Growing Kava in the South Pacific

Exceptional kava has a lot in common with exceptionally fine wine. The essence of both wine and kava come from careful cultivation and a dedication to detail. It takes years before either grape vines or kava plants are ready for harvest. When finally plucked from the earth, the flavors and characteristics of both depend exclusively on the soil and mineral composition of the land itself.

Just as the best wines come from very small regions from around the globe, kava comes almost exclusively from the South Pacific. Over 80 percent of the kava consumed around the world comes from Vanuatu, specifically the regions of Pentecost and Espiritu Santo.

While a distant second, the next biggest kava producer is Fiji, followed by Tonga.

What all of these nations have in common is a strong historical connection to farming, not just for export and sale, but as a way of life. These agrarian communities remain connected to the land in a way that harkens back to a time when people largely ate only what they could produce on their own. Farming principles handed down from one generation to next remain part of the cultural fabric of these communities. As a result, the kava that comes from this part of the world retains much of that history with how it’s grown and in the traditional role kava plays within the community.

Kava Farming in Vanuatu

Since before the Republic gained independence in 1980, Vanuatu has a long history as a largely agrarian society that relies almost exclusively on agriculture as both a means of survival and as the primary source of commerce. Roughly two-thirds of Vanuatu’s population is involved in either sustenance or small-scale commercial agriculture. Remarkably, despite Vanuatu’s heavy reliance on crops grown in the country, only two percent of the land is even suitable for agriculture.

Kava is usually grown in small batches in village gardens alongside other plants the community relies on for food and sustenance. Most kava in Vanuatu grows for a minimum of three years before it’s harvested. Unlike kava in Fiji and Tonga, Vanuatu farmers rarely feel pressured to harvest kava at an earlier age. As a result, the kava produced by Vanuatu maintains its reputation as the most mature kava on the market.

When the time does come for harvest, a single representative will travel from village to village collecting the kava crop. That representative will handle the sale and processing of the kava into its final powdered state.

At the time of harvest, all stems are cut off just above the soil and the root ball is dug out from the ground. Vanuatu produces so much kava that instead of cutting the stems into sections and rooting those before replanting, farmers will often simply stick whole stems into the soil at the same spot the plant was initially harvested.

Unlike Fiji and Tonga, Vanuatu relies predominantly on kava as an export. With so little arable land, Vanuatu produces far fewer crops for export when compared to other South Pacific nations. Due to the cultural significance of kava and its place as the primary export, no other country relies on and is so closely linked to kava as Vanuatu.

Kava Farming in Fiji and Tonga

In Fiji, agriculture also plays an enormous role in helping to sustain the population. Roughly 67 percent of the labor force in Fiji participates in subsistence agriculture. While the islands of both Vanuatu and Fiji are volcanic in origin, Fiji has more arable land at roughly 10 percent. This additional land provides Fiji the opportunity to grow crops for export, such as sugar and rice.

When compared to Vanuatu, kava production in Fiji takes on a much smaller scale. Fijian kava usually grows in small batches in village gardens or grows wild in the forest. However, as the popularity of kava continues to rise, many Fijian farmers have started to begin to produce larger, more focused crops.

Kava in Fiji is rarely separated by the individual cultivar, which is why Fijian kava is typically marketed as simply “Waka” (meaning lateral roots) or “lawena” (basal stump). In most cases, Fijian kava is always a mixture of whichever cultivators were ready for harvest during the season.

When replanting the next kava harvest, cultivators almost always cut the stems into sections of two to four nodes. The stems are either mostly buried, in the field leaving the bud exposed, or they’re placed in soil or moss trays to root and grow. Once a potted plant grows to six to 12 inches tall, they are moved and replanted in the field.

Tonga grows far less kava in Fiji, and only a fraction of what’s grown in Vanuatu. The kava grown commercially in Tonga is often cropped for sale and distribution. Kava consumed locally usually comes from village gardens in much smaller batches.

Kava Preparation and Harvest

Where kava comes from is only part of the story in determining the overall quality of the kava. In most cases, regardless of location, harvested kava is washed and then cut into smaller pieces. The kava is then placed out to dry in the sun, either using homemade solar dryers or simply placed on a metal roof in the sun. How kava is treated when left out to dry is incredibly important to its overall quality and drinkability.

Some kava is cleaned in rivers or using non-potable water. If cleaned in water that is not safe to drink, the kava can become contaminated during the drying process.

If the kava is left out to dry uncovered, which is typical, and it rains, the kava needs to dry out a second time. This can cause a variety of problems for the kava, including everything from a bad taste to the potential from mold and contamination.

At Bula Kava House, our kava comes from suppliers and farmers who go above and beyond to ensure the quality of their kava. Our owner, Judd Rench, has personally visited our suppliers to see firsthand how their kava is grown and harvested. We then go even further by testing every batch of kava we receive for contamination and quality.

We remain committed to providing our customers with only the world’s finest kava. You can feel confident that when you buy kava from Bula, you’ll receive a quality product that’s both safe and exceptional. 

As kava continues to grow in popularity, more places from around the world will start to grow this valuable cash crop. Already, places like the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Micronesia, and even tropical locations in the U.S. such as Hawaii have already started growing kava. No matter where the kava may come from, you’ll know that at Bula we will continue to scour the globe to bring our customers the best quality kava we can find.

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