chocolate is actually manufactured by the large Guittard company in California: "We're forced to finish the chocolate on the mainland because right now no one can actually process cacao on Oahu." The island lacks a factory, "and building one would cost a fortune. Dole might have the muscle to do it, but Dole is having its own problems right now. We'd need the state to be involved, and the state is actually looking into building a facility here on Oahu. Hopefully in a few years we can do it all here."

On his first visit to the islands seven years ago, "I noticed that the only chocolate being made here was those boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. Stores here sold See's and Godiva -- but those had nothing to do with Hawaii." He had always been interested in food. "We discovered that cacao was growing here on Oahu, and when it became available, we became ecstatic." His science degree proved useful in the growing of the trees and the understanding of plant physiology, he says.

Hawaiian chocolate is American chocolate, and that's not only doubly rare but an interesting provenance in an era when chocolate from exotic locales such as Madagascar and Grenada and the Gulf-of-Guinea island of São Tomé is actively collected, rather like wine. It's also an era in which some West African cacao plantations whose fruit is exported worldwide still employ modern-day slaves, mainly child-slaves at that. Even cacao-pickers who aren't slaves "are making a dollar a day" in many of those million-plus African plantations, Sato reminds me.

Operations such as his own "may well be the future of Hawaiian agriculture," Sato ventures. Made from fruit harvested by unionized workers -- "the only cacao workers in the world with a dental plan," Sato asserts -- and packaged in recycled-paper boxes, it's also refreshingly guilt-free.