Grapes for tropical Hawaii

Final Report for FW12-034

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $17,370.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:
Ken Love
Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers
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Project Information


The first grapes were reported growing in Hawaii at low elevations in the late 1700s. Today, with few high elevation exceptions, grapes are not found in commercial operations and seldom on small farms. The basis for this project was to show that grapes could again become a viable crop for growers at low elevations. This addition of a crop, in demand by chefs, could greatly contribute to small farm sustainability. Through researching and testing the varieties of grapes thought to have been grown, plus additional cultivars, the project was able to show that this could be a successful and profitable endeavor.  It will, however, take more time than originally thought.


The project was divided into four sections:

A. Research to determine what had been grown in Hawaii in the past and what additional newer cultivars might work. It was found that the Isabella variety of Vitas labrusca (concord type) had been grown in Hawaii in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

There were also reports of scuppernong, Vitas rotondifolia, having limited success in some lower elevations. It was decided that we try a number of varieties for both labrusca and rotondifolia, as well as newer hybrids of the two.

B. The PC spent a significant time at the USDA repository in Davis CA to sample, rate and document cultivars with promise for Hawaii. Assistance from farm manager and TA Howard Garrison and crop specialist Bernie Prins was much appreciated. Their assistance in identifying promising cultivars saved the project much time.

At the same time, members of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers (HTFG) were polled to see who had or knew of existing grapes in Hawaii. This also proved successful in obtaining not only cuttings, but also additional collaborators who already had grapes started from either interest generated from project publicity or based on family history of grapes in Hawaii.

In some cases new residents with a background in viticulture in California contributed their knowledge to the project.

C. More than 200 cuttings of 55 varieties and cultivars were obtained from the USDA repository and the above-mentioned sources. As the cuttings took root, they were distributed to the collaborators, as well as planted in project test sites on different islands. As this is a of continued interest, the vines are continuing to be monitored and cared for. Additional cuttings have also been rooted and are awaiting distribution.

D. HTFG held a series of meetings with members on all islands to inform them about the project and to distribute rooted cuttings. Progress and any changes were reported at monthly meetings on some islands and by email on islands were no meetings are held. A 12-page extension publication titles “Growing Grapes in Hawaii” was made possible by this project. Published in February 2014, it was written by PC Ken Love and Professor Robert E. Paull.

A poster of grape photos is also planed for the future. 

Project Objectives:

A. To establish locally grown grapes as a viable commodity for small farm sustainability in Hawaii.  

This is one area which, in a sense, has taken longer than initially thought. There is no question that growers who have adopted the grapes have plans to make them a sellable commodity.

B. To have grapes desired by our traditional chef customers and at farmers markets.

Those who already have a small quantity are sharing them with chefs in order that the project obtains data. At this writing, chefs are willing to pay a considerable fee ($10.50 a pound average) for fresh local grapes of any color or size. Chefs and small cottage industry producers have also asked for fresh grape leaves as an available product, especially at weekly farmers markets.

C. To enable other growers and general public to reconnect with the historical aspect of grape growing in Hawaii.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of this project, collaborators have shared their knowledge on the history of grapes in Hawaii gained at initial project meetings. They have then shared their plant material on different islands with an estimate of more than 100 growers. Nurseries have expressed an interest in obtaining more material for distribution.


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Materials and methods:

More than 200 cuttings were obtained from both the USDA germplasm repository and from HTFG members. The cuttings were rooted at the PC’s farm and made available to HTFG members who responded first to inquiries. The PC also brought rooted cuttings to other islands. Collaborators also obtained other varieties from stores importing Muscadine types.

The first varieties distributed include: Orlando seedless, Carolina black rose, Isabella and Lake Mont. Depending on the location, these either flourished or did not survive. In other cases they have been dormant and slowed down the evaluation process. Overall, having the vines thrive in most locations was difficult, as much of Hawaii was in the midst of the worst drought in history, while in other ideas there was flooding. In some cases replacement vines were provided when the originals perished. The PC worked with collaborators to supply and build trellises and arbors for the experiment. In other locations existing fences were used. Once the cuttings were planted, vines were monitored monthly but with little change in growth during the Hawaiian winter.  Rose beetles that damage leaves defoliated many of the vines, which fooled them into a faux dormancy. New growth came back strong but still slower than originally anticipated.

With the addition of a number of additional new varieties, this project will continue and collaborators continue to share information through HTFG.

Research results and discussion:

For a small farm to stay sustainable in a tropical environment in an island culture, a greater diversity of crops is required. Because of the competitive nature where there are limited markets, it becomes essential for growers to continually increase the numbers of types of crops they have. As grapes get re-established in Hawaii, it is clear they will help to increase overall farm productivity and profits. Grapes grown in Hawaii can contribute considerably to value-added product producers and help to further farmer-chef alliances. The use in culinary applications of grape leaves has considerable potential, both as a standard Middle Eastern or Greek type dish, and also as a replacement for taro leaf in the Hawaiian dish lau lau. The project has already received requests for grape leaves from Master Food Preservers on different islands. The project could not provide a quantity of leaves but was able to provide plants so that users could grow their own vines. The project will continue to grow with production increasing over the next years, long after the end of the official project.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The extension publication that stems from this project can be found on the University of Hawaii website and in the publications  section. The history and horticultural needs are outlined in this publication, as are basic marketing needs and nutritional information.

The project is discussed and monthly updates are given at regular HTFG meetings. Plant material is continuously available for distribution with HTFG networks on all islands.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project had a wide variety of results depending on location, elevation, collaborator and microclimate. There are elements of this project that could take years to figure out. Why would grapes flourish at low elevations on Oahu and not on the Big Island? Or grow profusely at middle elevations on Kauai but not Kona? These are the questions we asked.  Taking into account soils, nutrition and other horticultural aspects, we have been unable to yet understand some of these differences. However, by the use of different varieties of grapes, the project was able to suggest varieties for different Hawaii microclimates. Isabella served as the control vine, as it flourished in all elevations.

Another problem the project faced in the time allotted was to get production from the different cultivars. This was not successful during the project but will be very useful to collaborators who are continuing and have significant time, energy and funds invested in developing grapes for Hawaii.  Project successes came from older vines found or developed by collaborators. Also, those using cold-water technology were able to produce grapes faster than those on standard irrigation. Cold-water technology experiments in Kona are when 30-degree water is pumped up from two miles under the ocean. This water meets the 90-degree surface temperature, causing condensation on the pipes that carry the water, as well as provide a cold chill for more temperate crops like grapes.

Because of this project, we know that grapes will grow at sea level and higher in Hawaii. We know a few varieties like Isabella, Orlando Seedless, North Carolina black and Jumbo will thrive at different locations. Further testing and waiting for more than 50 other varieties to produce will continue to give growers choices in what they plant to increase their sustainability and income.


Potential Contributions

Although there have been no definitive costs of production studies on grapes in Hawaii, we can make certain assumptions regarding labor costs. At $12.00 per hour labor, we figured that it would cost about $4.35 to produce a pound of un-inspected grapes in Hawaii. If inspected, the cost would skyrocket.

A poll of ACF Kona-Kohala Chefs Association members revealed that chefs would be willing to pay an average of $10.00/pound for fresh local grapes. Some chefs would pay even more, given quantities needed. Grape leaves were being sold at five for $1.00 at some farmers markets. Grape leaves show considerable potential, almost generating as much culinary interest as the grapes themselves.

In addition to collaborator and farmer adoption of grapes as a crop for Hawaii, the Master Gardeners on Oahu and other smaller groups have adopted grapes and will continue to make cuttings available on all islands. Two of the collaborators did not pursue grapes, as the problems with insects required too much time for them. The additional collaborators intend to continue working with grapes until they can achieve a sustainable crop.

Future Recommendations

At the USDA grape repository, there are close to 4,000 accessions, with more than half of them that could be tried in Hawaii given time and funding. This project will continue on with many original collaborators working together through HTFG and with assistance and knowledge sharing from the USDA.  Once grape crops are better established, HTFG will call on entomologists and pathologists who will assist growers to identify and mitigate problems. VOG or volcanic emissions might play a factor on vine development. This also needs to be investigated in the future. The time from rooting a cutting to harvesting crops in Hawaii has been successful but varied greatly. With continuing research and education we will learn which grape varieties will perform best in our tropical environment.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.