Guava Kai loses the guava

KILAUEA — The Guava Kai Plantation’s run as Hawai‘i’s largest producer of guava has come to an end.

In February, Kilauea Agronomics decided to shut down its guava processing plant and stop harvesting the tropical fruit on the North Shore.

What will replace the 450 acres of guava trees is unclear at this point, as the land is owned by five different parties.

However, the fate of the visitor center and 46 surrounding acres looks more promising.

New owner Chris Jaeb has big plans and an expansive vision for the modest plot that he hopes will reach out to all of Kaua‘i’s farmers.

Jaeb, also the founder of Malama Kaua‘i, which promotes sustainable living, says he wants Guava Kai to become known as a sustainable resource center.

While that could extend to water, waste, housing and energy issues, the current focus is agriculture — growing organic vegetables and fruit on-island to be bought and consumed on-island.

To introduce the public to what’s in store, the visitor center, 4900 Kuwa Road, will host a Guava Kai Goes Green land blessing May 25 at 4:30 p.m.

A former businessman from Texas, Jaeb founded Broadcast.com, which was purchased by Yahoo! in 1999. He moved to Kaua‘i in 2005 and began educating himself on sustainable agriculture. After recognizing the need for leadership on the issue, he founded Malama Kaua‘i a year ago.

And in February of this year, he purchased the hub of the Guava Kai Plantation to prevent the center from shutting down permanently.

“It’s amazing the number of people who love this place,” Jaeb said. “It’s touched a lot of people’s hearts.”

Over 30 years, Kilauea Agronomics, an extension of the storied C. Brewer Co., grew the Guava Kai Plantation into a 500-acre estate that produced more than half of the state’s guava.

In 2001, Kilauea Agronomics sold the plantation in parcels to five individuals but promptly leased it all back in order to continue growing, harvesting and processing the guava.

Business continued as usual through late 2006, when Kilauea Agronomics announced it would sell the remaining 50 acres in its possession and stop cultivating the crop on the leased lands.

According to the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, state guava production and prices have fallen steadily since all-time highs more than two decades ago.

In 1990, a total of 110 Hawai‘i farms harvested more than 1,000 acres of guava, which was sold at 15 cents per pound.

This compared to 2005, when 50 farms harvested 630 acres of guava, which was sold at 13.9 cents per pound.

Jaeb has no stake or say in the 450 acres of guava, though he hopes it is not developed.

Residents have reported trees being cut down and burned on those lands, which Jaeb confirmed.

Two of the five landowners were contacted for this article, though neither were able to comment by press time.

As for Jaeb’s 50 acres, he is in the beginning planning stages. On the land sits not only the visitor center but a gift shop, snack bar, administration and processing centers, 6 acres of guava trees and 15 acres of open space.

Jaeb said most will remain in place, though all will now operate under the directive of sustainable agriculture education.

For the long term, Jaeb’s ideas run the gamut and include a farmers market, resource center, general store stocked with local and organic foods, museum and recycling center.

He said in the next six months, new employees will be added to the existing visitor center staff, all of whom were re-hired after the change of ownership earlier this year.

The buildings need touch-ups and some of the open space will be cultivated with new crops such as cacao and vanilla.

Effective immediately is the cessation of pesticide use on the property. It’s not a sustainable way to farm, Jaeb said. “Modern agriculture emphasizes maximum production at the expense of the soil.”

Organic and sustainable methods use crop rotation and soil management techniques to ensure the health of the land and the crops it yields, he said.

And the benefits translate to the community. Jaeb said the value of shopping local and organic is that consumer dollars stay in the community, the food is fresher and healthier, the land is better cared for, less natural resources and energy are expended, and the risks of dependence on imported food are reduced.

“It’s a push to get the community to take care of itself rather than expect or rely on the government to solve our problems,” Jaeb said.

As for the future of guava at Guava Kai, the six acres of trees that remain will continue to be harvested.

Operations manager Mark Selz, a friend of Jaeb’s whom he recruited to the island to help manage the business aspects of the venture, said they produce enough guava to satisfy the tourist demand for jams, jellies and juices.

• Blake Jones, business writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com.

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