Hawaii's Chocolate Experiment : Cocoa Could Provide Alternative for Troubled Sugar Growers

Times Staff Writer

Can Hershey Foods help give a Hawaiian punch to the beleaguered sugar growers of the Aloha State?

The Pennsylvania candy maker has produced a test chocolate bar made from the first cocoa beans ever to be grown on the islands. Sugar farmers have their eyes on the cocoa, not the sweetener, in the five-pound Hawaiian chocolate bar presented to Gov. John Waihee.

Cocoa beans might provide a viable alternative to sugar. Hammered by foreign competition, artificial sweeteners and depressed prices, sugar growers are hard pressed to diversify into new crops.

Hershey Foods has teamed up with Kalela Enterprises to explore the agricultural and economic possibilities of growing cocoa beans in Hawaii. So far, their joint venture, known as Hawaii Cocoa, has invested about $3 million in the 2 1/2-year-old project, which has about 400 acres under cultivation.

The first harvest last November produced about 15,000 pounds of the beans. "We consider the first not worth selling. We're using it for tests," explained Jim Walsh, president of Hawaii Cocoa. "We sent a lot of it to Hershey."

Hershey, which provides only technical expertise to Hawaii Cocoa, has developed a chocolate using the Hawaiian beans, but it does not plan to use it in its products. "We consider this to be very early in the experimental stage," said Carl Andrews, a spokesman for the company in Hershey, Pa.

Hawaii's maximum annual production of cocoa beans is projected at 15,000 tons, according to Andrews. That is minuscule compared to worldwide production of 2 million tons. Hershey, the largest cocoa user in the United States, imports its cocoa from South America and Africa.

For Hawaii Cocoa, the idea is to produce a specialty or novelty chocolate product unique to the islands. "What we're telling people is that in six months, we'll start seeing it in better restaurants as desserts made from Hawaiian chocolate," Walsh said. "In a year, it will be in better chocolate stores. You'll see it in L.A. in three months."

The cocoa experiment began when Amfac, a major Hawaiian sugar producer and former partner in Hawaii Cocoa, began a search for crop alternatives. "Hawaii has a sugar problem," explained Walsh, "We have 235,000 acres in sugar, which is primarily supported by price supports. It is the largest agricultural industry in Hawaii, employs 7,000 and is endangered of going out of business in 1991" when the price supports are lifted.

The price supports at 21 cents a pound are running about twice as much as the world sugar price. "That is quite a discrepancy," he pointed out.

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