Successful Cacao Establishment through Improved Soil Management

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $49,789.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Oahu Resource Conservation & Development
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:


  • Additional Plants: cacao


  • Crop Production: agroforestry, nutrient management
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research


    Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is a tropical perennial crop that produces the seeds used to manufacture chocolate, cocoa butter and related products. Cacao has economic potential in Hawaii due to the value-added production of chocolate and Hawaii’s established brand value for specialty foods, but was not an established commercial crop prior to the 21st century. Cacao acreage planted in Hawaii has increased more than five-fold since 2010, from just over 20 acres to more than 100 in 2016, with an additional 363 acre equivalents of new plantings planned by 2021. Cacao orchards reach full production five years or more after planting; therefore, improving orchard establishment is a high priority.

    There is a lack of published information on orchard management guidelines for cacao adapted to Hawaii’s local soil and environmental variables.  This knowledge gap is often overcome through trial and error, delaying success and reducing overall production. Project staff, partners and collaborating producers documented best practices and evaluated nutrient management practices used during cacao orchard establishment. Results were shared with Hawaii’s growing number cacao operations.  Locally-adapted nutrient management guidelines when combined with other best practices hold the potential to increase the success rate of cacao establishment by improving seedling growth, nutrition and precocity. Successful establishment allows the best opportunity for Hawaii’s cacao industry to grow quickly and achieve adequate quality and quantity of harvest to capture economies of scale.

    Project objectives:

    1.     Evaluate economic costs and seedling growth benefits of site-specific nutrient management and best practices during cacao orchard establishment.

    1. The financial costs of cacao nutrient management and best practices for establishment were gathered from participating producer farms.
    2. An on-farm trial was established with five participating producer farms in diverse geographic zones of cacao production on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii (aka Big Island). The trial planting was established on five farms in the last quarter of 2018 and growth data was collected over a 24 month period.
    3. The seedling growth benefits of nutrient management was assessed over a 24 month period under three treatments: (f) farm practice, (b) best practices informed by soil analysis and agronomist recommendations  (m) same as treatment two plus a mycorrhizal soil amendment.
    4. Anecdotal feedback, observations and lessons learned were gathered from farmers at each of the host sites.

    2.     Share results with producers and other agricultural professionals.

    1. An online survey gauged cacao farmer familiarity and usage of soil testing, leaf tissue analysis and site-specific nutrient management guidelines for cacao. Only 36% of respondent farmers indicated conducting soil testing or receiving recommendations from an agronomist or extension agent. Less than 10% used tissue analysis to determine nutrition needs. 
    2. Three field days were held to demonstrate effects of soil management and best practices on cacao establishment.  Field days  included presentations from the host farmer, as well as agricultural professionals and a tour or hands-on activity.
    3. Two tutorial videos on cacao establishment were produced and published online, as well as a webinar featuring a panel discussion with experienced growers.
    4. Resources were disseminated via social media networks and producer-to-producer networks, such as the 2019 Hawaii Chocolate and Cacao Conference, which is attended by 100 or more cacao and chocolate industry professionals.
    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.