Perhaps only in Hawaii could a couple transform 5 acres of a former rock quarry into a thriving organic farm. Kokoleka Lani Farm produces organic soap, chocolate, coffee and more. Their chocolate has been called the best in the world.
In 2005, Greg Colden sold his California insurance company and bought the parcel of land on the hills above Kona on the big island of Hawaii. He moved there with his partner, Marty Corrigan. The pair were backyard gardeners, but had no formal gardening or horticultural experience. The kindness of other farmers and nurserymen, as well as help from the USDA and the Soil & Water Conservation District, enabled them to build their farm, Colden said.
When they bought the old quarry, the property was full of invasive plants – including the highly invasive Albizia tree. To create the garden, Colden, Corrigan and their crew had to remove the invasives – no easy task – and drill into the lava on the property to begin planting cocoa, coffee, kukui nut and coconut trees, and more.
My wife Nancy and I toured the farm in January while we were on a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands. It was fascinating to see the farm’s seemingly unplanned, untidy, yet useful mix of plants.
The surrounding area offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, but the farm itself is so lush, it’s hard to even see the ocean. The bus driver who brought us there advised us to keep a watch for breaching whales, and we saw some in the distance.
At the start, Colden and Corrigan used a few chemicals, but since then the farm has avoided all herbicides and insecticides. Because the farm grows a variety of plants – far from a monoculture – insect pests are unable to gather in heavy enough concentrations to require pesticides.
In addition, believing that they should leave as small an imprint on the environment of the earth as possible, they use no power equipment. The nutrients to feed the Kokoleka Lani crops come both from the mineral-rich lava rock and from the many leaves and other organic materials that fall to the ground and decompose. Excepting to harvest, none of the fallen organic matter is removed.
Not all of the ingredients for the commercial products come from the farm. The soap – which Colden created because his sensitive skin reacted to mass-produced soaps – starts with olive oil from California, but that’s enhanced by many ingredients that are grown on the farm, including coconut and kukui nut oils.
Colden touched only lightly on his production of coffee because he knew the tour group had just visited the Kona Joe Coffee farm – started by another visitor to Hawaii, Joe Alban. (Incidentally, Alban got the idea for his unique coffee-growing method from his childhood; he’d grown up in a grape-growing, winemaking family. He grows his coffee on trellises.)
But I was fascinated by the production of chocolate, demonstrated by Christina Pearl, an assistant at Kokoleka Lani. The fruit of the cocoa tree can be up to a foot long and 5 inches wide. It is cut open to expose the cocoa seeds, which are surrounded by a milk-white substance. Pods contains about 40 seeds, and it takes 20 to 25 pods, as well as a long process of fermenting and batch roasting, to produce 2 pounds of cocoa.
On such a small farm, Colden and his crew do not produce a lot of chocolate, and what they do produce is expensive. In 2019, the annual Salon du Chocolat in Paris, a huge industry trade fair, rated the farm’s chocolate the best in the world. We bought both Kokoleka Lani dark chocolate and milk chocolate and are waiting for a special occasion to test it.
The kukui, called candlenut in other parts of the world, is Hawaii’s state tree. Legend has it that Polynesians brought the seeds with them when they arrived in the islands (by canoe!), beginning about 1,500 years ago, so the kukui may not be native. Native or not, the nut is highly versatile.
Kukui nut oil is readily absorbed by the skin, and native Hawaiians use it to treat sore muscles and joints. I had tripped and banged my knee earlier in our vacation, and it hurt! Colden recommended that I rub the knee with kukui oil infused with lavender, and, in fact, the pain went away in a couple of days. (But might it have disappeared even without the oil?)
The Kukui shells are used in some traditional leis, and the inner seed is ground up and used as a spice in poke, the Hawaiian raw fish and seaweed dish that has swept the mainland in recent years, including here in Maine.
Although Corden loves his farm, he’s retained some of his insurance-broker instincts, regularly urging visitors touring the farm to be careful to avoid injury – or, he joked, his insurance payments would go up.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
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